Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Seed Saving 101

Why save seeds:
  • To avoid a monoculture by preserving many varieties of vegetables and their genetic diversity.
  • To avoid GMOs.
  • To save money.
  • To ensure you will always have that favorite variety.
  • To develop strains well suited to your own garden.
  • To not be dependent on seed companies.
  • To be ready in case of the Zombie Apocalypse.
  • For the love of it, and the feeling of being connected to our grand-gardeners long past. 
Differences between heirloom, open pollinated, hybrid, and GMO:
  • Hybrid: The offspring of a cross between parent varieties that are genetically different. Hybrids usually won’t come true to type if you save seed from them, even if you avoid cross-pollination.
  • Open-Pollinated: Non-hybrid plants produced by crossing parents of the same variety, which in turn produce offspring just like the parent plants. If these are isolated to avoid cross-pollination, these will produce true seed that will grow into the same variety of plant as the parents.
  • Heirloom: A non-hybrid variety that has been passed down from generation to generation.
  • GMO (Genetically Modified Organism): A hybrid variety produced in a lab that has had genetic material from a very different organism, sometimes from an entirely different kingdom, introduced into its genome; or has been otherwise genetically altered in a lab using ways other than natural processes such as cross-pollination. 

Ways plants are pollinated:
     Chenopodiaceae family (beets, Swiss chard, spinach)
     Peas (green, edible podded, and southern/cowpeas)
     Cucurbitaceae Family (squash, cucumbers, watermelons, etc.)
     Alliums (onions, leeks, etc.)

Some types of plants to know about:
Biennials: These plants will usually flower only in their second growing season. Some examples are carrots, onions, and chard.
Monoecious plants: Plants with blooms of only one sex. Spinach is an example.
Dioecious: Plants that produce blooms of both sexes. Squash is an example.
Perfect flowers: Flowers with both male and female parts. Some of these are self-fertile and some require cross-pollination. Tomato flowers are perfect and self-fertile.
Self-incompatible (aka Self-Infertile): Perfect flowers that cannot fertilize themselves, or do so inadequately, requiring insects to cross them or hand pollination. Most of the crucifers, such as broccoli and cabbage, are self-incompatible. This presents a real pain in the butt when saving them as they can all cross with each other: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale and kohlrabi. Use alternate-day caging (covering one, opening the other: reversing this the next day), caging with introduced pollinators (not really easy for the home gardener), or save a large amount of seed from each in differing years, freezing to ensure you have an adequate supply every year.
Isolation practices: 
Distance: If there aren’t many flowers available for bees to forage, the distance to ensure purity needs to be much more than the books say. That means us here in Texas. Using other isolation techniques would be wise.
Caging: Making a cage-like structure to hold up a fabric to keep pollinators out. Floating row cover is best to use since some wind pollinated plants have pollen so small it can go through window screen. .
Bagging: Putting a paper bag over the flowers to exclude pollinators, removing it to pollinate, then replacing it to continue keeping pollinators out until the flower is no longer receptive to pollen.
Taping: Taping the petals of flowers shut the night before to prevent it from opening the next morning, then removing the tape to hand-pollinate, and replacing it to exclude pollinators. Most often used with squash.
Time isolation: Timing the plantings of different varieties so that they flower and are receptive to crossing weeks or months apart. Due to variability of the weather and other cultural practices that can affect speed of maturity, this can fail and the varieties can flower and be receptive at the same time. Be sure to watch for this and have a backup plan in place to bag, hand pollinate, etc.
Hand Pollination How To:
     The males will be just stem and bloom and be held away from the base of the plant. The females will have a short stem, a baby whatevervarietyyouplanted, then the bloom and will be closer in to the base of the plant.
Male bloom on left, Female on right.
     Go out the night before and determine which flowers will open the next day (they will have an orange blush to the petals). Tape the tips shut or bag them if they’re too small to tape. Make sure you tape/bag at least half a dozen males from different plants to ensure genetic diversity and adequate pollination. It’s also wise to hand pollinate multiple females since Murphy’s Law says if you do only one, that’s the one the birds will find irresistible, or the dog will choose to play with like a football.
     Go back out in the morning, about 9am, and remove the tape/bags from the males. Pick them leaving as long a stem as possible and prepare them for pollination by stripping the petals off them, leaving just the stem and stamen to use like a paintbrush. It’s handy to have a small cup to hold them in, pollen-side down.
     Carefully remove the tape/bags from the females one at a time. Use each of the multiple males on the first female, tape/bag it back up, and mark it as pure. Repeat this process with all remaining bagged/taped females of the same variety (If you’re doing more than one variety, wash your hands and any tools used in between varieties.).
     Double check that you marked them correctly.
     Triple check that you tied the markers on securely.
     Go on about your day, then come back that evening to quadruple check that the markers are still on. (Again, Murphy’s a jerk who thinks he’s funny...)
     Let the fruit mature fully on the plant, pick it, and keep it at room temperature for at least three weeks. Cucurbit seeds continue to gain weight and increase in size during this period, making for many more fertile seeds.

     This is a rather involved and labor-intensive process, so it’s best to isolate through distance and time. The following is a brief synopsis. For more detailed instructions, see the Corn listing in Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.
     Bag individual ears before silks appear by stapling paper bags around them tightly.
     Bag tassels with brown paper bags early in the morning just as they are beginning to shed pollen by stapling paper bags around them, tightly so as to catch all the pollen at the base. .
     That same afternoon, shake pollen into bags on tassels and collect them all, pouring them together into one.
     Remove bag from one ear at a time. Shake a small amount of pollen onto ear and recover (use the now-empty pollen bags for best results).
     Leave bags on ears as they develop to denote pure seed, or otherwise mark hand-pollinated ears.

Other Vegetables:
     Bag blooms before opening.
     Every morning, unbag the blooms and brush a fine paintbrush inside each bloom.
     Continue this process each day, how many days depends on which vegetable you are pollinating. For instance, onions should be done every day for two weeks, though a month would be better, while other types may need it only once.

Harvesting the Seeds:
     This is usually a simple matter of letting the fruit or pods fully mature on the plant, then pick, clean, dry, and store inside. Some types of vegetables will need a bit more specialized treatment than that (remember the squash seeds above that like to sit inside the fruit for a while before drying).

How to Ferment Tomatoes:
     Whir whole tomato in a blender with a couple cups of water for just a few pulses, then pour mixture into a bowl. Alternately, cut horizontally across the tomato and squeeze out the seeds into the water in a bowl.
     Let sit at room temperature for a few days until a scum appears.
     Run more water into the bowl or cup and stir vigorously, then let settle. The good seeds will sink to the bottom.
     Pour off water containing scum, skin, etc.
     Repeat until water runs clear and all you have left are good seeds in the bottom.
     Dry well.

     These are easiest to clean by winnowing.
     Make sure pods are completely dry.
     Put in a fabric bag such as a pillow case and beat it against something (Not your husband. He won’t appreciate that as much as you.).
     Set up a fan outside and turn it on high. Lay a sheet on the ground in front of it and pour the beans onto it, holding the pillow case up high enough for the wind from the fan to blow away the crushed seed pods.
     Repeat until clean.

Hints on harvesting and drying the seeds:
     Don’t use paper plates to dry your seeds unless you have lined them with plastic wrap or foil as the seeds may stick to the paper.
     If you’re saving multiple types of tomato seeds, fermenting them in non-biodegradable cups with the variety name written on the outside is oh-so-handy.
     Make your drying area somewhere well away from the hustle and bustle of your home. A dedicated top shelf of a cabinet with a door works well. Ask me how I learned this one. *sigh*
     Once you’ve packaged up your seeds in paper envelopes, putting them in some silica gel desiccant crystals for a few weeks is a good idea to ensure your seeds are really dry, especially if you plan to freeze them for storage. Don’t buy the expensive types of silica for flower drying. Get one of the silica crystal cat litters such as Petco Crystal or Clear Choice Silica Crystals, unscented. It’s the same stuff for much cheaper.
     Accurate labeling and record keeping is imperative all along the way. There’s nothing worse than going through all the trouble of hand pollinating, just to realize you don’t know which squash is the pure one, or which seeds are which. Writing the variety name directly on tomatoes with a Sharpie, before you even pick them and right after triple-checking the tag on the plant, is a good idea. Works for peppers, squash, cukes and melons, too. Harvesting beans directly into paper bags with the variety name and date written on them is another good idea.

Storing your seeds:
     The enemies of seed viability are fluctuations in moisture and temperature.  Storing in a glass jar in the freezer lessens both to almost non-existent levels.
     Many seeds will stay viable for years at room temperature, but some will only last one. Storing them in the fridge would be good and increase that time for a few years, but beware the overzealous fridge-cleaner-outer.
      To ensure you get the most out of your investment of time and effort, freezing is the way to go. They’ll last decades that way, and since you know you’re the only one who will ever clean out the freezer, they’ll be safer.
     Make sure they are DRY.
     Package them and label variety, date saved, and any other notes you care to add.
     Put in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid to which you’ve added an inch or so of rice.  Let sit on the counter for a few days to ensure the rice has soaked up all moisture inside the jar.  Put in the freezer.
     When taking the jar out, let it sit out overnight or for at least a few hours to avoid moisture condensing on the cold seeds.  Be sure to leave them on the counter as above before returning them to the freezer.

Miscellaneous advice:
     Only save seeds from the healthiest, most productive plants.
     To avoid seed borne diseases, don’t save seeds from diseased plants or even ones you suspect of being diseased. Rinsing in a one-part bleach, ten-part water solution may kill some diseases, but may hamper seed viability. Best to just not save seeds from diseased plants.
     Accurate record keeping (Yes, again) is a must. Keep a notebook listing all the cultivars you grow.  Tape the original seed packet to a page and write notes below it such as how much seed you saved and when from how many plants, how productive the cultivar was, or any stories you’ve heard about it. Or scan that packet into your computer and keep notes in a document there. Google Docs is good for saving that info as it’s kept online, safe from computer crashes. Or start a blog with entries for each cultivar (then send me the address ~ I love that stuff!). Don’t forget to write down when and where you obtained the seed, MOST ESPECIALLY if it’s a family heirloom from a friend. Get details, names and dates, and write them down. I think half the wonderfulness of heirlooms is hearing the stories about them, stories that someone had to write down at one time or another. I’m so glad they did.
     Easy veggies to start seed saving with are beans and beefsteak/slicing tomatoes, since they are hard for insects to cross-pollinate and they self-pollinate or pollinate with little or no input from you.      But don’t save seeds from the first two tomatoes from any plant. Those are commonly formed from fasciated blooms (think “Siamese twins”), so are deformed and may be susceptible to cross-pollination. And separate types of beans by at least twenty feet. It’s not common that they cross, but they can a little.
     Save enough seeds from your crops to plant multiple years. This allows you to share with others, guard against crop failures, and not have to do all the work and expend all the space of saving every variety every year. Keep them frozen correctly and most will last for decades.
     Don’t pick your beans, peas, okra, etc., all season, then leave the last ones on the plants to dry for seed saving, as you will be inadvertently breeding in the trait of lateness. Plant some plants for seed saving and don’t harvest from them for eating at all.
     Don’t ever plant all your seeds out. Keep some in reserve in case of crop failure.
     Research, research, research to avoid surprises. For instance, did you know that carrots will cross with Queen Anne’s Lace, a common weed? Or that beets and Swiss chard will cross? And some pumpkins are actually squashes and will cross with others you may be growing, so be sure to learn the genus and species of each type of those you are growing in a given year.

Notes on supplies:
Books: If you buy only one, make it Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Other books may be good, but this one, being heavily influenced by great heirloom experts such as Glenn Drowns and Will Bonsall as well as the founders of Seed Savers Exchange, is the seed-saving bible.
Seeds: Hands down, Seed Savers Exchange is the best source of true heirloom and OP seed. They are the ones that started the heirloom movement. Other companies offer heirlooms and OPs, but not only does SSE take great pains to ensure purity, they have a membership option that gives you access to literally tens of thousands of cultivars of heirloom vegetables.
Envelopes: Coin envelopes from an office supply store work well, but will need to be taped shut to ensure small seeds don’t fall out. Plastic Bags: I don’t like plastic, though it does come in handy sometimes IF SEEDS ARE DRY.
Marking tools out in the garden: Surveyor’s tape is good for tying around the stems of pure fruit. If you need to be able to leave notes on the plants, vinyl blinds cut to size work well. Use a hole punch to be able to tie it where you need it, and write on it with a China marker (aka grease pencil) available at most office supply stores. Don’t be tempted to use Sharpie markers. They fade quickly. And cut up plastic jugs aren’t uv stabilized, so turn brittle and fall apart in less than one season.
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