In Appalachia seed saving got its roots in necessity.
Most folks who fool with gardening have grown something that was so special they saved the seed, hoping to grow it again the following year. In the Appalachian region, seed saving was done out of necessity. The early mountain landscape was prohibitive of good roads, except to the larger cities. This isolation stalled the spread of commercial seed companies infiltrating the traditional farming communities. The reliance on home grown seed is what gave birth to the great diversity we find in Appalachian crops today.
In the mountains, it is not unusual to find every old time family has a bean that has been passed down, hand to hand, from one generation to the next.
Why you should save seed – Here are two reasons
Hybrids are not inherently bad; in fact they have produced some pretty delicious crops and helped many farmers produce a yield when they might not have under different circumstances.
The number one reason to save your own seed is because you can.
Open-pollinated and heirloom seeds allow us to have a secure food future. Hybrid varieties do not produce the same fruit or vegetable if you save their seed, you are required to buy new seed each year. Read that again – You have to buy new seed every year. There is no security when you must rely on a company to provide your basic needs.
Number two: Agricultural biodiversity is disappearing
Less humans are working the land today than there were 60 years ago. Farming has scaled up to large acreage. large machines, and less and less diversity of crops. Speaking to a farmer recently, he was asked if his son would be talking over when the time came. “I doubt it. He helped me out a couple years ago and it was a real bad year for tomato blight, wiped out most of the crop. He got real discouraged and quit. Young kids now don’t have the stomach for it.” he said.
As generations pass on we lose the seeds they received from their grandparents, and their grandparents, and so on. Once the folks who are keeping seed are gone so are the seeds.
If you didn’t plan out your garden to save seed this year, what seeds can you save?
Lets start with the ones you can’t save: hybrids, crops which have multiple varieties planted, fruit trees, and biennials.
Now there are some tricks of the trade one must know to be a successful seed saver. Just because you planted two different varieties of squash does not mean you can’t save the seed. Plants only cross breed with other plants in the same species.
Here is an example Butternut Squash is in the genus Cucurbita, its species is moschata. There are many Cucurbita, pumpkins, gourds, zucchini, candy roasters, and on and on. Here is the but, a Cucurbita moschata can only cross with another Cucurbita moschata.
So if you have Butternut Squash planted near a Sugar Pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo there will be no crossing. Now if you plant a Butternut Squash next to a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Cucurbita moschata, that is where you run into trouble.
It can be confusing at first, but once you study the seed packets you will get the hang of it pretty quick. Remember, same genus is fine, same species will cross.
There are a few plants which are known as self pollinating. This doesn’t 100% guarantee that there won’t be a cross with another of the same species; it is just less likely.
Common self pollinating crops include: beans, peas, lettuce, endive, and tomatoes.
What to do when you know which plants you will save seed from
- Peas and Beans: Let them dry fully on the vine. You are waiting until the pods have turned to a paper like consistency and the beans or peas feel hard. Once dry and harvested, shuck the beans and spread them out on a screen, piece of paper, or in the bottom of a short sided box to dry completely.
- Squash: Let them ripen a little further than you would for harvesting. Generally, they are ready when the vine has died off and the squash have a nice “thump” to them. Harvest seeds by scraping them from within the squash, separate the seeds from the pulp, and wash them to ensure all the pulp is removed. Then dry them as you would beans.
- Tomatoes: Harvest when the full color has formed; bright red, yellow, pink, etc. The tomatoes should be soft but not rotten. I like to cut my tomatoes into wedges first. Once cut it is easy to scrape the seeds out with you finger into a bowl. Try your best not to get any of the tomato flesh mixed with your seed. I save the flesh of my tomatoes in another bowl for use in making sauce, salsa, or other tomato dishes. Once you are done removing all the seeds, you will have a mix of pulpy seedy slime – this needs to ferment. I transfer mine into mason jars, cover the jar opening with cheese cloth, and sit to ferment for 24 -48 hrs. The seeds are ready to wash and dry when they have clearly separated from the pulp and sink to the bottom of the jar. Scoop off as much pulpy stuff as you can from the top of the jar then attempt to pour off the rest of the pulp while keeping the seeds in the jar. This process can be tough, practice or experiment with your own techniques – the ultimate goal is to end up with clean seeds. Spread the clean seeds on a coffee filter to dry.
- Corn: Harvest when the husk has changed from green to yellow or brown; this signifies the corn has reached maturity. Shuck the corn and hang in a mesh bag or place on screens to finish drying. The finished corn will be hard and the kernels will easily come off the cob. Once the corn is dry, remove the kernals from the cob and store in a mason jar or freezer bag. I like to freeze corn for storage to avoid weviel issues.
- Peppers: Harvest peppers when they have reached their mature color, which will be dependent on the variety planted. For bell type pepper cut them open and scrape out the seeds, wash, and spread out on screens or coffee filters to dry. Hot peppers need caution; consider wearing goggles, a face mask, and gloves. Remember, never touch your face or eyes while processing them. Small, thin walled, hot peppers can be dried whole and broken up to remove the seeds or they can be wet processed if you don’t care to use the peppers for another purpose. To wet process, place peppers in a blender with a good amount of water. Blend peppers enough to separate the seeds from the flesh. Decant the seed and pepper mixture until you have separated the seed from the flesh. Rinse the seeds and dry on coffee filters.
- Leafy Greens: Some greens are annuals and some are biennials; check the internet or a gardening book if you are not sure which you have. Annuals should be apparent as they will flower and send up a seed stalk. Annual leafy greens are things like mustard, lettuce, arugula, and spinach. These seeds are best to get as dry as possible when they are still on the plant, if you must harvest them early because of wet conditions just hang them in a well ventilated area until they are fully dry. Once dry they will need to be threshed and winnowed. For small amounts of seed I put them in a pillow case and beat them against the concrete for threshing. There are many options with the goal being to separate the seed from the stalk and break the seeds out of their pods. To winnow, you are looking to separate the seed from the chaff, which are the dried seed pods and any dried plant matter left from threshing. Again there are many ways to do this either by screening or using wind.
- Biennials: Biennials scare off many seed savers because they produce seed their second year of life. Biennials such as beets, cabbage, brussels sprouts, collards, carrots, and chard, must be overwintered to obtain seed. If you are interested in saving seed for these crops we will have an article in October on how to keep biennials through the winter. Once the seed has been produced during the second year, process seeds the same as you would for leafy greens.
Saving Seeds is an opportunity to write the narrative of our future.
We have the ability to determine the future of our food system. Will it be dominated by limited choices when we go to the grocery store? Will the genetic history of our agricultural landscape vanish or become entombed in a seed vault somewhere?
Save Seeds! Choose something from your garden, the farmers market, or the wild. Collect seeds this year and plant them for a future of flavor, diversity, and abundance!