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PHOTO: Dana Benner
How much do gardeners spend on seeds every year? That is hard to figure out, as over the years, I have no idea how much I’ve spent. Packets of seed can run as high as $6 and as low as about $1 depending on what you buy and where you buy them. These figures are not large amounts if you look at them individually, but a dollar here and a dollar there adds up quickly over time. When you’re buying seed you really have no idea what you are buying. You have to put a great deal of trust in the seed sellers. Is the seed you are buying a GMO—the packages should be marked but were they? How old is the seed? Is the seed proven to grow in your area? All of these are good questions. How you avoid having to ask these questions is simple: Save your seeds.
You may be saying that this is easier said than done, but is it? Saving seed is not rocket science, but there are some do’s and don’ts that you need to be aware of to ensure they’ll germinate come planting time. There are things I’ve learned over the years, and I hope they work for you, too.
Before you start saving seeds you need to have healthy crops that produce quality seed. To get those crops that bear quality fruit you need to start with a quality seed. It is like asking the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” All of my crops are non-treated heirloom varieties, but it doesn’t stop there. Where you purchase your initial seeds make a difference, as not all heirloom seeds are the same. Even though the seed package may say “heirloom” it still may be chemically treated or altered in some way. Always buy your seed from a reputable seed producer that specializes in heirloom varieties. There are many out there. Remember, you get what you pay for.
The very first seed-saving mistake I made, especially with beans, squash and pumpkins, was to harvest too soon. For eating purposes, the smaller, young fruit are the best, but for seed production you need to wait. The seeds of the young fruit are not worth saving, as they’re not mature and will not germinate. Leave a few squash and pumpkins on the plant and allow them to grow. It is those huge squashes that produce the most fertile seed. Allow some beans and peas to mature on the plant. When the pods turn big, brown and hard, the seeds are ready to harvest.
It’s very important to let your seeds dry thoroughly. All seeds come out of the fruit wet and need to be dried—moisture is your enemy! Even peas and beans, which appear to be dry, still need drying so they don’t rot in storage.
To dry my seeds, I lay out a few pages from the local newspaper—a perfect use for those pesky sales fliers. Spread out the seeds as best you can, and lay them on your porch or another protected area. Don’t leave the seeds outside to dry, as the birds love them as much as you do. As the mess (and yes, it will be a mess) dries, remove the seeds and put them on a clean sheet of newspaper and allow them to dry some more. The entire process may take up to a week, depending on the humidity of your climate.
Once your seeds are thoroughly dry, you need to store them in a cool, dry, dark place. I store my seed potatoes the way my mother taught me: in a good old-fashioned brown paper bag. I leave the bags open to allow air to circulate and the bags of potatoes are placed in a cool, dry, dark area of my basement. For the loose seeds, like squash, pumpkin, beans and peas, I use small, plastic storage containers, like you would use in your kitchen. They have lids that snap tight and go a long way in sealing out moisture. They are perfect for this job, and best of all, they are cheap.
When it comes to tomato seed, I like to use plastic zipper-top sandwich bags. Tomato seeds are very small, and the sandwich bags make storage easy. Plus, the bags seal out moisture and are clear so you can see the seed. Like with the seed potatoes, you want to store the seed containers somewhere cool, dry and dark. If you only have a few seeds, the refrigerator is the perfect place.
Always mark your containers with the seed type, variety and date. This is very important. First, it makes it for your to identify your stock next year at planting time. Second, and most importantly, seed becomes unviable over time, so you’ll want to be able to rotate out seeds old seeds. Every year, I start by planting the oldest seed I have. Even at two years, some seed will still germinate but most will not. If the seed doesn’t produce plants, then I discard the oldest seed and go to the next one in line. I automatically discard seed that is more than two years old.
If you save your seed from one year to the next, you’ll have an endless food supply. It will take a few years to build up a good stock of seeds, but believe me you will get there. The most important things to remember are to mark and date your containers and that moisture is not your friend.