15 December 2008

Saving vegetable seeds - how to

Technically, some common vegetables like tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, are fruit. For this post, I'm referring to everything as "vegetable".

After you grow your vegetables and before you save the seeds, you need to know how they're pollinated and if the vegetable is annual, biennial or perennial. Annuals will produce viable seed in the first year, biennials take two years to mature and produce seed, and perennials, produce viable seed in the second year and from then on until the plant dies.

When I write about drying seeds, I don't mean you wait until the outside of the seed is dry. The seed - inside and out - needs to be dry and this will require leaving most seeds on a china or glass plate for a number of days or weeks to dry out completely. Drying seeds on paper towel or newspaper is not the best way to go as the seed will stick to the paper.

You need to monitor your vegetables as the grow to see when they need picking. In the photo above there are two lazy housewife beans. The smaller one is the size I pick them for eating, the larger one I let stay on the vine until it was bigger and I could see the beans developing in the pod. Then I pick it for drying (for the pantry) and for seed.

This is a very good site that lists whether vegetables are annual, biennial or perennial and also how they are all pollinated. Grandpappy also gives excellent instructions for saving seeds, so instead of reinventing the wheel please refer to his site to get instructions for each vegetable. I will write about general principles of seed saving and some differences between warm and cold weather vegetables.

Always pick the best vegetables when you collect seeds and if you have two or three of the same vegetables you can collect from, do that because you provide a stronger gene pool for the plants you grow.

This is a yellow zucchini and a good example of male and female flowers. The male flowers are those on the long stalks and they stand up tall to attract bees. The female flowers develop lower down on the plant and are bigger with a distinct ovary inside the flower. You can see here the female flowers are still attached to the end of the developing zucchinis.

I categorise vegetables, for the purpose of seed saving, into three groups:

WET - tomatoes, cucumbers, luffas. These vegetables have thick flesh around the seed that needs to be removed, and in the case of tomatoes and cucumbers, fermented. Fermentation will happen when you add the seeds to a jar of water and leave it for a few days. Luffas don't have to be fermented but you leave the luffa on the vine until it's brown, then crack it open and pour out the seeds. If you're in a cooler climate, you can pick the luffas green and store them in a dry place until they turn brown and crackly. Melons are another wet seed but you can save these when you're eating the melon. Watermelon seeds just need to be dried. Save rockmelon (cantaloupe) and honeydew melon seeds and put them in a sieve to clean under running water until all the fresh is removed. Then dry them.

DRY - these are the easy seeds to harvest. Let pumpkin and squash mature for a few days after you pick them. Then cut open, scoop out the seeds and dry them. To harvest corn seeds, pick all the corn you will eat, leaving behind the best cobs. Let them sit on the plant for another month and when they look dry, harvest them, peel back the husks and let them dry out more. Tie the cobs together by the husks, and hang them up to finish drying, then pick the kernels off or rub two corn cobs together and they will fall off.

LEGUMES: Beans and peas have pods that are just broken open and the seeds are there waiting. They need to be dried before storing.

These are lazy housewife beans drying on our verandah. These are a great bean as they can be eaten as a green bean or you can dry them out and add them to your pantry.

Sometimes you don't have to sacrifice the vegetable to save the seeds. For instance, pumpkins and squash can be cut open, scoop out the seeds and you can still eat the vegetable. These are dry seeds so when you scoop them out, they just need to be dried before storing.

These are pigeon peas, a great permaculture plant, still in their green stage.

When they're like this, I pick them to use like lentils. These peas make an excellent pea soup and they can be stored in the pantry for months. Pigeon peas may also be fed to chooks when they're still green, and the foliage is an excellent fodder or mulch.

In the middle of our tomato season I generally pick two excellent tomatoes to save seeds from. These are processed in the usual way of scooping out the seeds and adding them to a jar of water to ferment. If, the following day, I cut open another tomato to eat and find it's a really good one, I'll save a few seeds from that one too and just squeeze the seeds from a wedge of that tomato into the fermenting jar.

Tomato seeds must be fermented and dried before storing.

If the vegetables you want seed from are easily cross pollinated you need to plant those vegetables away from their cross pollinators. For instance, chillis and capsicums (peppers) may cross pollinate, so even though they're different varieties of the same vegetable, you need to be mindful of the pollination factor and grow the plants you want to sow seeds from at least 15 metres (50') apart.

While your vegetables are growing, check if they are pollinated by bees, many vegetables are. You have to make sure there are bees in your backyard to pollinate so early one morning, go out to your garden and look for bees. If there are none, you'll have to hand pollinate. If you are serious about your vegetable growing, it's a good idea to grow a small number of flowers in with your vegetables to attract the pollinators like bees and other insects. These flowers can be things like nasturtiums, which are edible, little daisies that bees love, herbs - tansy, oregano, thyme and borage, or marigolds, cosmos and sunflowers.

Luffas should dry out on the vine. If you can't do that, pick them green and dry them in the shade until all the flesh has dried up and the skin will crack open.

Generally, in the case of flower forming vegetables like carrots and lettuce, you only need to put one plant aside to harvest seeds from, but it must be the best plant. You are looking to select the best plant so that you pass those trait onto what you grow in the seeds you save. Look for vegetables that are not diseased in any way, are strong growing, and display the qualities you want in that vegetable, such as early maturing, as well as size and abundance of the crop. If there is only one perfect fruit on the vine, that is not the one to select. Go instead for a vine or plant that has a good yield of many good vegetables, is a good size and is strong.

Lettuce, carrots, celery, parsley - all form flower heads. You have to wait for the flowers to turn to seed but if you can't do that for reasons of weather, wait until the flower head is almost ready to seed, then cut the whole flower off and store it in a paper bag in the house. After a couple of weeks you hear the seeds rattling around in the bag when you shake it. All you have to do then is clean the dried old bits of flower away from the seeds and store them.

The biggest threat to your seed treasure is mould. The seeds must be dried completely before storing, and then stored in dry conditions. The fridge is ideal for most seeds. Pack them in their own little packet with name and date of collection on it, place that, along with all the other packets or little jars, into a larger plastic box and keep it in the fridge until needed. If you live in very humid conditions and this way of storing doesn't work for you, add a little diatomaceous earth to the seeds, shake off most of it, and store the seeds. If you want to be an organic grower, don't use seed fungicides.

I know some of this is confusing if you're new to gardening but it's a very simple process and once you've done it once, you'll realise just how easy it is. This post is a bit disjointed but I just wrote it as it came to mind and now I don't have the time to tidy it up more. I hope you can make sense of it. I'll try to get back later and change a couple of things so it is more coherent.

Annete McFarlane's vegetables stories

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