Saving Seed 

by Thomas Tomas

Now is the time to start selecting which plants you will want to save seed from.  If you have never done it before here are some tips on what to look for.

Start with a few easy ones like lettuce, tomatoes or beans.  These vegetables are mostly self pollinating so they are more likely to come true from seed than cross pollinating plants like melons or squash.  Once you have had some success with the easy ones you can find out how to save seed from the more difficult ones.

When you find a variety of lettuce that does well for you, select about six of the best plants and allow them to bloom and set seed.  The yellow flowers will be followed by seed heads that look like miniature dandelion puffs. (Dandelions and lettuce are both in the same plant family.)  Lettuce will bloom and set seed over a long period of time and will often have yellow blooms and ripe seed on the same plant.  When the seeds are ripe they will separate easily from the seed head when you pull on the white fuzzy puffs. One way to harvest the seed without picking each head is to gently put the entire top of the plant into a large paper bag, tip the whole thing to the side without breaking the plant off, and gently swat the bag back and forth to shake the ripe seeds out of the seed heads.  You can do this several times every three or four days until you have enough seed.  Another method is to let the plants go until most of the seed heads are ripe and then cut the entire top of the plant and put it in a large paper bag to dry out.  Remove any green leaves and stem below the seed stems so the seeds will dry faster and not mold.  You can then shake the seeds out when you have time next winter.  Be sure to keep the bags open in a cool dry place to let plants dry out thoroughly.  Always label the bags with the variety and at least the year you harvested the seed.

Beans are even easier.  When you are picking green or wax beans, select about a dozen of the best plants and allow the beans to ripen on the plant until the pods are thoroughly dry.  You can then pick the pods and put them in a cool dry place until you have time to shell them.  Always select healthy plants with no signs of disease on the leaves or fruit.  Common blight and halo blight can be transmitted from one generation to the next on the seed. When I have a good seed year I save at least twice as much seed as I will need in case the next year is not a good seed year.  Bean seeds will remain viable for five to six years if stored in a cool dry place.

Saving tomato seed is a little messier.  Select the plants that are disease free and yield well throughout the summer.  Select tomatoes that TASTE good to you.  Try them right there in the garden and mark the plants over the summer that produce well and TASTE good.  Most commercial varieties have been bred for looks and yield.  Only you can determine which tastes best to you. When you have decided which plants are best, select ripe fruit that is free from cracks or blemishes and set them in the house out of the sun to ripen till the fruit becomes a bit soft (usually three or four days). 

When the tomatoes are ready you simply cut the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out the seeds into a strainer.  Donít try to get every seed or you will get too much pulp with the seeds.  You can wash most of the pulp off with running water from the faucet.  Gently rub the seeds to help get rid of the pulp. When most of the pulp is gone use a soft cloth to absorb most of the water from the seeds through the bottom of the strainer.  If you do it from the top the seeds will stick to the cloth.  Spread the damp seeds out onto a plate, cookie sheet or piece of window screen and set them in a cool place out of direct sunlight to dry.  When the seeds are thoroughly dry you can gently rub them together in your hands to break up the clumps into individual seeds and get rid of any remaining pulp. 

You do not have to worry about the seeds you save from hybrid tomatoes not producing good tomatoes.  The nature of the tomato plant is such that even hybrids produce fruit in the next generation that is very much like the parent plant.  If you select the best tasting ones your selection may be even better than the original hybrid.  After several years of selection you should have a tomato that is uniquely suited to your taste and gardening methods.

You will hear of more complex ways of harvesting and saving seed.  Believe me the methods above are simple and work just as well for small seed lots from the home garden.  If you want to learn more about saving seeds check out the following books from your library. (inter-library loan will get them if your local library doesnít have them).

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties  by Carol Deppe          Little, Brown and Company   1993

Seed to Seed by Susanne Ashworth                                         Seed Saver Publications 1991
Rural Route 3, Box 39                                                                      Decorah, Iowa  52101

NSAS will be sponsoring workshops on saving seeds this summer where you can see demonstrations of selecting, harvesting and processing vegetable seeds. 

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