Heirloom Seed Saving, Part 1

The classic book on growing, harvesting, preparing and saving seed is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. This book belongs in the library of everyone who is serious about food production and self-sufficiency. (Re-read pages 98 to 100 as they are lifesaving.) You can buy it from Texas Ready for $25 postpaid, and it comes free with the Vault and the Treasury Liberty Seed Banks.)

Always select your hardiest, disease-free, most productive and best looking plants for seed saving purposes. (If possible, also select plants or fruit that provide the tastiest produce; for instance, if 3-5 particular watermelons just seem to be outstanding, those would be the ones you’d want to save seed from.) Never rely on a single fruit or plant for next year’s seed. Strong genetic diversity is important.

Get some small envelopes (paper or plastic) or glass jars and label them with the breed and the harvest date (e.g. BEETS Detroit Red, July 2012) before you place the fully dried seeds inside. Writing on top of seeds is not advised as even that degree of gentle pressure can damage certain varieties. Indeed, it has been shown that dropping bean seeds three feet onto a concrete slab can reduce production by twenty percent or more. If you are concerned that you have not dehydrated the seed sufficiently, it is acceptable to put a small silica gel packet into the jar or envelope. Do not mix seeds taken from different sources or different harvests. Put the seed packets into a metal container (a bigger ammo can with a good seal would be perfect) which you will store in a cool, dry place such as a basement or root cellar. A refrigerator will also work.

Some seeds require a certain degree of preparation or drying time before they can be stored away in your seed bank. It is important to keep your seeds labeled throughout the process so that you don’t lose track of what you’re working with. This is especially true when you’re processing several different seed types at the same time!

Arugula (found in your Lettuce Packet)
Arugula will grow year round in USDA growing zones 9 and 10. For zones 3 through 8, put out seeds in two week intervals starting a couple of weeks after your spring frost date. At the end of the season, select three or four of your best plants and let them continue to grow. They will start to look “leggy” and unkempt. Allow them to bolt (throw up a central flowering stalk which will eventually produce seeds). When the flowers begin to form a fuzzy head (like a dandelion) cut the stalks off and find an area away from the sun (and its potentially harmful UV radiation) and additionally protected from breezes. Gently pull the seeds off the stalk. As you rub the chafe (fuzz) from each seed, drop the seed into a bowl. Store in a small zip-lock bag, label and place in your seed bank.

Healthy asparagus plants will produce for 40-50 years. If you wish to save seed as a backup, or to share with others, collect the small reddish berries from the female plants before they fall to the ground. Within the berries are six seeds. Rub the berries over a screen to release them. Then wash the seeds in several changes of water. Spread the seeds out on a cookie sheet or small tray out of the sun. Let them dry for about two weeks, bag, label and save.

After basil sets out its flowers, the seed pods will ripen and begin scattering their seeds. You’ll see the basil seed capsules turn brown. Clip off the top 4-6 inch tips and place the flower stalks upside down inside a paper lunch bag. (The rest of the basil plant will continue to produce for you.) Date the bag and place it on top of your refrigerator. In 30 days, gently rub everything on a fine wire screen and winnow away the chaff.

By the end of the season, bean pods turn light brown. If you shake them and hear a slight rattle, all is well. Remove those pods from the vine, open them up and remove the dry beans. Ideally, you want bean seeds which are large, smooth and complete. If the seeds look deformed or discolored, discard them. Place the seeds on a screen for a few days so they completely dry out before storing them.

You will need to leave half a dozen beet plants, spaced a foot and a half apart, after harvesting your beet crop. In USDA zones 3-7, put a three to four inch layer of winter mulch over the row to protect them during the cold months. In zones 8-9, remove the whole beets, cutting the tops down to 1″ above the tubers. Store in a cool, dry place and put back into the ground after the last spring frost date. Allow the beets to bolt and go to flower in the second year. The outer leaves (which will taste better the second year) can be eaten throughout this process. Each beet tuber will produce a small cluster of flowers. When the flowers turn brown and wilt, cut off the flowering top at soil level. Put the flowering stalk upside down inside a paper bag, and place it on top of your refrigerator. In a month, separate the seed clusters from the stem. Break apart each cluster of seeds with your fingers and separate the seeds from the chaff.

Remember, broccoli is a member of the cabbage family and will easily cross with other members of the same family. Therefore, you’ll need to avoid planting cabbage family plants too close together. Refer to Seed to Seed for complete information on this topic. Grow three to five extra plants specifically for seed production. You’ll need shears, a paper lunch bag, a cloth bag, a soft rubber mallet and two bowls. After the broccoli’s dainty yellow flowers have wilted, let the seed head become yellow and dry. Cut the stalk about 4-5 inches beneath the seed head. Turn this upside down and put it into a paper bag. (Don’t forget to label with the variety and date!) Leaving the top of the bag open to allow for some air circulation, put it on top of the refrigerator so the seed head can further dehydrate. After a month, put the seed heads into a cloth bag and pound them slightly with a rubber mallet. Use just enough force to dislodge the seeds from their pods. Pour the seed into a bowl. You’ll have to pick out the large non-seed plant material, then winnow the remaining chafe outdoors by slowly pouring the seed back and forth into two bowls on a breezy day or in front of a very low speed fan. If you’d like, you may store the seed in the lunch bag. Just turn the bag down a few folds, clip it shut and place it in your bank.

Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts are also members of the cabbage family and will readily cross pollinate. Grow only one member of the cabbage family in the garden at a time when you are saving seeds, or cage the plants from which you wish to harvest seed. These are biennial plants. The first year, you can eat the leaves and the sprouts. The next year they will produce flowers and seeds. (On occasion, Brussels sprouts planted in the spring will produce seeds in the fall, but this is rare. In a survival situation, you should not anticipate this.) Choose a few healthy plants from which to gather seed; for a family of four, plant an extra five or six plants for the purpose of seed harvesting. You can harvest lightly from these plants throughout year one, but leave at least half of the sprouts on the stem so you don’t overly weaken the plants. Once the late fall temperatures drop below freezing at night, heavily mulch (4-6”) around the base of the plants to help insulate the roots against the winter cold. Two weeks after the spring frost / planting date the following spring, gradually remove the mulch and resume watering the garden bed. New growth will begin. Leave the flowers on the plant once buds open, which will occur when daytime temperatures exceed sixty degrees. When the flowers fade and after the seeds have turned brown, harvest the dried seed pods. The pods are the elongated portion that forms at the base of each flower. Spread the pods out on a cookie sheet, away from the sun in a dry, well-ventilated area. In two weeks, break open the pods and gather the small round seeds. Add to your bank following proper labeling and bagging procedures.

You’ll need to sow at least three extra cabbage plants for seed production. Cabbage is a biennial and doesn’t produce seeds until the second year. Store the cabbage heads in a cool, dry place until the following spring when you’ll place them in your garden 18 inches apart with the bottom of the head sitting on the soil. Cut a 2 inch X in the center of the top of the head. This will make it easier for the flower stalk to emerge. Once the flowers die and the seed pods form (and begin turning from green to brown), gather them up. You do not want them to disperse their seeds. Put the pods on a cookie sheet out of the sun and allow them to dry. The seed pods will begin shattering, and the seeds will be released. After a couple of weeks, separate the remaining pods and seeds. Put everything into a cloth bag and lightly smack it with your hand to further release any remaining seed. Rub the seeds together to remove the thin seed coat. Label, bag and store properly.

Melons to be used for seed gathering should remain on the vine one to two extra weeks to “season” the seeds. When ready, use a knife to slice the overripe cantaloupe in half. Scoop out the seeds, place them in a bowl and rinse under cool water to remove the pulp. Cover the seeds with water and remove any that float. Spread the remaining seeds out on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels or newspaper. Let them dry in a warm, well-ventilated location outside of direct sunlight. Stir them around periodically to prevent them from sticking and allow two to three weeks for the seeds to fully dry. Take a sample seed and attempt to bend it. If it snaps crisply in half, you’re good to go. If it merely bends, let the seeds dry for another week.

Make sure that the wild flower Queen Anne’s Lace is not in the area surrounding your garden, as these are related and will inter-breed. You may also cage the carrots you’ll be gathering seeds from. The plants produce carrots the first year, and flowers (with seeds) the second. Therefore, you’ll leave the carrot underground to over winter. Don’t disturb the clustered flower stalks (called umbels) when they come up the following spring. Let them turn brown and dry out. Use a pair of pruning shears to clip the stalks. The upper umbels produce the better seed so avoid all but the very tops. Gather from multiple plants to avoid “inbreeding depression” which results in poor future harvests. Put the umbels upside down in a paper bag. Once you are inside at a work station, remove the seed heads and rub them between yours hands. Separate as much excess plant debris as possible, but don’t worry about the “bearded” portion of the carrot seed. It may be left intact and won’t affect your future production. Seal everything in a glass jar or envelope and store in your Texas Ready Liberty Seed Bank.

This is another member of the cabbage family and needs to be isolated. (Read Seed to Seed for more information.) Cauliflower seeds should be planted in groups of ten or more for the purposes of genetic diversity. Cauliflower heads do not re-sprout after harvest, so leave two florets on the plant to flower the following spring. Better yet, plant three or four extra plants strictly for seed gathering. Because you are not interested in food production, you can tightly plant these as even small heads will still produce plenty of seeds. Make sure the pods are fully dry, as green pods rarely produce viable seeds even if allowed to dry after the plant is pulled. Gather the dried brown pods and put them in a cloth bag. Lightly smash them with a soft rubber mallet and winnow off the chaff.

This is yet another biennial. When the temperatures drop below forty degrees F in the second fall after planting, a three foot flower stalk is usually produced. Occasionally, celery will send up flowers the first winter. Leave three celery plants in the garden after harvest so they can produce seed. The flower stalk has light green, feathery flowers. Once the petals wither and the stalk begins to dry, clip the stalk and put it upside down in a paper lunch bag. When indoors at your work station, spread the stalks out on a cookie sheet. Let dry for a couple of weeks so the seeds can mature. Get a shallow bowl and hold the flower stalk over it. The seed heads are located directly beneath the flowering petals. Break open each seed head with your fingers. The miniscule seeds will fall into the bowl. You know the drill by now—label, place in a small zip-loc bag and store in your seed bank.

This report continues with Part 2….

– The Seed Lady

2 Responses so far »

  1. 2

    Troy Brooks said,

    Thanks for writing such a lovely post. I too have written similar interest on our blog concerning saving and growing Heirloom Seeds. Keep the information coming!

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