By Krystelle Ellaby
I always start my seed saving class outlining the many great reasons to seed save. I tell participants:
- Seed saving is fun.
- It’s a radical political act.
- It saves you money.
- You’ll have loads to sow, with plenty left over to share.
- Seed saving preserves genetic variety and species diversity.
- Over time, your plants will become adapted to your microclimate.
All of these are true. I have never once said to my class, “We need to save our seeds because one day, there will be no seeds on the shelf to buy.” It never occurred to me it would ever be true in my lifetime.
Today, (March 26, 2020,) the big green box is sold out of herb and vegetable seeds. My favourite online seed store has closed temporarily.
Seed saving has never been so imperative or been such a moral obligation.
Now that I’ve laid the heavy on you, let’s get down to the fun stuff.
The basic steps of seed saving are Select ~ Collect ~ Process (wet or dry method) ~ Store.
The best types of plants to start seed saving from are tomatoes, capsicums, chillis, beans, and peas. These plants are unlikely to cross-pollinate with other varieties. You will get seeds that produce plants very similar to the parent plant.
To save seeds from other plants, you will need to prevent cross-pollination. To avoid crossing, you need to seperate plants with distance, time, or physical barriers. Distance is a little tricky for backyard gardeners, as pollinators such as bees can travel 5 km. A combination of time and physical barriers works best.
Choose the variety you want to seed save from and only plant one variety from that family at a time. Use a fruit fly net, or bag, to reduce pollinator’s access to flowers. Excluding pollinators means you will need to hand pollinate the flowers. Don’t worry too much about it, use a soft paintbrush or a feather, and brush the insides of each flower, daily. Wrap the brush in a paper bag, keeping the pollen on it and use it again the next day. This way, you’ll be covered if male and female flowers are open on different days.
Only save seeds from open-pollinated, heirloom plants. Heirlooms will produce plants that are very similar to the parent plant. Hybrids, or F1 varieties, may produce seeds, but they may be sterile, the resulting plant may be different from what you expected, or the plant may be less healthy and less productive.
“Save the best, Eat the rest” Always pick the healthiest plant, with the best fruit.
Choose the plant that gives you the traits you need. For example, do you want fruit that ripens earlier, or later? It’s also an excellent idea to select individual fruit that stored well. Storage is a great trait to look for in pumpkins and onions, for example.
With fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and capsicums, let the fruit ripen on the plant. You want it past table ready, a little wrinkly, a little bit squishy. Leave flowers, grains, or pods on the plant until they are very dry. Leave beans and pea pods on the vines or bush until they are dry and rattle when you shake them. Only collect seeds on a dry, sunny day, after the dew has dried.
Be sure of the identity of the plant before collecting the seed. I’ve had “basil” seeds given to me that were weeds, and “parsley” that was Queen Anne’s lace.
This method is for fleshy or watery fruits and vegetables. Pick the fruit and remove the seeds. The flesh of fruit that has a coating on the seeds, like tomatoes, passion fruit, and cucumbers, can be left in a jar of water for a couple of days to ferment. Pop the jar on top of the fridge. Warn your housemates/partner not to touch your gross science experiment. This fermentation step is optional, but it is said to help remove fungus and bacteria from the seeds. It helps break down that slimy coating.
Rinse the gross slop from the seeds using a sieve under running water. Push the seeds around with your hands to remove the goop.
Once you have removed the flesh, spread the damp seeds onto newspaper or paper towels to dry out. Keep the drying seeds somewhere safe, like the top of the fridge. Label the paper so people know not to throw it out on you. Draw a skull and crossbones to drive the message home.
Use this method for flowering plants, grains/grasses, and legumes.
- Thresh: Take the flower heads, or bean pods and give them a bit of a bash. Use a rolled-up newspaper for hard seeds. Gently rub softer flowers between your fingers.
- Winnow: Put the bashed up pods, or flower-heads, into a shallow dish, or an old casserole tray, something with a lip. Go outside. Stand in a cross breeze, or in front of a fan on low speed. Face away from the source of the breeze. Gently toss the seeds into the air and allow the little petals and bits of leaves to blow away. The heavier seeds will sink to the bottom. You are now separating the seeds from the chaff, very biblical of you. It’s essential to do this because the chaff may be harbouring bug eggs, or mould spores.
Once the seeds are completely dry, store them in an airtight container. You can pop in a silica sachet, to ensure it stays safe from humidity. Bay leaves and DE, or diatomaceous earth, may help protect the seed from bugs.
LABEL the container with the date, and the seed variety. And I mean it, label it! Do not be like me and have to guess what that grungy old baggy is holding.
Store the container in a dry place with a stable temperature. It’s often recommended to store seeds in the fridge. I don’t tend to do this as I know my fridge gets quite humid. A cupboard in a room that stays cool and dry is perfect. Avoid large daily temperature swings, and keep the temp above freezing and below 25C.
Assume that the seeds have a shelf life of 1 year. Most seeds have a shelf life of 2 to 5 years if stored correctly. Legumes and grains store for much longer. If you have out of date seed, it is still worth sowing, however, sow extra to compensate for the lower germination rate.
Notes on seed saving tropical fruits:
Some tropical fruits, for example, avocados, or mangoes, have seeds that don’t store very well. Plant these seeds straight away. Eat the fruit, remove the seed, and pop it straight into some good quality seed raising mix. Keep the pot in a warm shady spot and water it every day.
The Seed Saver’s Handbook, Michel and Jude Fanton, ISBN 0 646 10226 5. Available soon at City Farm Nursery.
Seed collecting guide, Stefan Mager, Aracaria Guides