Archive for October, 2012

Heirloom Seed Saving, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of a three part series. Be sure to read the beginning of Part 1 first, as it includes some very important comments regarding seed saving techniques in general!]

Chives
Chives look like tiny clumps of onions. The plants are perennial, and once established can grow for many years. Common chives do not cross with garlic chives or other onion species. Each spring or summer some of the plants produce purple-flowering seed heads that are insect-pollinated. Harvest the seed head by hand when it has browned. Spread the heads on screens and in two weeks, gently rub the heads to remove the seeds. Store in a zip-loc bag for sowing the following spring. As always, be sure to label with the variety and harvest date, and do not mix with seed from a previous harvest. Save a lot of seed from these plants if you want to start other clusters, as you can reasonably expect that only about fifty percent of the seed will germinate.

Cilantro
This cold season herb is one of the easiest plants to save seed from. The seeds are easy to spot, for when cilantro’s foliage is beginning to wither, the brown seeds will cling to the plant. When they are dry and brown, pull them off, place in a zip-loc bag, label and store. Be sure that there is no dew or dampness on them or they may rot. Also known as Coriander, cilantro seeds are very light and have many culinary purposes.

Collards
Collards are outbreeding plants and will easily cross with cabbage varieties like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi. Since cold temperatures are required for collards to flower, seeds are usually produced during the second growing season. The seed stalks can exceed five feet in height, will flower prolifically and are very attractive to bees. (The variety known as “Georgia” can live for more than three years and grow over six feet high in zones 9-10!) The taller the plant, the more tender and tasty are the leaves. If winter temperatures do not drop below 28°F, it is possible to plant seeds in the fall and harvest fresh seed the following summer. In regions where the temperature drops lower, dig the plants up in the fall and store them slightly above freezing with moderate humidity. Cut the stalk down to a foot and trim the root as well. A dirt-floored root cellar is a perfect environment to store a bunch of these stalks, which may be lightly tied together. Replant in a nutrient-rich bed in the spring. In order to produce viable seeds, collards should be hand-pollinated using flowers from another plant. Select your best three plants for seed saving and only lightly harvest leaves (for food) from them. The long seed pods will turn from a deep green to a light brown. Cut off the pods with sharp shears when they are completely brittle and break open the seed casings over a large bowl to catch the seeds. Label and store for your next growing season.

Corn
Corn is one of the easiest of all seeds to save. All corn varieties are wind-pollinated and will easily cross with one another. (Read Seed to Seed, pp. 197-203 to see how you can prevent this from happening.) Pollen is produced on the tassel, which is the male portion of the plant that forms at the top of each stalk of corn. The ears and silks that emerge are the female structures. Individual silk threads are attached to future corn kernels, which only develop if pollen touches some part of the thread. Any gaps on the cob indicate that the silks attached to those kernels were not pollinated. Corn should always be grown in blocks of 200 or more plants to ensure maximum wind pollination. Corn is easily susceptible to inbreeding depression; therefore, you should gather some seed from at least two dozen ears. Drying should be done at temperatures less than 95°F. Hanging entire ears upside down in a barn is the traditional way corn seed is saved, but beware of hungry rats, mice, squirrels, etc. After several months, carefully rub cobs together to remove the seeds. Examine the seed and throw out any kernels which are ill-formed. Kernels should be completely dry before storing. You will wind up with more than you need, so give some away and let your neighbors embark upon their own life of self-sufficiency!

Cucumbers
Cucumbers are outbreeding plants, so be sure to take appropriate steps to prevent cross-pollination. When selecting cucumbers from which to gather seeds, only consider healthy, well-shaped fruits from early-setting vines that abundantly produce cukes with great flavor. While there is no guarantee your future plants will have all of these traits, your chances are greatly improved by selecting seeds from cucumbers that do. When seed saving, allow the fruit to vine-ripen two weeks past the edible stage. They will usually change from green to white, yellow or even orange. Ripened cucumbers contain hundreds of seeds. Gather three or four, all from different vines. Slice them lengthwise and deposit the seed (along with the seed sack) into a large glass jar. Add an equal amount of water and place the jar inside a dark cupboard for several days, allowing the mixture to ferment. Stir the mixture once or twice a day. Mold may appear and the odor may not be pleasant, but that is to be expected. Fermentation is complete when most of the seeds drop to the bottom of the jar. Dead seeds or seed casings will float. Once you reach this stage, pour off the debris until only the good seeds at the bottom are left. Use a sieve and gently running water to clean them. Wipe the bottom of the sieve with a towel to draw off as much moisture as possible, and then spread the seeds out on paper towels laid on top of cookie sheets. Dry for about two weeks, occasionally stirring them with your fingers. Label and save.

Dill
This culinary herb is also very useful for pickling. Dill is an outbreeding plant that won’t cross with any other vegetables or herbs other than its kissing cousin, fennel. It is an annual and goes quickly to seed. Each plant produces several umbels that are usually allowed to dry on the plant. The seeds shatter from the heads very easily during cleaning. To avoid losing seed, select fully mature, dry umbels whose stems are slightly green. Rub the umbels gently to free the seed; any small stem pieces or other debris can be winnowed or screened. No further treatment is required.

Eggplant
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family and produces self-pollinating perfect flowers. Different varieties can cross-pollinate, especially by insects. Cage any plants from which you intend to save seed. When fully ripe, the fruit will be hard and will fall from the plant. Keep the fruit for an additional couple of weeks before saving the seed, as seed taken from fruit when it is at the eating stage will not be viable. In the south, it is okay to eat the first fruits before allowing your plant to produce the fruit from which you will take future seeds. Gardeners in the north will want to let the first fruits stay on the vines two to three weeks after the eggplants would normally be picked to ensure ample seed stock for the following year. Cut open the over-ripened fruit and scoop out the seeds from the bottom portion. Separate the seeds with your fingers, and rinse off the pulp. Dry them on a screen, stirring occasionally for the first couple of days to keep them from sticking together. Once everything is fully dry, store in a marked zip-loc bag. Though eggplant seed stays viable for a long time, save more than you need as only half are likely to germinate.

Kale
This vegetable is a biennial, which means that it produces seed once every two years. Kale plants to be used for seed production may also be harvested lightly for food. Kale is a member of the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family, but the seeds are treated a little differently then most other varieties in that group. Kale is very winter hardy and it will survive even in harsh areas as long as it has a heavy mulch or consistent snow cover. In the south, kale should be planted towards the end of the summer or in the fall. As always, select seed from your hardiest and best plants. You may wish to stake the seed stalks when they appear in the spring so that they won’t be damaged. (Seed savers have to get used gardens that may look a little ratty at times!) The Siberian variety may cross with rutabagas, so avoid planting kale and rutabagas close to one another. Kale stalks will grow 4-5′ feet tall. As they branch out, the plants begin to flower. Tight clusters of beautiful delicate yellow flowers will appear; these are very bee friendly. The florets are edible and taste like broccoli (and are great in stir fry). After flowering, the kale stalks will begin producing small, thin seed pods. As the pods develop, they will get thicker and longer. Side branches will also flower and carry seed pods. The average seed pod is 2-3″ and will swell when ripened. Once the pods are fully developed, the plants will die back. At this point, cut the seed-filled branches off the plants and allow them to dry on a hard surface away from direct sunlight. It works well to have a clean sheet beneath the kale bundle to keep everything in one place. It is also advisable to loosely cover the kale bunch so that the wind won’t scatter your seeds as the pods open. Within a few weeks, the pods will be fully dry. Each pod has a thin separating membrane running its length; the seeds grow on either side of this membrane. As you carefully open the pods and remove the membrane (over a large bowl), the seeds will literally roll out. Remove the small bits of chaff before storing. Extra kale seeds can be sprouted for a wonderfully nutritious addition to salads and sandwiches.

Kohlrabi
Kohlrabi is also a biennial in the cabbage family. (Refer to our instructions on how to save cabbage seed, which may be found in Part 1 of this series.) The timing of planting kohlrabi for seed production depends on where you live. In warmer locations, sow seeds in the fall and allow plants to over-winter in the garden. In cooler locations, time the sowing of seeds so that the plants will not fully mature until after the first frost hits. Manage the over-wintering of the plants as you would cabbage. Kohlrabi can survive a mild winter, but it is best to store them. Dig them up before a hard freeze, keeping as much of the root as possible. Trim the leaves to within one inch of the crown. Store several good roots in a cold, humid place. Replant only healthy roots late in the spring and allow the plants to bolt and flower. Since kohlrabi is a form of cabbage, it will have similar yellow flowers and will produce seed pods. Seed-save the same way as kale.

Lettuce
Lettuce is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) so it should be no surprise that the seed stalk might grow 2-5′ tall over a period of long days and high temperatures. Avoid pulling leaves off the plant when it bolts (that is, when the seed stalk is coming up), as they will be very bitter. The flowers are perfect so there is little chance of crossing with other types of lettuce, especially if you plant tall vegetable varieties like tomatoes or pole beans in between your lettuce breeds. Alternately, you may plant your lettuces 25′ or more apart. Seeds begin ripening 10-24 days after the flowers have shed their pollen. Flowering occurs throughout a forty day window, and the seed heads that form at the top tend to shatter by the time flowering is complete at the bottom of the stalk. Lettuce seeds are miniscule. Collect seed stalks only from plants that were the slowest to bolt. Harvest the seeds as they begin to dry, or shake them into a paper bag to avoid loss from shattering. Another method is to pull the entire plant up when half of the seed stalk has flowered. Dry indoors 7-10 days by hanging the plants upside down. Place a clean sheet underneath the hanging plants to gather any seed that drops. When you are ready to gather the seed, carefully rub the heads in your hands over a bowl. You don’t really need to screen the material, but you can do so if you wish to separate the “fuzz.” Lettuce seeds go dormant immediately after harvest, so hold them for at least two months before replanting.

Mustard
In the south, mustard can be planted during the first two weeks of September to produce greens, or in March to produce seed. The plants like partial sun. Spring-sown mustards flower easily and are bee magnets. Fall-sown mustard plants make great greens but may not make it through a freeze. Mustard plants grow quite large, and will begin to turn yellow late in their life cycle. Harvest when the seed pods are dry, but if some begin to burst you’ll need to move quickly or you risk losing a lot of seed. Collect the seed pods and using just your hands, carefully open them over a glass bowl. Empty the bowl of fresh mustard seed onto a cookie sheet and place it on top of your refrigerator. Spread the seeds out evenly and stir them periodically. At the end of three weeks, bag, label and store in your bank.

Okra
Okra has beautiful, pale yellow perfect flowers (which means that they have both male and female parts). Even though the plants usually self-pollinate, you should not grow different varieties at the same time unless you screen or cage the plants from which you wish to save seed. Flowers are pollinated immediately after opening and shortly become unreceptive to additional pollen. Gather seeds by letting four or five pods (each from a different plant) turn brown. (When you shake them, they will sound like a child’s rattle.) Pull the pods off the plant right after they start splitting, and let them dry for a few weeks. Then break open the pods, remove the seeds and allow them to dry on a cookie sheet for an additional couple of weeks. Package, label and store the seeds as previously instructed.

Onions
Onions are in the lily family as are garlic, leeks and chives. They are all saved in the same way. The flowers are small, arranged in a spherical globe at the top of a tall seed stalk. The fruits are capsules, each containing shiny black seeds which may be flat, angled or round. You’ll need to harvest the heads as soon as they have gone to seed to prevent the wind from scattering seeds throughout your garden. Cut the stalks a few inches below the seed heads, put them upside down inside a paper bag (marked with the variety and harvest date) and dry for 3-4 months on top of your refrigerator. When completely dry, rub the seed heads gently with your fingers to separate the pods and seeds. Store as usual.

Oregano
In most locations, this herb is an annual. However, in zones 9-10 it might grow year-round. Sweet Marjoram is closely related, and the techniques used to save oregano seeds will work for it as well. Let the complex flower clusters fully dry and then gather them. Spread the dry clusters on a screen, elevated to allow for good air circulation on all sides. After 7-10 days, gently thresh or rub the clusters to separate the nutlets. You may also separate the chaff if you wish, but this really isn’t necessary. You know what comes next: label and date your 4 mil plastic bag of oregano seeds, and store them safely inside your airtight, watertight, vermin-proof Texas Ready US army ammo can!

This report continues with Part 3….

– The Seed Lady

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