Saving Seeds on Towani Organic Farm
By Sharon Casey; Photos by Earl Bloor
Saving seeds is something I believe most anyone can do on one level or another. I think that if you love to putter and spend time with plants, you will eventually be drawn to saving at least one type of seed. I began my seed saving ventures years ago with flowers and Scarlet Runner Bean seeds. I was witness to the fact that when one lets flowers go to a ripe old age in the garden, the seeds drop to the ground and flourish in the coming year without much intervention. The flowers stayed true to type, though I did get some interesting new colors of some, such as Columbines, so I figured it might be easy for me to collect the seed and start controlling where and when I could plant them. These days I also include lettuce, chard, tomatoes, and chilies in my seed saving ventures.
I felt motivated to work on saving seed because it was costing me a lot of money to make my annual seed purchase. I hated having to curtail my desires for new plants on the farm just because of cost. Since Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds started using glossy photos of their seed collections, it became increasingly difficult to deny myself the beauty of so many new (to me) varieties. I am happy to say that this past year I actually cut my seed bill down to almost half of what I spent the year before, simply because I had saved seeds last year.
I’m also motivated by how fun it is to actually grow out seed and see what comes of it. It is a blast for me to work with hot peppers. I usually get lots of throw backs to the genetic history stored in the seed, and sometimes, I really like what is different. I am currently working on maintaining a line of chili that is fat and stubby with flesh that is very sweet and turns red very early. It is also a very hot chili, with a type of heat that burns enough to make me cry out “whoooee” in the same way I do when eating wasabi. A few minutes later, the heat completely goes away. I like that! So, in selecting seed to save from these chilies, I am doing the same thing thousands have done before me and with me now. I am selecting qualities that I like about a particular food.
A third reason for saving my own seed is that there are certain varieties of seeds that I can not easily obtain from any commercial source. I have one variety of chard that I just think is the best tasting ever, and seed for it is only available through one company that I know of. This company packages this seed at fifteen seeds per package, and they do no special orders or bulk sales. This means that I am buying too many individual packages, opening all and combining them: too much waste for the girl who sings reduce, reuse, recycle. By saving my own chard seed, I end up with literally thousands of seeds and no packaging! That’s a win-win.
Something I have to think about when saving those thousands of chard seeds is, do I also have beets blooming at the same time as the chard? Beets and chard will cross-pollinate because they are related, and you might get something strange. It is handy to have a good book on hand that can give you the information about factors involved in pollination. A favorite book I have used forever is Nancy Bubel’s The New Seed-Starter’s Handbook. In it she says the very fine airborne beet pollen can travel up to a mile. So either you isolate your chard and beets by that much space, or you plan your crop so that they will not be blooming at the same time. I just have to look and make sure there are no errant beets left behind in the soil as my chard gets ready to send up its flowering stalk. Just so you know, one chard plant can produce a gazillion seeds.
There are other books about saving my own seeds that I have found very useful or fun to read. The Botany Coloring Book, Paul Young and Jacquelyn Giuffre, was a good way for me to pick up some basic botany in flower structure and reproduction. Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, published in 1991 by the Seed Saver’s Exchange, is very user friendly for saving vegetable seeds. Ashworth covers pollination, varietal purity, seed cleaning and storage and tons more. There are some great photos of how to hand pollinate squash and corn. I like that she covers how each individual plant is pollinated (insects or wind), the distance of isolation needed to maintain seed purity, and methods to get the seed from the vegetable (threshing, fermenting, hand striping, even blenderizing!) neatly into your storage bin.
I encourage you to begin saving seed from at least one of your favorite garden plants because there is satisfaction in doing something so universal. Tomatoes are unbelievably easy to do and Ms. Ashworth’s book has photos of the process of fermenting the seed. One of the best things about saving seed is enjoying a meal with these wonderful vegetable treasures. Tonight for example, our supper was made from three heirloom tomatoes, Lillian’s Yellow, Sweet Italian, and Cherokee purple, Genovese basil, and kalamata olives dressed simply with sea salt and some of our farm’s extra virgin Mission olive oil. Nothing better.
Sharon Casey, with her husband Guy Baldwin, operates Towani Organic Farm in Bangor, CA. There, along with saving seeds for the CCOF certified vegetables and vegetable starts they sell at Chico and Davis farmers’ markets, Sharon nurtures a barn of orchids.
Saving Tomato Seeds
I start by saving up some yogurt tubs. Then, I know the tomato variety so I can keep its name and, therefore, some of its history. I make a label for the tub and put all the information I have on it, like the name, the year, where and when or from whom I obtained the original seed. I like to choose the earliest, the largest, the most blemish free fruits. I take perhaps four to eight fruits per variety and slice them open. I squeeze out the seeds and the gel into the tub and add water to nearly double the volume. This concoction sits in a warm place to ferment for three or four days. I have an outdoor table that is easily washed and out of direct sunlight I use for this purpose.
The mash will form a thick white fungal growth on top. No worries: this is doing good things. You need this growth to kill off seed-borne diseases. Also, the fermenting gets rid of the gel and the gel inhibits seed germination. After the three to four days, I skim off the white foam, which will contain some unviable seeds, then pour the liquid and the good seeds, which have all sunk to the bottom of the tub, through a strainer. I use a piece of screening laid flat over a plant carrying tray. Then I use a hose to wash the remaining scum away. I take the clean seeds and scoop them up onto a pie plate that has been labeled the same way the yogurt tub was.
I leave this to dry overnight, come back the next day and break up the clumps with my fingers, and leave the seeds to continue drying completely. My method for storing seed has been to put the seed into small zip lock bags and those inside of a paper bag or envelope. So far, my seed viability has kept up with or exceeded what the books say.