If you have ever picked the dried seed heads of a marigold or zinnia, or even a wildflower, and saved them to re-plant, you are participating in the centuries-old art of seed saving. Saving seeds from food crops like tomatoes and beans is a bit more intricate of a process, but still simple enough for a beginner.
If you are thinking about saving seeds, “Start small,” says Dianna Henry of the Kaw Valley Seeds Project. “Only try one or two things the first year. No more than three for sure. You can expand next year.”
The Kaw Valley Seeds Project that Henry is a part of is a local organization committed to creating a local living seed reserve in the Kansas River Valley.
Tomatoes, beans and peas are some of the easiest vegetables to save seeds from for those trying it for the first time. Avoid hybrids — since hybrid plants are created by crossing two different varieties, their seed does not bear true, meaning that a new plant grown from the seed of a hybrid variety will be quite different than its parent. Some popular hybrid varieties are Celebrity and Early Girl.
Nonhybrid seeds are also sometimes called standard, heirloom, heritage or F2. Hybrid seed packages and plan labels are marked with the letter and number F1.
Even with nonhybrid tomatoes, Henry tells me, you need to be aware of what varieties you are growing and what your neighbors are growing. “They can cross-pollinate, and if you are trying to hang onto the heirloom tomato that your grandmother grew, you will have to be careful.” She uses two methods to prevent cross-pollination: wrapping sheer curtains around individual plants and placing bags around blossoms before they open. Curtains can be left on for all or part of the season; bags can be removed when the tomato starts to form.
When saving seeds from tomatoes, select fruit only from healthy plants. Wet summers like the one just experienced make that task especially difficult, but it is important because some diseases can be carried over in seed.
“Diseases and things just happen,” Henry says. “That’s one reason we are trying to get people to think about local seeds. You can bring in diseases when you bring in seeds and contaminate our soils. By learning to do our own thing here, we can better deal with the problems we have.”
Henry and other seed saving experts recommend the fermentation method for tomatoes and other wet seeds like peppers, melons and squash. Scoop the seed-containing pulp from the fruit and place it in a bucket or jar with enough water to cover. Allow the mixture to sit for two to four days until it ferments and white mold forms on the surface of the water.
“The mixture might smell bad,” Henry warns, “but that is just part of the process.”
Good, viable seeds will sink to the bottom, so after the mixture molds, you can simply pour off the mold, pulp, water and bad seeds that are floating on the top. Lay out the good seeds that are left, allowing them to dry completely before placing in a jar or envelope and storing in a cool, dry location.
To save seeds from beans and peas, leave pods on the vines until dry before removing seeds. Spread the beans or peas out in a single layer in a well-ventilated location to completely dry and store in a cool, dry location.
Saving seeds from wind-pollinated, insect-pollinated plants and biennials takes a little more know-how, but there are many books and references available regarding the harvest and storage of seeds. Membership in the Kaw Valley Seeds Project also offers an opportunity for free technical assistance in seed saving. More information about the the Kaw Valley Seeds Project can be obtained by contacting Dianna Henry at 331-2315.
— Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension Agent – Horticulture and can be reached at 843-7058.