Best Heirloom Seed Saving Guide
I would love to begin this post by saying everyone loves plants but the truth is not every one cares. What is true however, is that everyone needs plants (for food, aesthetics and even ecological balance).
That’s why plant scientists and plant lovers worldwide have continued to research ways that various plants around the world don’t make it into the dreaded list of species that have gone extinct.
And that, fellow plant lover and organic gardening enthusiast, is all this heirloom seed saving guide is about.
Seed saving basically involves collecting and preserving the seeds, buds, stems, and other reproductive materials of plants (especially herbs, tubers, vegetables, flowers etc.)
in preparation for the next planting season. Seed saving not only ensures continuity of produce availability but it also saves you a whole lot of money.
I mean, buying seeds every planting season when you could easily just preserve some from the previous season. Now while the seed saving process is not explicitly difficult, it requires some attention to detail else you might end up keeping seeds for a year to no avail.
What You Should Know Before Saving Your Seeds
While the idea of holding on to your seeds till the next planting season may seem like such an exciting idea, there are a few things you need to take into consideration before you embark on this all important journey.
Different plant seeds would require different handling methods.
Although the general principle of seed saving remains the same i.e. preserve the seeds till the next planting season, different plants require different handling techniques as well as storage conditions (and worry not, we’ll discuss that in detail later).
It is therefore necessary to recognize what plant you’re dealing with.
Seed saving is dirty work. If you’re one of those who don’t like to get their hands dirty or their shirts stained, then seed saving is definitely not for you. But then, if that was you, you probably wouldn’t be home gardening in the first place.
— Julie Van Rosendaal (@dinnerwithjulie) April 5, 2017
However, since you’re already here, I’ll tell you anyway. Seeds of plants with wet fruits (like cucumbers and tomatoes) and plants that grow in muddy areas would take a lot of dirty work to extract.
So if you’re here because you’ve been watching glamorous Martha Stewart gardening videos, then you’re in for the shock of your life.
You should never save the seeds of hybrid varieties. If a particular plant is a result of the cross breeding of two other plant species. Then saving the seeds of such a plant of a total waste of time.
Whatever seed you extract from this plant would result in a plant with a random mix of the traits of the parent plants. And this often results in a mess that no one ever wants to eat.
Plants like this have to be cross bred every single time to get the same results.
Bear in mind that you might not eat from the plant whose seeds you’re trying to save. By the time the seeds of some plants are ready for extraction, their fruits are already way beyond the point that they can be eaten.
Take lettuce for example, for the seeds to be mature enough for extraction, you have to wait until its flower pods have sent u flower stalks which will in turn develop into seed pods.
By this time, the leaves would have become yellow and bitter. This means that you may have to set aside certain plants for the sole purpose of seed saving.
You have to be extremely careful with cross pollinating plants. If you’re growing plants solely for seed extraction purposes, make sure to keep plants that cross pollinate a reasonable distance away from each other.
This is because different varieties of the same plant growing in close proximity of each other could cross pollinate to give seeds that are genetic hybrids of both variants.
You could prevent this by placing a distance between them. Or try placing a transparent covering over the flowers to prevent cross pollination, whilst allowing access to sunlight.
For seeds to be viable for saving, they must be properly dried. When preserving seeds for the next planting season, you have to ensure that you properly dry as this will guarantee their viability.
If the seeds are not properly dried, they would either develop mold during storage or go bad completely.
Types of Plants Explained For Seed Saving
As said earlier in this post, different plant seeds would require different handling techniques, it is therefore necessary to understand what these different types of plants are.
Generally, in home gardening, plants are classified either according to their life span or their method pf pollination. Therefore based on the aforementioned criteria, we would discuss the following types of plants: annual, biennial, perennial, self-pollinating and cross-pollinating plants.
As implied by the name, these plants go through their entire life cycle within a year. This means that they are planted and harvested in the same calendar year.
Some annual plants include: maize, peas, watermelon, bell peppers etc.
Biennial plants: Unlike annual plants, biennial plants are unable to complete their entire life cycle within a year. This means that it would take two years for biennial plants to be completely mature and be ready for harvesting. Example of biennial plants are: onion, cabbage, kalette, fennel etc.
Perennial plants take more than two years to completely mature. However once maturation is reached, perennial plants will continue to produce fruits every year. Examples include: mango, almond, hibiscus, banana etc.
This basically means that the flowers of these types of plants pollinate themselves i.e. pollen is not transferred from one flower to another (either on the same or a different plant).
Flowers of self-pollinating plants are sometimes described as hermaphroditic. Because they contain both the male and female plant parts within a single bloom.
Seeds of these kinds of plant are “true seeds” because they contain only the qualities of the parent plants. As they have not been cross-bred, with any other variety.
Saving the seeds of self-pollinating plants is relatively easy to handle when compared with cross-pollinating plants. Examples include: lettuce, beans, tomatoes etc.
This is the clear opposite of self-pollinating plants. Here, flowers are fertilized by the pollen from another flower carried either by wind or insects.
Saving the seeds of these types of plants would require atmosphere as we need to prevent any incidence of accidental cross-breeding.
Example of cross-pollinated plants include: maize, broccoli, pumpkins, cucumbers etc.
Identifying what class your garden plants fall under would help guide your actions all through the seed saving process.
The Many Seed Saving Process Explained
While it is established that every plant would require a customized seed saving approach. There is a general structure or basic set of actions, that is common to all plant types.
Now the general seed saving process occurs in four major phases: select, extract, clean and store.
All phases have to be carried with utmost attention if you intend to have viable seeds when you’re ready to plant.
This is the first step to having viable seeds by your next planting season. If the right seeds are not chosen, the entire process might end up as a futile effort.
First thing you should know is to select the seeds from the best performing plants.
If a seed is going to weather the storm and go on to develop into a perfect plant. It would have to come from the best plants in your garden. Plus, wouldn’t you want to replicate the plant with the best genetic characteristics? I thought so too.
Another thing you should know about seed selection is that you should only save the seeds from fruits that have fully ripened. If a fruit is not completely ripe when you extract its seeds.
Chances are the fruits are not fully mature and would therefore not survive through the seed saving process for the next planting season.
Also, by the time a fruit is fully ripe, the seeds would have drawn out as much energy and nutrients as possible thus increasing its viability.
So you know, you may want to let those peppers or cucumbers turn a full yellow before you go about poking for seeds.
This is probably the most important part of the seed saving process. If you are planning to begin shrub or herb gardening, then you need to know and learn all you can about the seed extraction process.
There are various seed extraction methods but choosing the best method for your garden plants would depend on the plant type. Basically, there are three major seed extraction method viz: wet extraction, dry extraction and fermentation.
Dry Extraction: This process is used for seeds that dry out on the plant like lettuce, marigold, brassica etc. The dry extraction is further divided into three sub processes: harvesting, threshing and winnowing.
Harvesting simply involves cutting of the seeds form the stem or stalk of the plant. Next, threshing takes place i.e. the seeds are separated from the stalk.
This begins either by picking out the seeds and de-shelling them. Or simply rubbing them between your fingers to save time.
Next, in order to separate and set apart the chaff, you can use a wide net sieve or if you’re a perfectionist like me, you could pick out the seeds individually.
The final winnowing process is simply advance threshing. That means, if there’s any other fine material that didn’t leave at the threshing process, this would be the time to get rid of them.
Winnowing can be carried out by blowing the seeds (either manually or using a machine).
Wet extraction: Wet extraction is for seeds that grow inside the fruit of the plant from which they are extracted. This includes raspberries, strawberries etc.
The first step in wet extraction is scoping the seeds into a sieve. Which you could choose to place in a sink or a sieve depending on your facilities. Next, you should pour water over the seeds while using your fingers to separate the seeds from the sticky fruit mass.
Continue this process until you feel the seeds have been completely separated. Now place this messy mixture in a bowl of water and allow it to sit for a few minutes. This should allow the debris float to the top so they can be easily removed.
Fermentation: This method almost resembles wet extraction. Only difference is that you need to soak the extracted seeds for up to three days, in order to allow them ferment.
This is because some seeds (like those of peppers and tomatoes) have a coating over them. That prevents them from germinating until they are acted upon by digestive enzymes.
In wild farming cultures, these seeds would be ingested by a human or an animal. After which they would undergo the digestion process and then be separated from the excreta.
However, there is a way to avoid all that mess and that’s what fermentation is all about. Fermentation exposes the seeds to certain bacteria that act in a manner similar to digestive enzymes. Thus qualifying the seeds for the saving process.
This involves removing any foreign material form the seeds and getting them ready for storage. After the seeds have been successfully extracted, it is necessary to ensure that they are thoroughly cleaned.
Once they have been cleaned, they need to be dried immediately before they can be put into storage.
This is the final part of the entire process. This is also the part of the process, that would determine whether all the work that you’ve put in would yield any results.
You need to make sure your dried seeds are properly labelled clearly showing the plant variety and harvest year. Also, make sure that the labelled seeds are stored in the right temperature (just above freezing) and light conditions (dark). You could choose to store your seeds in a plastic container or a paper wrap.
However, seeing that you’re currently reading about seed saving tips, I’m guessing you care about the environment. So a paper bag should substitute just fine.
Make sure that wherever you decide to keep your seeds is free from insects and rodents; we don’t want the little creatures destroying all our hard work.
Although all these steps apply to every plant whose seed you may want save, certain plants may require some extra steps in between.
In that case, it would be absolutely necessary for you to discover that information if you’re aiming for seeds of optimum quality.
Note: If you’re already in the heirloom seed saving process and you feel like you may have done a few things wrong, don’t give up just yet. Just like you, those seeds are resilient and they want to survive so you might still try planting them anyway.
Now go out there with all this information and become that home gardening guru that you know you were made to be!
— Danielle Hirsch (@Danielle_H_BE) April 9, 2015