So! ‘Tis the season for seed purchases. It’s such a positive and looked-forward-to time of year: the season of Paper Gardening. But while you’re noodling about with your paper plans, maybe this year you can try something different, too: Maybe you can save the seeds of this year’s harvest.
I feel compelled to do another post about seed-saving. It’s something I kind of really got into about 3 years ago, and now, well, now I only order about 20 new seed packets a year (which seems like a lot…but it is not, trust me). It kind of drove me nuts that I had this hobby (gardening) which required an annual maintenance fee (seed purchases), so the tightwad in me thought there must be another way. And there is.
There are a lot of books out there that cover this topic. My favorite is the Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, as it really gives you the local lowdown on how easy (or hard) it might be to save a particular seed in your area. (It’s a nice guide to seedGROWING, too, as it’s a pretty good botanical primer.) From simple pollination to cross-pollination, this book will give you the skinny about how much separation you should have between plants to result in “true” seed. It will also tell you what is frankly too big of a pain to try to save the seeds from: almost the whole brassica family falls into this category for me…thus, my 20 packets of seed a year.
I’ve got a lot of biennial plants that I am holding over from last season to become seed producers this year. Beets, chard, parsnips, carrots, parsley, cutting parsley, onions, shallots, scallions, leeks: they’re now lumps under the snow, but come spring, they’ll shoot into flower. I ignore them; I just plant around them when it comes to growing this year’s crops. Eventually, I will cut off the seedheads to move into the garden shed to continue drying out; the spent plants then go into the compost. By the end of summer, I usually can’t move around much in the shed: I’ve crammed it chock-full of drying things. Winter is an excellent time to deal with cleaning the seeds out and putting them away. I don’t spend valuable growing-season time shelling seeds!
You want to start simply, though? Start with beans. I have pole beans still hanging from their netting out in the garden at this minute: come spring, I will simply squeeze them out of their husks and put them under dirt once it’s warm enough. SO completely lazy! But honestly, I am a crazed bean-eater: I believe I grew 17 different varieties last year, and that wasn’t even the most I have ever grown. Per variety, I allow a few plants of bush beans to dry out in the ground, then I cut the plant (leaving the nitrogen-fixing roots in the ground) and put the plant on my ever-present screens (see photo below). Once they’re mostly dry, I remove the pods from the plants and put the pods into either lunch bags or paper grocery bags and hang them up in the shed until I have the time to shell them in December.
Bush beans a-drying on the recycled window screens
Some things won’t come true to seed, mostly because your pollinators are busy little bees (literally, of course). Squashes and cucumbers come to mind. I still save them, mainly because I love seeing what the new plant will be (you never know: it could be a keeper). And some things just won’t come true to seed because the darned plants are a bit wild to begin with. Many chickories are this way, like these radicchio below.
Wild thing: same seed, different looks (the one on the left is “truer” to type)
The tomato process is a bit different than just drying the things out, but it’s still pretty easy. If you compost, you probably know that it’s quite a pity we go through the trouble of planting tomato seeds in our houses in February, because, come June, the compost pile is magically full of tomato seedlings. (And I do let some of these volunteers continue to grow, even planting them out in the garden. They become the plants that I pull up by the roots and hang downstairs in the basement in October: their fruits are the youngest and freshest, and it’s in the basement they’ll continue to ripen until December.) Tomato seeds have a tough shell on them that is usually broken down mostly by the process of rotting: rotting in the compost, certainly; but intentional rotting, by squeezing a couple fleshy toms out in a jar or a bucket, adding a little water, and leaving it out to mold: in a few days, you can pour the muck into a sieve and spray out the goo and mold with your hose. Dry the resulting seeds on a piece of paper and voila, clean seed.
A lot of seed-saving, like a lot of gardening, is trial and error. I tend to doubt the efficacy of my own home-saved seed, so I tend to crowd them into the beds when I plant them out. Maybe I am a self-doubter. Who knows. Time has told me that my parsnips are reliable, no need to crowd (thanks) but the lettuces are slackers and could use some doubling up. But I will tell you this: if it goes to seed, you might as well save it! I got the best basil ever last year from my mother’s plants. She absolutely denies that basil changes flavor when it comes to seed (it does, badly) and so she regularly allows hers to flower. I told her to bring me a bunch of seedheads a year ago and dang, wow, was that some great basil.
The tightwad in me is always looking into other methods of increased farmstead yield. The Old Fart from whom we bought the farm was a lazy mower, so there are therefore lots of sapling apple trees growing near the orchard. Hmm, I think: instant root stock! I will just learn how to graft a couple decent local varieties to these roots and move them into the orchard in a couple of years. And I will therefore have something else to obsess over!
Anyway, buy open-pollinated things and save your seed. Check out the best producers in your garden, curb yourself from harvesting them, and reward them by allowing them to go to seed. It’s really quite fun, and rewarding.