Sat, April 04

Keeping Your Best

Ever notice how certain plants or vegetables seem to consistently shine in your garden while others seem to struggle at best? Or how that one breed of tomato, squash, or bean naturally thrives while others in the same family give up at the first signs of stress?

All of these traits and individual characteristics help to lend a gardener a hand in choosing which plants they may wish to replant in future seasons. It also lends itself to choosing which plants would be best reserved for saving seeds as well.

If you select those plants you would like to see grace your garden again, and properly save their seeds, you're likely to not only enjoy that same great plant again next year, but also likely to see it improve.

That same plant you liked the first year had the chance to successfully adapt to your particular environment. The next generation born from its seeds will also have those qualities, plus other strengths relayed on from the parent through adaptation.

This same reason is why the seeds saved in a particular area often don't do as well in other places. The message: for the best plants in your area, start saving your own seeds and trading locally with other seed savers.

Now, especially for the novice, the basics of seed saving. For most garden-variety type plants, the biggest hurdle in saving seeds is ensuring their genetic integrity; that is, making sure they didn't cross-pollinate with another variety of the same species. The seeds from a cross-pollinated plant will produce an heir which will likely be un-true to the parent Š it might be an interesting new variety, but not like you were expecting.

For this reason, it is much easier for the gardener new to seed saving to start by saving seeds from plants which are "self-pollinating," especially the ones with "perfect" flowers containing both male and female parts, making instant pollination within the plant easy.

Examples of plants with perfect flowers or are easily self-pollinated include: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, spinach, beans, peas, and other members of these families. While the method of collecting the seeds from these plants may vary, they are as a group the most reliable when it comes to producing a similar next generation.

Seeds from other garden favorites like squashes, melons, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, and others can also be saved, but with much more care. Some species require miles of separation between varieties to prevent cross-pollination, while others only need a few hundred feet.

Look up individual varieties in books devoted to seed saving like "Seed to Seed," by Suzanne Ashworth, or on numerous Internet Web sites.

Processing the seeds from mature plants can be divided into two major kinds: wet processing and dry processing. Common sense can be used to figure out which seeds fall into which category. Just imagine how the process would happen naturally in nature.

Seeds found in wet and fleshy fruits such as tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and others would ripen in the fruit, fall to the ground, ferment, then later germinate. Seeds found in plants where the mature seed pods are dry and brittle, usually fall to the ground or blow away and germinate once the right environmental conditions are present.

Using these understandings of how nature would propagate herself, can eliminate a lot of the memorizing or guesswork when it comes to seed saving.

For instance, to save the seed from a ripe tomato, you could squeeze the seeds into a jar with the fruit's own juice and allow a few days for the seeds to ferment. Then, add water to the mixture and pour the flesh and other particles out off the top until all that is left is the seeds. Dry the seeds, and store in a cool dry place until you decide the environmental conditions are right.

A similar technique can be use for melons, but due to the confines of their semi-ridged rinds, the process can happen inside the fruits.

I encourage every gardener to experience seed saving, and help preserve our seed heritage. The number of seed varieties available is dwindling, and their diversity will become highly dependent on small time gardeners to prevent special breeds from being lost in history, or genetically modified (topic for another time).

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