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How to Save Heirloom Seeds from Your Organic Garden | Organic Gardening 365
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How to Save Heirloom Seeds from Your Organic Garden


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Take a moment…

to appreciate all the hard work you put into your garden this year.

What was your biggest success? What was your biggest lesson learned? Hopefully, you’re enjoying the “fruits and vegetables” of your labors.

There’s a lot to be done this time of year.

With all the tomatoes and peppers, cantaloupe, corn, onions, and beets–just to name a few–ready for harvest, there’s a lot of great food coming into the kitchen and onto the table or being preserved for the winter months.

Seeds for next spring

But I’m already thinking about next year. How about you?

It won’t be too long before the seed catalogues start coming in the mail. Have you noticed they seem to come a little earlier each year?

But have you ever thought about “shopping” for seeds in your own garden? For example, have you ever thought about saving tomato seeds for next spring instead of buying seeds or transplants? (See the end of this post for some seed saving tips.)

There three basic reasons to save your own seeds. You can…

  • Save money
  • Be more self-sufficient
  • Preserve the rich diversity of plant varieties for future generations

It’s a great way to save some money.

This last spring I bought a dozen locally grown organic tomato plants at $3.00 each. Do the math.

I easily recouped my $36 investment in the amount of fresh, home-grown, organic tomatoes. But $36 dollars is still $36.

Hey I was happy to support the local green house that started the transplants, but I’m thinking, “What else could I have done with that money?” Then add the money I spent for other transplants, like peppers, etc.

And there have been years I have bought seeds and started my own plants in order to save money. But depending on the size of you garden, even a seed order can be a bit of an investment.

Self-sufficiency

Another reason to save your own seeds is to be more self-sufficient. There is something innately satisfying when you do something by yourself and don’t rely on anyone else for the outcome. Saving your own seeds totally fits in this category.

Sure you save some money, but saving your own seeds actually roots you more deeply in the cycle of life itself. You are a conscious participant with Mother Nature in her grand scheme of providing honest food for those who do not abuse her.

Of course, some people don’t think they know how to save seeds, don’t want to go the trouble or they would rather support someone else who is doing it.

I totally get that. But you can easily learn how to do it.

Saving heirloom seeds for the future

Another reason to save seeds is to preserve the rich diversity of fruits, vegetables and flowers that exists in nature.

Local, regional and national seed banks and libraries are popping up because people like you are interested in maintaining the wonderful heirloom fruits, flowers and vegetables from the past.

The industrial farming model has focused on cultivating just a few varieties. If this were the only approach to gardening and farming we would lose the amazing diversity in the plants we could grow.

Did you know there are over 1000 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes? Are they all worth saving? Who knows? A lot of people think so.

When you save your own seeds, YOU decide what food you’re eating based on your own likes and dislikes. You are not at the mercy of some giant agri-business board of directors which decides to grow only one or two varieties of tomatoes (or any vegetable) because they can be picked green and transported without bruising, but giving little if any consideration for the lack of flavor and nutrition.

Thank goodness there so many organic and heirloom seed companies today saving varieties that were almost lost because of this approach. By and large, these seed companies have started out with someone like you who saved his or her own seeds. Then they saved a few more for friends. And it grew into a business.

You may not start the next organic seed company but you can save a few seeds from your favorite plants. It’s not as complicated as you might think and it is very rewarding to plant them in your own garden and/or share with others. Start with one of two kinds and try more each year.

There may actually be a seed bank or seed library in your area that you can participate in.

Here are a few tips for saving your own seeds.

  • Make sure you do not save seeds from a hybrid plant.  The seeds will not germinate or they will not produce the same variety.
  • Seeds from self-pollinating plants can be saved even if planted near other varieties of the same plant.
  • Insect-pollinated plants must be separated by about 300-400 feet to ¼ of a mile, depending on the variety, to keep the seed true to the parent plant.
  • For seeds that need to dry, place seeds to dry on newspaper or a paper towel for 4 to 7 days.  Write the name of the variety on the paper or towel to avoid confusion.
  • Be sure to label your seeds with the variety and date.  You may think you’ll remember but next spring you will be grateful everything has a name on it.
  • Seeds should be stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry location.

Specific seed saving techniques

This list is not comprehensive but it will get you started.

  • Beans are self-pollinated but can be cross-pollinated by insects.  Pods should be dry like paper to harvest.  Pull up the whole plant and put on a tarp in a dry, covered place.  Let seeds fully dry–your fingernail should not be able to make a dent when they are completely dry.  You can jump on the pods, flail them or shell them by hand.
  • Corn is wind pollinated and should be planted at least ¼ mile from other corn varieties.  For saving seed, allow the ears to dry on the stalks. Harvest when the husks are papery dry.  You may need to let the ears dry inside before they can be easily removed from the cob.
  • Cucurbits (melons, cucumber, squash, pumpkin) are insect pollinated. Different cucurbits should be separated by at least ¼ mile to have no cross-pollination with other varieties.
  • Saving cantaloupe seeds (and all melons): remove and wash seeds and pulp. Put the seeds and pulp in a jar with equal an amount of water and let ferment for 2-3 days.  Stir daily. Rinse and place on a paper towel to dry.
  • Saving cucumber seeds: leave on the vine until swollen and yellow/brown.  Harvest and put them in a cool dry place for 4-5 weeks of post-ripening to let the seeds mature, then ferment as with melons.
  • Saving squash seeds:  Summer squash: allow to grow large, developing a hard skin. After harvest, allow to sit for 1-3 months then remove seeds, wash and dry.
  • Saving pumpkin seeds and winter squash: after harvest, allow to sit for 1-3 months then remove seeds, wash and dry.
  • Lettuce is self-pollinated and will not cross-pollinate with other varieties.  Allow plants to bolt, or send up a flower stalk.  As the seeds mature, shake them into a bag and leaving the rest to mature on the plant. Repeat every few days.
  • Onions and leeks are insect-pollinated.  These biennials will not produce seed the first year.  You may need to mulch them in the fall to protect from harsh winters.  When you see about half the little black seeds on the flower stalk, cut the flower head and allow to dry.  Shake out the seeds.

Leek Seeds Ready for Harvest

 

Organic Leek Seeds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Peas are self-pollinated.  Trellis the peas so seed pods will have adequate air flow around them and so they will not touch the ground and rot or mold.  Allow pods to grow large and tough and let them thoroughly dry on the vines. Pick the pods and shell by hand or thresh them under a tarp.
  • Saving pepper seeds:  Peppers are self-pollinated but can be cross-pollinated by insects so different varieties should be 300-400 feet apart. Peppers need to be red or the “ripe” color for seed harvest.  Cut the peppers open and dry seeds on a paper towel or plate.
  • Radishes are insect-pollinated and different varieties should be 1/4 mile apart.  Allow plants to bolt and flower.  When the seedpods are paper-dry, harvest the whole plant.  Allow to dry another week or so in a warm, dry place.  Thresh or shake them out on a tarp to collect the seeds.
  • Spinach is wind-pollinatedand different varieties must be ¼ mile apart. Allow plants to flower and go to seed.  When the seeds are dry, harvest the stalks and thresh or shake out on a tarp.

    Organic Tomato Seeds Ready to Ferment

 

  • Tomatoes are self-pollinated.  Use fully ripe or even just-past-ripe tomatoes. Squeeze the seeds with the juice into a jar and add an equal amount of water. Let this ferment for 3-4 days in a warm place. Stir daily. Seeds should sink to t he bottom. Rinse and let dry on a paper towel.
  • Turnips and rutabagas are insect-pollinated and different varieties need to be ¼ mile apart. These biennials must overwinter in the garden with mulch where winters are severe.  The next spring the flower stalk will emerge.  The seeds are ready when the pods are dry.  Shake the pods into a bag.

Vegetable seed saving is a very worthwhile endeavor. You can save some money. You will become more self-sufficient. And you preserve the rich plant diversity of Mother Nature.

If you have never saved seeds before, give it a go and just pick one or two types to try this year. Let me know what works best for you.

To the organic way of life,

James Early
Organic Gardening 365
Dedicated to helping you get more out of your organic garden all year long

 

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