As I’m writing this, we are in the full swing of seed gathering here in zone 6 of the northern South. The purpose of this article is to help people in any section of the country learn some easy and inexpensive ways to gather and save seed for now and for harder times to come. Consider the following. Will seed always be available for each type of vegetable, fruit, grain, or flower that you want to grow? Truth be told there are already shortages due to skyrocketing orders following concerns about potential food production failures. What about current price inflation or even future hyperinflation? Prices are already increasing dramatically for seed and are even worse for store-bought garden plants! What if seed companies fail or transportation and mail delivery become unreliable? What if seed sales are banned? As strange as that may seem, the governor of Michigan banned for a time the sale of all garden materials including seeds in certain stores during Spring 2020 due to Covid-19. They were deemed “not necessary.” These are all things to ponder.
A special section is included later in this series about the high protein cereal amaranth which is easy to grow and in a small space producing “up to a half pound of grain” per seed head or more. You won’t want to miss this topic. We’ve tried rye, wheat, and millet with unsatisfactory results so we tried Golden Giant Amaranth with some interesting results. You won’t want to miss this honest review!
Also included is an excellent super productive food to conquer starvation. This is a don’t miss.
Why Save Seeds and How to Avoid Crosses
You may ask, “Why save seeds?” Have what you want, when you want it, and for free! Can’t beat that. It is a great way to save money and insure a trusted supply for your family and for others who may be in dire need later. It can be a great barter item for TEOTWAWKI in addition to extra produce. Recently, my son even saw people selling seeds from their vehicle by the roadside in a neighboring state.
If you grow heirlooms, your plants will breed true and reliably. If not, you may be in for some surprises. Also bear in mind, that certain crops will cross with others such as acorn with butternut squash, jalapeno peppers with sweet banana peppers or bell peppers, swiss chard with beets, and beans with other white seeded varieties. For that very reason we have garden plots on opposite sides of our house to eliminate such crossing. Staggered plantings can also help reduce such undesirable genetic variations. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover that topic so it is advisable to obtain a good reference book such as “Saving Seeds, the Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds” by Marc Rogers. (Nothing received for mentioning this resource.)
How Much Should I Save?
Decide approximately how much you will want and then multiply that by *at least* a factor of three
and preferably by four or even five. Why? First, heavy rains may wash away your seeds. For us that often happens at least once to some of our plantings, and sometimes even twice. Rarely three times. Second, a late frost may kill your young plants. In fact, a late frost this strange year even killed our young potato plants! Third, you suddenly may wish to expand your garden if extra friends or relatives move into your home during these difficult times. If not, it is great to share extra produce with neighbors or your local food pantry for the needy. Fourth, what if your harvest is a total failure? You will require seeds for the following year!
The book “Saving Seeds” conveniently lists the usual viability of vegetable seeds which range from corn (1 to 2 years) to watermelon (5 years). You can also check seeds with a germination test if in question. We keep previous unused seeds for a few years as emergency backup. If the germination rate is poor, you’ll need to compensate by planting the seeds more thickly.
To perform a germination test, dampen a thick paper towel, fold it in half, open it back up and sprinkle several seeds (about 10) on the dependent half. Tuck the paper towel inside an open plastic sack and position it in a warm location such as on the top of a refrigerator or freezer. Check it every day to ensure that it stays sufficiently moist and to observe for the sprouting of seeds. The time required will vary depending on the degree of warmth and the type of seed but most will sprout within 3 to 10 days. At the end of the test, count the number of seeds to determine the percent of germination.
If you are serious about food production, you may also wish to check how much seed is needed to
plant a 100-foot row and then determine the needs for your own garden size. This type of data is
often available at your state’s agricultural extension such as:
I would however urge caution on expected yields listed as these can vary wildly depending on soil conditions, temperature, rainfall, insect pests, etc. Try not to get caught depending heavily on one particular crop. Remember the Irish potato famine! Also don’t forget to rotate what you plant where.
Again, check a resource book to plan for optimal combinations such as planting corn the following year
where amaranth was grown previously.
What Plants Should I Collect From?
Select seed from several of your healthiest plants with the characteristics that you prefer. You’ll want
the genetic diversity obtained by a larger gene pool. For instance, select a ripe red tomato from each of
your plants and use each as a seed source. Do you like smaller watermelons that will fit into your refrigerator? Then select seed from those with the size and flavor that you like best which ripen early. Again, select from several different melons on different plants. Also, consider the fact that some garden plants do not provide much seed while others produce abundantly. For example, a marigold seed pod produces dozens of seeds but dianthus may only have a seed or two in 1 out of every 20 pods. Gather accordingly. In addition, it is helpful to web search photos of what each seed looks like. Some seeds look like dust contained in small hinged caps (moss rose, purslane) while others resemble Grape Nuts cereal (swiss chard, beets). Borage seed even mimics what might have come out of the hind end of a small creature. Zinnia seed resembles little spearheads with the best and fattest being closest to the base of the drying flower head. Remember when drying basil seeds to open the flat brown seed pod to release the pin-head sized seeds contained within (usually two). Otherwise, they will not germinate when planted.
In addition, note that some plants produce seed only in the second year (biennials) so you will need to check your resource book in advance and organize accordingly. You may need to carefully mulch plants to enable their survival through the winter or dig and store them in a cold cellar, or transplant them into a greenhouse. Examples of biennials include carrots, beets, swiss chard, and turnips. When planning, consider the chance that your biennial may not survive to produce seed the next year if something goes wrong such as plant rot, destruction by insects, etc. I always say that there is a pest for every crop for every season, plus weather varies from year to year. Because of the latter, grow several different food crops. Select vegetables that grow well in a hot dry year plus some that favor cooler wetter seasons. You never know what will produce a bumper crop!
Keep in mind that many seeds are ready to harvest when dry such as beans, peas, corn, swiss chard, etc. Others require the fruit to turn a certain color indicating seed maturity such as peppers (red) or cucumbers (yellow). Do your homework and read ahead for what you will be harvesting.
How Do I Process the Seeds? What If I Live in a Humid Climate?
Processing seeds varies greatly depending on the type of seeds. Some are much easier than others.
Let’s start with some of the larger kinds.
Squash usually have nice big seeds that resemble pumpkin seeds. However, it is a good idea to soak
them in a bowl of water for a day or two to get the “slime” off. Tomato seeds are tinier and need to be
soaked even longer for the fermentation process to remove the gel-like coating which can otherwise prevent germination. Pepper seeds are easier as they clean off quickly. It is helpful to use a spaghetti strainer with small holes like the one in the photo above to separate seeds from water without losing them down the drain. I then like to gently rub the seeds on a towel or washcloth before placing them on a paper plate to dry. Be sure to label each paper plate with the type of seed as it can become confusing when a dozen or more plates are drying at the same time. The paper plates can be reused by marking through the previous words and writing down the name of the next seed type.
Because we live in a humid climate, we usually have a dehumidifier running in a spare bedroom.
This makes a great place for drying seeds! Make sure they are completely dry before packaging them
which will be described in a later section. (Also hope that guests don’t arrive to occupy the bed
covered with drying seeds.) If electricity is unavailable, we’ll return to drying seeds using the sun.
Next, let’s review some ways of processing black-eyed peas and beans. When the pods are picked, place them on a tarp or old bed sheet on sunny days until completely dry, bringing them inside each night to avoid the morning dew or unexpected rain.
To open the pods, there are many different methods. By hand (hard work). by trampling underfoot (but not so hard as to damage the seeds), or by securely tying the seedpods into old pillowcases and tumbling them in a dryer set on “air only” (no heat) until the pods split. Be sure to knot the pillowcases tightly closed with cord so that dried beans don’t get loose and spill turning your dryer into a giant maraca. (Be aware that for this method you may need to clean your lint filter or other internals more thoroughly afterward than usual.)This works especially well for black-eyed peas which tend to have more fragile hulls. We had a 60-foot row of them this year which produced enough pods to fill three 5-gallon buckets. After tumbling them, the fragmented shells were blown away in front of a fan leaving behind a total of 14 pounds of seed (or food for cooking).
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)