Saturday, November 2, 2013

Saving Seeds

I will openly admit that I am addicted to seeds. Not just growing things from them, but collecting, saving them from the plants I grow, buying them, etc. I am not quite so bad yet that I have to use whole rooms to store them, but I do know that I have more varieties than I have the room to grow them in.

If there was a Seed Addicts Anonymous group, I'd be the president.

That said, I'll tell you another thing: Seeds are expensive! Especially if you are buying the organic, heirloom, non-GMO types. Depending on where you buy them from, they are everything between $2.50 and $4.50 to buy from retailers (no joke; I bought seeds at one nursery for $3.50, and the same brand of seeds at another nursery were priced at $4.50!) I even bought a two year membership at Digger's Seeds so I could get the members price on all their goodies, which was cheaper than the retail (plus it had some other perks too). In fact, in the time that I've been sitting here thinking about what next to write, I chose four free packets of seeds for them to send to me (they are such filthy enablers, aren't they?)

I decided finally (after the initial sticker shock wore off) that I couldn't keep buying packets of seed, because that would be the opposite of being self sufficient and sustainable, right?


So my only choice then was to learn how to collect and save seeds. It's been my project baby for a while now.

These are the swelling seed pods of an Angelica plant.
Now, in my head, seeds are more than the little objects produced by flowers after pollination. In my non-technical, non-scientific definition, a seed is something you can grow a plant from. It's a very simplistic look at things, but it's a start for those who don't have degrees in botany and horticulture, and doesn't even begin to touch on the differences between bulbs, rhizomes and seeds. But because I'm not here to be non-specific, I'll give you the real definition.

Wiki says:
A seed is a small embryonic plant enclosed in a covering called the seed coat, usually with some stored food. It is the product of the ripened ovule of gymnosperm and angiosperm plants which occurs after fertilization and some growth within the mother plant.
It's a remarkably boring and wordy way of saying seeds are plant babies! (Or future plant babies...or something.)

Like reproduction in animals (the male sperm fertilizing the female egg to create off spring), seeds are the result of plant reproduction. The male pollen "sperm" fertilizes the "egg" of the female plant, and creates a seed (an "embryo") that carries the combined genetic material to create a whole other new plant.

Seeds come in as many shapes, sizes, colors and designs as there are plants making them. By themselves, they are eye candy, but put into the ground, they create a plant that will make even more seeds that you can collect. In fact, from two plants (two seeds) you can grow maybe a hundred times the amount of seed you started with (probably more, depending on the plant and how many seeds it produces in a good growing season). Even among related species the seeds can vary greatly, especially among the legumes.

Seeds Are Cost Effective
Demonstrating the wide variety of seed details

I know a lot of people like to buy their vegetables as seedlings, because it means they don't have to do all the waiting around part that growing from seed means you do. It's can be a good thing for busy people, I suppose, but part of the great pleasure of gardening is the ability to watch it grow from a tiny seed in a big thriving plant, and knowing that you, of all people, nurtured it into life. There is an advantage to growing from seed (and saving the result) though, which is especially relevant in these times of economic tension, when gardeners might be looking at those $2, $3, $4, or even $5 plants and thinking they might not be worth it this year.

Let's take beans, for instance. Beans are legumes (this works for peas too) that come generally in a climbing or a dwarf variety. But that doesn't matter so much when you think about what they produce. Many of you might have memories of mum or grandma growing greens beans, and how many they were picking every day. If you were like me, you might even have gotten a little tired of eating them, and if your mum or other relatives were thrifty enough, they'd be freezing, drying or canning all those green beans. And if they were growing peas, gods forbid you accidentally let slip you were bored, because you'd be shelling peas before you quite realized what had happened!

When you buy a packet of beans or peas, you might get anywhere from 25-50 seeds in the packet. At an average of, oh, say $3.50 per packet (small packets here, not the bulk bags), it's an average of $0.7- $0.14 cents per seed. Of course, you plant the seed, grow the plant, and the plant grows the pods which you eat and preserve.

Each of those pods we eat from the bean or pea plant are the plant ovaries, and inside each are the seeds. One pod contains four, maybe six seeds, sometimes more, often less, depending on how well they were pollinated. Several seeds per pod, many pods per plant (gotta love my reckoning skills here!) and generally people tend to plant more than one plant, so you might have a row of twelve plants, or twenty plants, or a one hundred foot row of plants. 

If, at the end of every season, you saved twenty-five pods, and those pods averaged at five seeds per pod, you end up with 125 seeds, which is already two and half to five times the number of seeds you got in the original packet. If you packaged them up and sold them for the asking price of the original packet, you'd have earned $8.75-$17.50! And those are just beans! Imagine what that's like with a plant that puts off thousands of seeds, such as angelica or kale. 

My point? Why wouldn't you save the seeds?

Clockwise from the black seeds at the top: Cherokee Yellow Wax beans, Scarlet Runner beans, Dwarf Green beans, Borlotti beans, Purple King Climbing beans, Stringless Pioneer beans, Yin Yang beans, and Dragons Tongue beans.
This reasoning can be applied to nearly all vegetables and fruit you would would normally plant in your garden. Squashes, tomatoes, beans, peas, even carrots, beets and spinach, if you have the patience to wait out their slow seed maturation periods.

However, as I want to provide you something easy to start off with, I'll give you some easy to save seeds you can gather right in your own kitchen.

Beans and Peas
Easy as, really. You'll know the seeds are viable if the pods are plump and bumpy. It means the seeds have been fertilized, and are swelling within their protective case. Leave the ones that look extra fat on the vines, and wait until they are browned and dry. Gather the pods, and break open to release the seeds. Leave the seeds in a dry, cool place to finish drying, and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

Somewhere in the tomatoes past, it's ancestor plants primed their seeds by over ripening the fruit, fermenting the juices and pulp, and then bursting upon contact with the ground when the fruit dropped. If you don't feel like leaving your tomatoes on the vine that long (I do, actually) let your tomatoes ripen until they're a bit too soft for eating, then gather the fruit and let them sit about in the kitchen. You'll know when they're fermented; they'll start to smell vinegary. Then, squash the fruit, sieve the worst of the muck through a fine mesh strainer, rinse with some cool water, and lay out to dry. If you don't feel like letting it "do it's thing", you can squash the tomatoes and smear them across some paper toweling and let dry, but I find this leaves a lot of extra muck attached.

Cucumbers, Zucchini, Melons and Other Squash
These are almost as easy as the beans and peas. When the fruit is very ripe, pick it and harvest the seeds by scooping out the pulp. You can rinse the seeds, dry for a few days, and store. Melons and cucumbers should be done fairly promptly, zucchinis and other marrows can be done within a couple months, and pumpkins can be done anytime, as they store very well.

Herbs and Flowers
There are some garden herbs and plenty of flowers that you can easily collect seed from. Basil, sage, angelica, nasturtium, marigold, calendula, love-in-a-mist and sunflowers are all seeds you can collect yourself. Most involve waiting until the seed head or pod is very dry, and then the use of a brown paper bag and a good shake or three to dislodge the seeds.

Brassicas are not actually a single plant, but a family of such including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts and a variety of Chinese cabbages, as well as mustards, swedes, turnips and kohlrabi. Most will readily go to seed in one year, since they are usually annuals. With a bit of patience, you can watch them go through their flowering stage (I do like their cheery yellow flowers) and finally their seed pods (usually long, thin, pointy green things when they start growing) will turn dry and brittle, and you can then gather the whole plant, place in a large bag, give it a good crushing, and collect the seeds from the bottom. The seeds are usually black or brown, and very small, similar to poppy seeds.

So there you have it folks. All of the easiest seeds you can save, on your own, and use year to year, without ever having to pay for another seed packet again. You'll have hundreds of seeds to contend with, so you might even take advantage of  the opportunity presented to sell a few seeds yourself. At the very least, you can give the excess away to your friends and family, grow seedlings for sale, or store it for years to come.

If you want to know more about saving seeds from things like carrots, beets, chard, or spinach, or how to propagate fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, currants or tree fruit, then I encourage you to hit Google, or your local library, and take advantage of all the free knowledge they can provide you.

Happy growing!


No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to share your comments, questions and experiences.