Growing an organic garden from seeds you saved yourself is the ultimate in gardening self-reliance. But that’s only one reason to take up this hobby. In addition to the satisfaction that comes from self-sufficiency, you’ll reap multiple immediate benefits. First and foremost, you will save money. Seeds are cheaper than transplants, and seeds you save yourself are free! If you save seeds from the very best specimens in your garden, you’ll also improve your seed stock year after year and develop varieties especially well-suited to your microclimate. You’ll be able to select for desired traits such as flavor, size, productivity, appearance, and pest- and disease-resistance. You can also grow plant varieties that are harder to find as ready-to-transplant seedlings.
Perhaps most importantly, seed savers opt out of the ever-expanding garden-industrial complex. Over the last several years, giant agribusiness firms have been rapidly buying up small seed companies. Today, just a few major companies control the sale of almost all of the world’s seeds. Fewer seed-owners frequently leads to fewer seed varieties, as big companies eliminate all but the most effective crops for large-scale production. One of the best ways to help preserve biodiversity is to grow heirloom varieties and to save your seeds at the end of the harvest season.
You can only save seeds from heirloom or open-pollinated (“OP” on seed packages) plants. They will grow true to the parent plant, whereas hybrid seeds do not retain the characteristics of both parent plants.
So how do you opt in? Different crop families require different strategies, but these are the basics. The easiest place for a beginner to start is with annuals that have large seeds, such as beans, peas, squash and tomatoes.
1. Time the harvest. Most seeds must be saved in the window between underripe and overripe. Collect seeds at the same time that the plant would naturally disperse its seeds. If the seeds come inside an edible package (like a tomato), let the fruits hang on a week or so longer than you would if you were harvesting them for fresh eating. If the seeds come in pods or seed heads, they should be dry before harvesting.
2. Gather seeds. Choose your best fruits and veggies for seed harvesting. For seeds that come inside fruits, scoop out the seed mass and place it in a jar of water at room temperature. Stir it occasionally to loosen the gelatinous mass. In a few days, the viable seeds will be sitting at the bottom while the jelly and some inviable seeds will be floating at the top. Drain and rinse the good seeds thoroughly. For seeds that are harvested dry, things are much easier. Just collect them and skip to the next step. If you suspect the seeds will drop to the ground before you collect them, wrap a paper bag over the seed head, and wait for them to fall inside.
3. Clean seeds. Seeds need to be clean and dry before going into storage. Remove excess plant debris by shaking seeds over screens or kitchen strainers. Dry the seeds on sheets of newspaper or screens kept indoors out of breezes. Small seeds will dry within a week or two; larger seeds take a little longer.
4. Store seeds. Store seeds inside an airtight container in a cool, dark place with no temperature fluctuations. Label everything with the name and date. If you are the record-keeping type, this is a good time to make notes about selection. Almost all vegetable seeds remain viable for a year or two, but some last much longer. To test seed viability, place seeds on a wet paper towel, where they should sprout within a few days.
One Super Seed Group
The mission of nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange is “to save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.” To join the network, visit seedsavers.org.
For specific instructions on seed saving by plant type, visit Seed Savers Exchange’s Helpful Links page.
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