Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Saving Seeds 101

For the past few weeks we’ve been harvesting seeds to use to plant more plants. This is an essential skill for all heirloom farmers and organic gardeners to develop, especially with the GMO market constantly encroaching on our daily lives. The only way to know you’re getting organic food is to grow it yourself, and sometimes you can’t tell even then. But, whether you’re trying stay organic, or just want to preserve and/or develop your own strains of specific plants, learning to harvest seeds is important.

There is no one hard and true set of rules for harvesting and saving seeds, as every genus is different, though there are some basic guidelines the beginner should keep in  mind.

The first thing you want to make sure you have is the right storage facility for the seeds you’ll be saving. If you don’t have it then there is no point in saving the seeds, as they’ll go bad before you use them next season. Most seeds require a cool, dry place with good ventilation, such as a paper bag kept in the pantry. But, some ‘seeds’ require refrigeration. These are usually bulbs, and not actually seeds.

Paper bags, clean pill bottles, etc can be used as containers for seeds, but be sure you have the right container for the seeds you’re storing, and that the saved seeds have been properly prepared for storage first. Paper bags are used because the last thing you want in your seed container is moisture. Seeds contain moisture, even when they feel dry. This moisture escapes and can get trapped in the container if the container doesn’t ‘breathe’. The seeds then rot or simply don’t set.

Before saved seeds are stored they need to be ‘set’. This means they need to be cleaned and dehydrated. The manner of cleaning depends on the kind of seed you’re saving. For instance, arugula seeds are in the bean classification, so they should be removed from their husks before storing. Grass seeds, on the other hand, are in the wheat classification, so they don’t need be removed from the husk until planting time. Both, however, need to be dried adequately before storage. In arid climates like we have here at Reclaiming The Farm, we simply leave the seeds out in the kitchen, either by hanging them from their stocks, or by spreading them out on trays. But, in a humid climate you may need to use a dehydrator that has a zero heat setting. Do not, ever, use the heat setting, as this will cook the seeds and render them useless for planting.

How you collect your seeds depends on what classification they fall into. The three most common classifications are: bean (pods), wheat (shafts), and herb (bolts).

  • Bean - beans, or pods, appear after the flower of the plant has died. The typical harvesting method is to cut the stem the pods are on and allow them to dry for a few days, either on a tray or in an open bag. When the pods are dry and brittle place in a paper bag, close it and shake vigorously. The pods will fall off the stems and fall apart, revealing the seeds. They can then be cleaned. 
  • Wheat - Clip stems near the base and collect into bundles. Tie each bundle with a rubber band and hang to dry. Rubber bands are recommended since the stem bundle will reduce in size as it loses moisture during the drying process and the rubber band will constrict along with it, keeping any shafts from falling out. Another way to do this is to put your bundles into a paper bag to catch any shafts or seeds that fall out, hanging the whole thing from the bag, not the bundles. 
  • Herbs - Herb seeds are typically extremely small and easy to miss. Some, such as coriander (cilantro seeds) are large and easy to collect (treat like pods), but in general, herb seeds are barely even visible as individuals. Collect by cutting the mature bolt (seed flower) off the stem and place in paper bag. Leave open and allow to dry for several days. Then close and shake gently. Unlike bean pods, herb bolts produce seeds that are lighter than their stems and husk, so tossing them in a gentle wind is not a good idea. After shaking the bag, carefully remove the stems and husk by hand, then place remaining small particles in a bowl to finish drying and sorting. 

Tips For Storage

  • Paper Bag - Even though a paper bag breathes, moisture can still get trapped between the seeds. Every so often, shake the bag then open it for an hour or two to let leftover moisture escape. 
  • Pill Bottle - As with a paper bag, shake and open every so often. If you think this isn’t enough, put ripped up pieces of clean paper towel or cotton into the top to draw moisture away from the seeds. Change the paper towel or cotton regularly.
  • Envelope - Good for storing a small amount of seeds from a single plant. Treat like paper bags. 
  • Darkness - Finding a dark place is important since sunlight is one of the three main things seeds need to grow (sunlight, moisture, and heat). But, it’s not as important as keeping the moisture and heat away. If you have to choose between ‘dry’ and ‘dark’ choose ‘dry’ every time. Wheat class seeds can even be kept in direct sunlight most of the time, while bean class seeds cannot. 

To help give a better idea of how to go about collecting and storing seeds we’ll write other posts that go into more depth about specific seeds we’re saving, and the step-by-step processes we’re using.

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