Heirloom Seed Saving, Part 3

[This is the last 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!]

This plant is a biennial. In the first year you’ll be able to harvest some of the fresh leaves, but you won’t be able to obtain seeds until year two. Overwinter at least three or four plants. In southern states, mulch heavily with straw or cover plants with a cold frame. Up north you’ll need to bring a few plants inside your greenhouse during the winter months. The next spring, the plants will start to flower and produce seed. Once the flower heads are dry and brown (but before they start to shatter), clip the stalks from several plants and place them upside down in a paper lunch bag. After a couple of weeks, the seed heads should all be shattered. Separate the seed from the chaff , place them in your zip-loc bag, label and store. Parsley tends to have a low germination rate, so be sure to gather lots of seed.

Peanuts are in the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, moon flowers, eggplant and tobacco. Peanuts are ready for harvesting when the leaves turn yellow. Gently pull the plants out of the ground being careful not to break the roots, as the peanuts are distributed throughout the root system. Each plant should bear 40-100 peanuts. Sun-dry the uprooted plants for about a week, and don’t allow them to get wet. After the shells are dry, cut or pull the peanuts from the root stalks and store them in a cool, dry place. It is not necessary to shell the peanuts before you store them, but if space is a consideration, feel free to do so. It is best to leave the red paper-like skin intact. Be sure to discard any peanuts that show signs of decay or rot.

Peas are self-pollinating, therefore there is little danger of cross-pollination. As previously stated, when selecting individual plants to use for seed stock, look for healthy insect and disease resistant specimens with high production and good taste. Allow the pods to ripen on the vine or bush for four to six weeks beyond the time you would normally harvest them. When ready, pick the dried pea pods and spread them evenly on newspaper in a warm, dry area away from direct sunlight. After a couple of weeks, open the pods and release the peas into a bowl. Put the pea pod residue into your compost heap and store the peas in a plastic bag or jar with proper identification. Keep them cool, but do not freeze.

When selecting peppers for seed harvesting, pick the fruit when mature but not overly ripe. Collect the seeds and lay them on a cookie sheet or wax paper for two or three days, stirring them periodically to keep them from sticking. After about three days they will be dry and ready to store in your labeled zip-loc bag.

Save as you would Squash.

Radishes will cross with both wild and domesticated varieties, so it is best to grow one variety at a time when you are seed saving. Grow 50-100 plants and choose ten for seed production. The flowering seed stalks grow 3-4’ tall; depending on the variety you will see delicate white, yellow or purple blossoms. Bees adore these flowers, so plant some radishes early in the season before the bees emerge in search of food. You will be rewarded by frequent pollinators in your garden throughout the growing season! Harvest the seed stalks when the pods turn brown and the plants begin to dry. Tie several stalks together and hang on a nail in a shed or barn where there is decent air circulation and no danger of exposure to direct sunlight. After a month, get a large bowl and crush the pods to release the radish seeds. The seeds require no further processing; simply label and store for the next planting.

Rutabagas & Rape (Canola)
Procedures are the same as for Turnips.

This herb is easy to grow and has both medicinal and culinary uses. Sage flowers develop into seed pods that open up as they mature. Keep an eye on the plants. When you see that the seed is beginning to be released from the pods, cut the stalks and place them upside down in a paper bag. As the seeds ripen, they will fall out of the pods. Bag, label and store.

Sesame is a heat-loving crop, so it only grows well in the south. It is ready for harvesting 90-150 days after planting, depending upon weather and soil conditions. To obtain the highest quality seeds, the crop must be harvested before the first killing frost. The sesame plant will tell you when to expect the harvest, as the leaves will change from green to yellow and finally to red. As this color change occurs, loosely tie the tops of the stalks together in bundles of about eight. A couple of days later, make a second pass and tighten the strings so that the sheaves are almost upright. In approximately two weeks – when the leaves begin to fall off or as soon as the sesame begins to rupture – it’s time to cut and thresh. (We’ve all heard the phrase, “Open sesame!” Its origin derives from the manner in which seed pods from certain sesame breeds loudly pop open and scatter their seeds to the wind.) When harvesting, cut the bundled sesame stalks in 30” lengths. Put a sheet down in an area where there is a slight breeze and thresh by beating the sheaves of the sesame plant on the ground. The heavier seeds will stay in a pile while the chaff will blow away; pick out the larger debris by hand. Sesame seed can be stored at room temperature and will last several years without a loss of viability. Keep from freezing, as this can damage the seed.

Spinach is wind-pollinated, so plant only one variety at a time. Seed can typically be harvested approximately eight weeks after germination. In northern growing zones, start this cool weather crop in the early spring; in the south and southwest, plant in August in order to gather seed prior to the fall frost. This annual cultivar has both male and female plants. The ideal ratio for your backyard garden is one good male plant for every two female plants. Male plants produce the pollen, while female plants bear the seeds. If you have an overabundance of male plants, feel free to harvest the leaves while waiting for the spinach seed to mature. There are two types of male plants. The first (which should be pulled up and destroyed; i.e., eaten!) is small and quick bolting. The other type is called a vegetative male. It produces more foliage and lots of good pollen. Female plants produce small, inconspicuous flowers that have no petals. Remove (eat) early bolters and those that flower before the rest of the crop, as well as plants that aren’t as strong or as colorful as you’d like. Removing plants with undesirable traits helps to prevent producing seed that will carry these traits into your next planting season. Once you have identified your best plants, harvest only the outside leaves for eating since you want these plants to remain strong. Allow both the male and female plants to flower. Once the female (seed bearing) plants become fully brown and dried out, carefully pull up the seed stalks and continue the drying process in a shed, barn or covered enclosure where you can hang the stalks upside down for a few weeks. (Again, you’ll want to pick seed from plants that have the leaf characteristics you like: color, structure, shape, and taste are good benchmarks.) After the drying process is complete, either thresh the seeds into a container or pull the seeds off by hand. Label, bag and store in your Liberty Seed Bank.

One can divide squash into two different categories: winter (hardshell varieties such as acorn or butternut) and summer (soft skin varieties such as straightneck, spaghetti and zucchini). To save seed, harvest winter varieties when the fruit is ready to eat. Let it ripen three to four weeks off of the vine. Summer squashes, however, should be left to overripen on the vine for a couple of weeks, and are ready for harvesting when the rinds have become somewhat hardened. Once the winter or summer squash has properly ripened, cut the fruit in half and scoop the seeds and pulp into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water and separate the seeds from the pulp. Remove excess pulp from the solution, as well as any seeds that float. Rinse and drain the seeds, spread them out on newspaper or a cookie sheet to dry, and stir occasionally over a two week period. To determine if your seeds are properly dried, attempt to bend one. If it bends instead of cleanly snapping, it is not dry enough. Repeat this trial every couple of days until your seeds are ready to store. Label, bag and bank.

I used to think that saving tomato seeds was simply a matter of gathering a few from my favorite varieties and letting them dry on a paper towel for a couple of weeks. But in order to get the hardiest plants and maximum production from your saved seeds, it is best to subject them to a fermentation process for a week or so. This will help to inoculate young seedlings against harmful bacteria and viruses they are sure to face in the soil. It is said that fermenting will increase tomato production by about five percent. (And since in my home tomatoes are a food group of their own, this is important!) When saving tomato seeds, pick tomatoes that are totally ripe, but not overly so. As always, the entire plant should have great conformation: check the thickness and strength of the vines, the greenness of the leaves and the abundance, taste and plumpness of the fruit.

The saving process is really quite simple. Select at least three tomatoes of the same breed. Cut them in half across the midsection and squeeze the seeds, gel and juice into a small glass or jar. Mash up the mixture, then add an equal amount of water and lightly stir. Cover the container with plastic wrap (with a few air holes poked into it) and label the glass with the exact heirloom variety. Do not rely upon your memory! Set the mash in a dark cupboard and stir gently once a day. Bubbles will appear and a yellow or white moldy crust will develop. Once you see the white mold, pour it off, drain the water and remove any floating seeds. Utilizing a fine mesh strainer and running water, thoroughly rinse the seeds. Write the name of the variety on a paper plate and spread your seeds out to dry away from sunlight or excessive heat. Stir them occasionally and keep them separated. Drying should take about a week, but allow some extra time if it is humid or rainy. When done, your dried tomato seeds will be somewhat spongy. Properly label and bag the seeds, storing them in your bank for the following spring.

This member of the cabbage family will cross with Siberian kale, Chinese mustard and Chinese cabbage, but not with collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, other kales or other cabbages. Turnips are self-infertile, which means that they do not self-pollinate. They are also biennial, which means that they grow and mature in the first year and produce seed in the second. There are a couple of methods used for growing seed. First, you can over-winter the entire plant in the ground, and it will produce a flower stalk the following spring.  Turnips are relatively hardy, but should be heavily mulched if you leave them in the ground over the winter. However, in extremely cold areas (zones 3 and 4), they should be over-wintered in pots in a greenhouse and transplanted in the spring. A second method for northern growers is to dig up the turnip roots in the fall, trimming the tops down to a couple of inches. Store the roots in a box filled with clean sand or sawdust, making sure the turnips aren’t touching each another. A root cellar or free-standing shed or garage which has a temperature range of 35-40°F would be ideal. Replant 2’ apart in the spring when the soil warms.

Do not harvest leaves for food from plants destined for seed production. To prevent inbreeding depression and ensure a good amount of genetic diversity, it would be best to gather seed from at least twenty plants. Plants should be spaced two feet apart and will produce a 3-4’ flower stalk. Seeds ripen best well while still on the plant, so leave the pods in place to mature and dry. When the pods turn dry and brown (and the seeds inside are full and dark), they are ripe. If you see the pods starting to crack open, it is definitely time to gather them. Don’t tarry as the scattering process is generally very short and birds love the ripened seed. Cut the flower stalks and hang them upside down over a sheet of paper, cloth or plastic to catch the seeds. Seeds are viable for several years, so you can alternate which variety of turnips you allow to flower each year. When fully dry, open the pods by hand over a bowl to collect whatever seed hasn’t already been released. Use a light breeze to blow away the chaff, then place the seeds on a cookie sheet to finalize the drying process. After about a week, label, bag and store. Replanting tip: turnip seeds like cold, winter-like temperatures for several weeks before germination. Therefore, store turnip seed at least four weeks in a refrigerator prior to sowing.

Even though you can collect hundreds of seeds from a single watermelon, in order to prevent inbreeding you should identify three or four quality melons from different plants. Be sure to choose vines which are both hardy and known to produce exceptionally tasty fruit. Let the melons ripen on the vine two weeks past table ready. You’ll know the watermelon is “past table ready” when you can smell a slight fruitiness. The bottom of the watermelon may be cream-colored or pale yellow. Don’t gather seeds from a melon that has developed a crack in its outer rind. Once your melons are ready, pick them and cut them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and rinse the pulp away using running water and a colander or sieve. (You might want to do this outdoors!) Place the rinsed seeds in a bowl of water and pour off any that float. Save only the hard black or brown seeds; discard any that are white or undeveloped. Drain the seeds and spread them out on a cookie sheet or newspaper. Put the seeds in a warm, dry area out of direct sunlight for three weeks stirring periodically to promote even drying. To determine whether or not your seeds have dried sufficiently, perform the bend test. If the seeds bend instead of breaking, they still have a way to go. When the seed snaps or shatters when flexed, you are ready to package them.

Regardless of the variety of seed you are saving, Texas Ready recommends saving at least three times the amount of seed that you figure to plant the following year. This will help to protect you against crop failure due to drought or disease, rainstorm or rabbit. It will also give you seed to share or barter with, should the need arise.

We hope this Seed Saving series has been helpful to you! Subscribe to our blog if you would like more information on survival and urban gardening, heirloom seeds and related topics. And when you’re ready to invest in quality heirloom seed for your garden, be sure and check out Texas Ready’s Liberty Seed Banks at http://www.TexasReady.net!

Garden well,

– The Seed Lady

1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Great series! Thank you

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