Since we talked about starting plants from seed back in the March/April issue of Saltscapes, I thought it would be fun to complete the cycle by discussing the gentle art of seed-saving. No matter how many years we garden, it’s still amazing to watch the transition from tiny seed to robust plant that produces more seeds to continue the circle of life. While we can easily purchase seeds from any number of reputable seed companies, there’s something hugely satisfying about saving our own seed from our garden plants, be they edibles or ornamentals.
Why save seed? For those of us who have a thrifty nature, it’s a terrific way to cut gardening costs. One tomato plant can yield enough seed for you and half the neighbourhood. Half a dozen peony-flowered annual poppies will provide enough seed for you to share with fellow gardening enthusiasts—for example, my double, wine-coloured poppies are growing in the gardens of various friends across North America. Anyone who purchases packages of seeds knows that while they are less expensive than buying a few transplants, a big seed order can quickly become costly.
Beyond the economic factor, however, is the importance of preserving good plant genetics. Collecting seeds from our gardens helps to preserve open-pollinated, heritage varieties that are not commonly available from seed companies.
It’s extremely important to have plenty of variety in seed types, especially when it comes to food crops. According to the International Seed Saving Institute, over 90% of the world’s food supply comes from a mere 30 different plants, whereas a century ago more than 1500 different species fed the world’s hungry. Too much reliance on one crop or one seed variety is not a good plan, when a disease or insect pest can decimate that particular crop. The great potato famine that wrought havoc on Ireland beginning in 1845 and lasting into the next decade might have been prevented had farmers grown a number of different potato varieties and other crops instead of being reliant on just one variety to be the nation’s food staple. 150 years later, we haven’t learned yet: all the commercially-grown bananas in the world are one cultivar, Cavendish, although there are more than 300 other varieties still in existence at small plantations and in backyards. Should a disease strike that banana variety, the fruit would disappear from the world’s pantry.
By saving seed from your own garden, you’re helping to promote genetic diversity, support the eat-local philosophy, and prevent the extinction of a particular food. You’re also helping to protect a part of gardening history, especially if you’re saving seed from a variety that was developed and grown in your neighbourhood for generations. Take the ‘Wentzell’ tomato for example. This fleshy, beefsteak-type tomato was grown for generations by the Wentzell family in Lunenburg County, on what is now the organic farm and sustainable woodlot operation known as Windhorse Farm.
Before we go any further, a little explanation about plant varieties and terminology. Hybrid plants are varieties that have been developed under controlled cross-breeding between two very genetically distinct parents. They’ve been developed because they shine in particular characteristics, such as being sweeter corn, larger-flowered zinnias, better-storing broccoli, more-uniform tomatoes, or unusually-coloured echinaceas. Many hybrids don’t produce seed at all, and if they do, their offspring will, in likelihood, not resemble the parent plant.
Open-pollinated varieties are genetically stable: the seeds from an open-pollinated bean will be the same as its parent plant. These plants may self- or cross-pollinate, with the help of wind or pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Such plants are also variously known as vintage, heritage, or heirloom varieties. Some purists insist that heritage refers to animal breeds while heirloom refers to plants, both food and ornamental varieties, but most of us will use these terms interchangeably without anyone getting too exasperated. You’ll also see organizations defining heirlooms as being breeds that have existed for more than 50 years, but my favourite definition comes from the Seed Savers Exchange, which defines an heirloom as “any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family.”
Owen Bridge knows a lot about saving heritage varieties of plants. The 18-year-old has been fascinated with seeds and gardens since he was a child, and has his own small business, Annapolis Seeds, based out of his family home near Middleton, in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. He is currently growing more than 500 varieties of heritage seeds, some of them from Atlantic Canada, others from points around the world, and while he specializes in vegetables, he’s also getting into herbs, flowers, and ancient grains such as amaranth and buckwheat. He’s always on the lookout for new and interesting varieties to try in his seed crop gardens (he has a separate garden for the family’s fresh produce), and is an enthusiastic supporter of other gardeners saving their own seeds.
“I’m seeing more interest in seed-saving,” he told me as we strolled around his gardens, with me exclaiming over purple-podded peas or the sea of blue flax flowers or the exultation of happy pollinators among the plants. “People are becoming more and more aware of biodiversity issues, and of local foods. To be really eating local, you can use local varieties of heritage vegetables,” he adds.
Although it can be easy to save seeds, Owen stresses that there are challenges. “Late in the season when seeds are drying on the plants, we sometimes get too much rain which can cause seeds to dry improperly. Wind can break plants down, knock seedheads off and release the seeds. Mould and mildew from incorrect drying and storage will ruin a seed collection.”
Seed harvesting falls into two general techniques, based on the condition of the fruit and seed at maturity. Dry seeds come from most flowering plants, as well as from crops like peas, beans, and other legumes, some herbs, and members of the carrot family such as carrots and parsnips. We harvest them when the seedheads are dry and remove them from the protective covering, such as a pea pod. Wet seeds are found in the fleshy fruit of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons, eggplants and some fruits. Seeds from these plants need to be separated from the pulp surrounding them.
Tips for successful seed saving:
• Start with easy-to-save varieties. As anyone who grows plants with the goal of saving seed from them, not every crop or flowering plant is easy to collect seed from. Easy vegetable plants for beginners include peas, beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, lettuce; easy flowers include annuals like sunflowers, nasturtiums, poppies, nigella, calendula and marigolds. Some vegetables and perennial-blooming flowers are more challenging because you need to isolate them from cross-pollinating with other varieties, or require more than one year for seed production. These include members of the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, kale), onions, and beets and Swiss chard. With perennials, it takes several years to grow a plant from seed to flowering, and it is often easier merely to divide the plant or take stem cuttings from it and propagate it without using seed. • Prepare your supplies. It’s easiest to make a small basket or bucket with your basic supplies. You’ll need some sort of marking tape to tag the plants you want to keep; scissors or secateurs to cut stems away from the plant and remove seedheads; tweezers to pick up tiny seeds; a fan shaped water-colour paintbrush for sweeping fine seeds up to put in storage; a tea strainer or other finely-meshed sieve for cleaning stem and leaf bits; impermeable markers for labeling your types.
Of course, you also need containers to hold the seeds: whether you use envelopes, small tins, pill bottles, or plastic buckets, the main thing is to provide a container that will be air tight, and then to store your collection in a location that is dry and fairly cool. It’s also important to have labels for your seed envelopes; don’t think you will remember the seed variety, date harvested, and other information without writing it down on the container.
• Mark the plants that you want to collect seed from. In mid-July, the biggest, most colourful or unusual of my annual breadseed poppies begin sprouting tendrils of hay bale twine, trail marking tape, or whatever other colourful material I can find with which to mark them. I don’t keep seeds from all my poppies, so in order to remember which ones I want, they must be identified so I don’t pull them out when their foliage starts to fade.
• Watch the weather. Too much rain or humidity can affect the length of time it takes to dry seeds. As a general rule, it will take seeds about 90 days to form and dry from the time of flowering, and while you don’t need every day to be cool and dry, too much humidity can lead to problems such as mildew on seedheads and seeds. As your seed crop reaches maturity, check them daily to make sure there are no signs of mould forming on pods and seedheads.
• Store seeds in a cool, dry location. This doesn’t mean you have to put them in the refrigerator; a cool room, away from sunlight or sources of moisture works just fine.
• Remember to label your containers. You may think you’ll remember one type of seed from another, but wait until next spring when you’re faced with several containers of tiny seeds (especially if you saved seeds of different varieties of the same flower or vegetable). You won’t remember which is which. The voice of experience is speaking here.