Monday, 8 October 2012

Seed Saving

It's Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and our twin Sugar Maples are ablaze. This is the time for finishing off the winter preparations, building overwintering compost heaps, storing vegetables. But something that's just as important and maybe wouldn't occur to a lot of people, is that this is also the time for saving seeds.

There are several reasons for saving seeds and saving a bit of money and hassle in early spring is only one of them. When you grow plants on your ground, regardless of whether they are vegetables, herbs or flowers, they adapt to your site in a myriad small ways. The seeds they produce are a bit more suited to your ground then the parent seeds were. So if you save those and plant them out next year, you will have hardier plants. Repeat this for several years in a row and you will have plants that are perfectly suited to your specific micro-climate.

By micro-climate, I mean the specific temperatures, sun hours and wind angles that impact your particular section of the surface of the Earth. It's the power of the micro-climate that changes the ability of certain plants to grow in particular gardens. Happily, micro-climates can be altered and made more beneficial for your growing efforts and we'll go into some of these methods in later posts.

Obviously, there are a great many different types of seeds, but it is possible to group types by their saving methods. To save space and confusion, I'm going to go through one of each in separate parts.

Here is Part 1:

Fermenting Fleshy (Tomato) Seeds

1. Scoop seeds from the inside of the tomato and set the flesh aside for eating.

 Pic 1: This is basically how you separate the seeds from the tomato. As you can see, it's not too complicated.

2. Put the seedy mush into a clear container and repeat until there are no more tomatoes of that variety. (DON'T mix your varieties unless you are very happy about not being able to tell your seeds or plants apart until fruiting occurs, if then.)

3. Pour water into the container until everything is floating.

4. Label the container with variety, & date and loosely cover.

5. Place container somewhere out of the way but not out of sight.

The point of this is that tomato seeds have a fleshy coating that if left on will rot the seed. However, when tomatoes are ingested by animals, the coating on their seeds is cleaned off by the digestive system and are ready to go when they're returned to the ground in a pile of manure. Storing the seeds in water for 3-4 days causes the flesh to be fermented off and so does the same trick. Minus the manure.

6. From the second day, rotate the container back and forth so that seeds start to fall out of the mush to the bottom of the container.

 Pic 2: A view of some of my containers. The far left has been sitting for ~24hrs, the other 3 are from about 4 days ago and are ready to go to the next stage. See the difference?

7. When you spot that ~90% of the seeds have fallen to the bottom of the container, tip off most of the water. Most of the mush will slosh away too. Don't worry if some seeds float on the top and are lost, they're hollow duds. The viable seeds sink to the bottom. Run more water into the container, swirl, let the seeds settle briefly and tip off the water. Repeat as necessary. I usually don't need more than two rinses but it depends on the variety.

NOTE: Do NOT be over-eager in deciding that your seeds are ready. If it looks like it might use one more day, give it one more day. I've had seeds soaking for 5 days and more with no problem except a white fuzz growing along the water line which was not a problem. If you are too hasty, you could end up losing a lot of good, viable seeds because you didn't give the fermentation process enough time. If you want to keep this stage down to a minimum, separate the majority of the flesh from the seeds before letting it sit, but still give it the time it needs to work.

8. Organize a drying place. I tend to tear egg cartons in half and use the top, other people use paper towel in baking trays, whatever your ingenuity can come up with. The point of the exercise is to dry off the seeds for storage. So tip the seeds (after tipping off as much water as possible of course) onto the absorbant surface, spread out the seeds as much as possible,  LABEL the variety, and put them where they wont be knocked over for about 2 or 3 days. Check on them during the first full day and try to the tease any remaining clumps apart.

Pic 3: Here are my lovely seeds and they're almost ready to be put into sealable bags. Unsure of when they're finished? If you can easily separate individual seeds that were clumped, they're done.

9. When they are all dry (again, take the time to be sure), put them into a sealable envelope, or clear sealable bag and store in an air-tight container. Putting different varieties in different bags and all the bags in one jar is perfectly fine. But once again, LABEL your varieties.

So next early spring, when everyone else is buying tomato seeds, you can just go to your air-tight container, pull out your personalized seeds and start the process of delicious, home-grown tomatoes!

Part 2:   

Dry-on-the-plant-seeds e.g. Coriander/Cilantro seeds

NOTE: my camera battery is dead, so rather than holding up the post, I'm going to add in photos later.

Some seeds are a lot easier than fleshy ones like tomatoes. In some cases, you just take the whole plant (chop near ground level or rip up roots its your choice) and dry them in a convenient place. Coriander is like this, you literally just spread the whole thing out in an area with good air-flow and leave it for as long as it needs. Well, to ensure that you don't get over-run with mould or insects, I'll give you a couple extra tips....

1. Coriander (the seeds of the Cilantro plant) is ready to harvest when the plant has clearly converted ~95% of its flowers into seed pods.

Harvest in the evening when it hasn't rained all day, before the dusk dew falls. This is to ensure that the plant is as dry as possible before harvesting. If it's damp, you're running the risk of mould taking over before the seeds can dry out. If you must harvest when the plant is damp then you can get away with it using a method described below. (But if its actually wet then you may have to go to drastic measures like using a hair-dryer, or just, you know, wait until the plant is dry to harvest)

2. Depending on your drying arrangements, tie the stalks loosely in small clumps and hang up seed end down. Or, if you have the space, you can spread the stalks out over a clothes horse. I would recommend this method if, like me, you had to harvest when the plant was a bit damp. The essential point here is air-flow. You have got to make sure that the whole plant dries quickly or mould will enter the seeds and then your effort is wasted.

3. When the seed pods have all turned a sort of tan colour and some seeds start falling off the stalks when shaken, you can harvest the seeds.

4. There are differing methods here, but after spending several hours doing it, I'll tell you about the 2 that we found worked easiest. I definitely recommend having an old sheet under your work space by the way, it makes a few things much easier!
A) Physically pull the seeds that don't fall off by themselves off the ends of the stalks and dump into a brown paper bag. Leave bags open to finish drying for about a week or so. Big Cons: lots of little, bitty mess to tidy up, you tend to loose a fair number of seeds so really do this method over a sheet, you can get some really sore fingers after a while.
B) Break or snip off the "seed heads" (The flowers form an umbrella-esk shape so the seeds do too, that whole umbrella is what I mean) and put the whole thing into a brown paper bag. The bags should be left with the tops open like the other method and shook every few days. When the seeds have all fallen off the sprays, remove them and close up the bag.

Needless to say, I prefer option B!

5. Whichever you use, after the seeds have completed drying, store in an air-tight container and put away for the winter or use to spice up your meals.

Part 3

Grab-as-you-go-seeds e.g. Calendula, Nasturtium

These are the very easiest kind of seeds to save, because they involve waiting till the plant has done all the work and then going out and filling your boots, or bag, or pockets or all three!

1. Identify which of your plants are nearing the seed producing stage.

2. Identify what a completed seed head looks like, e.g. when Calendulla is ready the flower head is completely brown and the seeds fall off relatively easily.

3. Wait until seeds are dry, again you're best waiting until there's been a dry day and harvesting in the evening before the dewfall.

4. Pull seeds off plant and place in brown paper bag. Leave top of bag open to ensure adequate drying for a few days in warm dry place.

5. Store in air-tight container until needed. Done!

Phew, that's a fair bit of information, but I hope you found it useful. I will add that much of the time, seeds you get from store-bought vegetables and flowers won't be viable. It's all to do with the politics of commodity farming (snarl!) and other nonsense perpetuated by mindsets that no business in growing food. (Ooh, sore point there! I'll explain my reasons in a later post, promise.)

If there's anything unclear or if you feel that I got something a bit wrong or  want me to add another seed-saving method or even something completely unrelated, drop me a line in the comments box and I will do my best to get you some satisfaction!  

Until the next post, cheers!

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