Tag Archives: Saving Seeds

It All Started With Seeds

Saving various types of lima beans and their names and stories

I read a phrase that is so true: “It all starts with the seed. The seeds take care of us.” We rely on seeds, thus plants, to feed, clothe, and shelter us. But these seeds in turn rely on us. Our cultivated plants (not wild grown but grown in gardens and farms) depend on human care. If we do not preserve a species it will become extinct. If no one grows a plant and saves the seed, the plant and its genetic material will not exist anymore.

The Importance of Seeds

Because seeds are fundamentally important to our survival, saving seeds, especially open pollinated, heirloom seeds, is vital. Plants make up 80 percent of our diet. On an agricultural level, saving seeds preserves genetic diversity. Breeders can tap into a large genetic pool for improved crops and pest/disease resistant crops. Saving seeds of various plants ensures crop diversity so that one pest/disease does not wipe out one crop. Saving seeds of plants that have adapted to a local area helps to become resilient to climate change.

Sharing saved seeds at a seed swap

On a home gardener level, saving seeds saves money. One can exchange seeds at seed swaps or pass down seeds to future generations. Over time, saving seed from plants that have done well in the garden saves plants that have adapted well to the region. This may help with climatic change. Saving seed also increases the diversity of plants grown. There is more of a choice, more of a variety to choose from for better flavor, time of harvest, or plant type. Saving seeds also saves the memories and stories from previous generations and the lineage of heirlooms.

However, each year, as seed are not saved, plants become extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 75 percent of global food diversity has become extinct in the past 100 years. Of just 20 plants used for global food production in 2014, only 9 accounted for more than 66 percent of all crop production. Only five cereal grains make up 60 percent of our calories. In the past century we have lost more than 90 percent of our seed diversity. Thousands of plant species are no longer available, and we continue to lose them every day. Yet biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture and provides us and plants with resilience.

Seed Saving Initiatives

Grandpa Ott’s morning glory

Fortunately, there are seed saving initiatives across the world to save seeds for future generations. One American organization, Seed Savers Exchange, has several programs that are extremely useful and helpful to home gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) began in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane’s grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato which were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870’s. Diane knew that with her grandfather’s passing, unless the seed were grown and saved, they would be lost. She reached out to like-minded people interested in saving and sharing heirloom seeds and gradually formed a network.

Seed Savers Exchange

German Pink tomato

Today, SSE is a non-profit organization in Decorah, Iowa, with more than 13,000 members. Its mission is to “conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.”

The SSE maintains a seed bank with 18,000 to 20,000 varieties at their headquarters in Iowa. They also send seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed vault at Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

“At SSE, we store seeds at zero degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent humidity. Under these conditions, certain seed can last up to 100 years,” said Philip Kauth, Ph.D., Director of Preservation.

To give an idea of the number of varieties that can exist within one plant, Philip said that currently the SSE collection has 6,000 tomatoes. There are 3,000 types on the market that are commercially available. “We have 1,100 varieties of corn but the USDA has 20,000 varieties of corn. We also have 6,000 varieties of beans.” What makes SSE unique is that they also maintain the seed’s history. “We put a lot of emphasis on stories. We preserve the varieties and their histories as well as evaluation data on their performance as a plant.”

The Seed Exchange

Anyone, including home gardeners, may access some of these varieties through the Seed Exchange. The Seed Exchange is a free online database of seeds, basically a seed swap. Anyone can offer or obtain open pollinated seeds to grow in their garden. It does not cost money to view this database; however, in order to list or request seed a free account must be established. If reading hard copy is preferable, there is an annual catalog called the Yearbook that can be ordered for a fee. The Seed Exchange has more than 11,000 varieties of homegrown, open pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed. Once people obtain and grow these, they can save and re-sow the seed (hence have them for a long time) or even save and share the seed with friends and family. The Seed Exchange also includes potato tubers, garlic bulbs, apple tree cuttings, and other non-seed material.

Field crew harvesting beans

Today, a quick look at the Seed Exchange reveals 9,563 varieties of tomatoes. Some entries have short descriptions, some long, and some have photos. For example, the description for the Silvery Fir Tree tomato is a “compact (18 – 24 inches high) with unusual, delicate, lacy leaves. In Russian, it is called ‘Serebristaya El’ .. it is an old Russian variety that was introduced to American seed savers in the early 1990s by Marina Danilenko, pioneering private seed seller from Moscow during the Perestroika-era.”

There are 38 entries for spinach including a broad leaved prickly seed spinach “described by Albertus Magnus, a Catholic saint from Germany, in 1260, has been commercially available in the US since at least 1806, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1809 and 1812.”

SSE also sells seed, people can order online and from a free catalog. SSE makes about 600 varieties available commercially to the public when inventory of seed is high enough to meed the demand. The revenue from the seed sales, as well as donations and memberships, maintain the organization’s seed collection and promote and encourage the tradition of saving and sharing seed.

Trial beds at Heritage Farm

Seed Savers Exchange Projects

Other interesting SSE projects are Seed Rematriation (identifying and growing plants grown by indigenous communities in order to obtain and save the seeds); SeedLinked, a seed data platform connecting people with information on varieties from other gardeners/farmers; and the Community Seed Network, which engages hundreds of people across the United States and Canada to connect, share, and learn about seeds. The SSE also provides free seed to schools, community groups, and people in need via the Herman’s Garden and Disaster Relief Seed Donation programs.

Heritage Farm

The SSE is a destination point — hundreds of gardeners, horticulturists, and seed savers visit the headquarters, known as Heritage Farm, each year. The public is encouraged to visit the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and Gift and Garden store, walk through display gardens, including an apple orchard with 900 varieties of apple trees, and attend events such as a seed swap, an heirloom plant sale, a seed school, a tomato tasting, and a harvest festival. And if that isn’t enough, there is always the Robert Becker Memorial Library with 6,000 volumes covering agriculture, horticulture, and biodiversity. And to think it all started with seeds of a morning glory and a tomato.

All photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Seed Swaps: Fun Way to Get New Seeds!

It is that time of year again — seed swaps! National Seed Swap Day is Saturday, January 26, 2019, the last Saturday in January. Seed swaps are a great way to obtain new seeds, share your favorite seeds, and attend a fun event. A seed swap can be as simple as friends getting together to share seeds they saved from the previous gardening season to an all-day planned event with speakers, door prizes, and refreshments. Seed swaps can be a vehicle to teach others how to save seed, the importance of seed diversity, heirloom seeds, and other aspects of gardening. Some exchange more than seeds; tables may be set up to collect used gardening books, magazines, tools, pots, and nursery catalogs. Some may expand their definition of seeds and allow bulbs, rhizomes, and cuttings. Others include related activities such as learning to make handmade seed envelopes.

Each seed swap is different but usually organizers have established guidelines for the seed such as the type of container to use, the number of seed in each bag, and the information required on the label. Organizers should clarify if commercial seed packages or hybrid seeds are accepted. Although swaps do not want seeds from invasive plants, the organizers should clarify the definition of an invasive plant in their area.

If you are interested in attending a seed swap, ask your local county extension agent or Master Gardeners if they know of seed swaps in your area. Check out my monthly list of local gardening events at pegplant.com for seed swaps in the Washington DC metro area.

If you are interested in starting a seed swap, visit a few first to see the range of activities that could take place and the number of volunteers required. Read Seedswap: The Gardener’s Guide to Saving and Swapping Seeds by Josie Jeffery and download the Seed Savers Exchange’s 8-page handout on how to organize a seed swap. To learn how to save seeds, read my article entitled “How to Save Seeds from the Home Garden.” Happy #seedswapday!

How to Save Seeds from the Home Garden

Blackberry lily seeds are easy to find and save

As your plants flower and set seed and your fruit ripens on the vine, think of what you would like to save for next year. Saving seed can be easy and cost effective. In addition to saving seed to plant in your garden next year, you can give away seed packets as gifts or participate in seed swaps.

In order to save seeds, you have to separate the seeds from the fruit and dry them completely. If you strike a seed with a hammer and it shatters or if it snaps cleanly when bent, the seed is dry enough. When they are this dry, store in a cool, dark place in jars or put in envelopes. Always label with a plant name and date.

There are two methods for separating and cleaning the seed depending on the plant. Use the dry method for seeds that are in dried flowers, dried husks, or dried pods like beans, peas, grains, okra, marigolds, cone flowers, calendula, dianthus, basil, mustards, lettuce, kale, dill, fennel (any member of the carrot/dill family and the brassica/broccoli family). Use the wet method when the seeds are imbedded in the fleshy fruit, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, and eggplant.

Dry Method of Saving Seeds

Usually the plant has more than one flower head, each with their own timeline of flowering and setting seeds. During the summer, when the individual flower head has dried or when most of the seeds appear to be dried, cut the seed head and put in a paper bag. Cut when the stalks are brown at least an inch down from the seed head. Label the bag with the plant name and date. Continue to cut and save this way until you are ready to separate seed from fruit.

with nasturtiums, the flowers drop off and the seed will grow and become prominent months later

Some flowers, such as nasturtiums and four o’clocks, have a single flower that blooms and drops revealing a seemingly empty calyx. Soon though a seed will grow and become more prominent, making it easy to separate and save.

Beans and peas are fleshy so you can cut when the pod has become leathery or yellow and not completely dry. Let it continue to dry off the vine on a cookie sheet until the seeds rattle in the pods. For peppers, it is important to let the fruit ripen to the last color stage (many progress from green to red). For the cool season lovers such as greens (lettuce) and brassica family members such as kale, mustard, pak choi, cabbage, and broccoli, let the plant bolt (flower). Then cut and put in a bag.

Many seeds are also beautiful such as these Tiger beans

In the winter, when I can’t go outside and garden, I gather all my bags and sit down at the dining room table. I put the seed heads on a white dinner plate or a cookie sheet to make it easier to see the seeds and prevent them from rolling off the table. By this time, the seeds and husks are completely dry and I simply pull apart the seed from the husk on the plate. If it is easy to remove, like marigolds, I put the seeds in a glass jar. If it is a fine seed with a lot of husks, like pak choi, I thrash it around in a large paper bag so that the seed falls to the bottom. I pull out and throw away the stems and pods and dump out the seeds on a cookie sheet. I separate further on the plate or I use a sieve. If the seed has a lot of chaff, I continue to separate seed by screening with a sieve. Eventually I work my way down from large grocery bags to small jars.

Wet Method of Saving Seeds

For this method the fruit has to be very ripe. For pumpkins, squash, and melon, simply remove the seeds and rinse the stringy fruit parts off with water, straining with a colander. For eggplant, cut into cubes and cover with water for a day, stirring once. Squish the seeds out and clean off with water in a colander. If there are remaining seeds, repeat the process the next day to get the rest out. Put clean seeds on a cookie sheet and let dry.

Pumpkin seeds can be saved or eaten

For cucumbers, scoop seeds out and put in a jar. Add water and stir every day for 2 days. Strain to remove seeds and let dry on a cookie sheet.

For tomatoes, squeeze or cut up the flesh and put into a jar. Add enough water to be able to stir the mixture and to create volume for the pulp to separate from the seeds. I keep my jars in the kitchen out of direct light and stir daily for a few days. The tomatoes will ferment and will look gross but this process separates the seeds.

After a few days, the heavy seeds will sink to the bottom and the lighter seeds and pulp will float to the top. Skim off and throw away the top layer. Keep the heavy seeds, they are the ones that are viable. Keep adding water, swishing until the good drops down and the bad surfaces, and skim again. Keep doing this until the water is clear with good seeds at the bottom. Pour the mixture into a sieve and put the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry area, out of direct light. Every few hours, stir around until dry. You want them to dry quickly at this point in time because the moisture left on them may induce them to germinate. Once they seem dry, let them sit for several weeks until completely dry and then store in a glass jar.

Open Pollinated versus Heirloom Plants

When saving seeds, it is important to know if your plant is open-pollinated or a hybrid. If they are open pollinated, then the next generation will be the same. You will get the same plant with the same characteristics such as flower color or flavor. Heirlooms are open pollinated so you can save seeds of heirloom tomatoes and grow the same tomatoes each year.

If the plant is a hybrid, it was produced by crossing two genetically distinct parents. The hybrid was bred to have desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or better flavor. In seed catalogs, hybrids are often referred to as “F1”s – filial 1 hybrid. If you save the seed of this plant, the next generation may not retain the same desirable characteristics. You will get the same type of plant, but the plant may not be as tasty or not be resistant to a disease.

Try these simple methods to save seed for your own home garden or to give as gifts. Consider saving seeds for seed swaps with friends or local seed swap events.

Happy Halloween and Don’t Forget to Save those Pumpkin Seeds!

desktop pumpkinThis past spring I noticed a small gourd-like plant in my garden that I did not plant on purpose. Curious, I left it and watched to see what it would become in the fall. Sure enough it grew to be a small pumpkin, probably from the compost pile or a bird. Not a particularly pretty one, but a unique, homegrown fall decoration for my office. In October, I cut it and put it on my desk next to the glass pumpkin jar, full of candy.

My kids are too old now to carve the large pumpkins for Halloween but last week my daughter had to purchase one to carve in her high school arts class. I did the initial gutting at home and as I pulled out the seeds, I noticed how plump and healthy they looked—too good to throw away. I decided to save a few to plant next year. They won’t produce a pumpkin as large and as fine as my daughter’s pumpkin, no doubt it was a cultivar bred for Halloween, but they will produce some type of a pumpkin that I can bring to work, just like the small one I found in the garden. I don’t know why I never thought of it before but I can grow my own desktop pumpkins just as easily as growing squash or melons in the garden. So I washed and set aside a handful of the seeds and roasted the rest for us to enjoy snacking on that evening.  Next year I will have my own homegrown desktop pumpkins!pumpkin seeds