Monday, October 24, 2011

Be Your Own Seed Bank: How to Save Seeds

My saved seeds from the lovely Hidatsa Shield Figure bean
As we celebrate World Food Day on October 24th, I’m especially thankful for one of life’s most precious gifts: seeds. Seeds are magical and mysterious in that our future rests in them. Without the thousands of varieties of useful plants we cultivate for their products, human civilization would simply cease. We could no longer feed ourselves nor our animals.

Preventing the extinction of a wide variety of food plants is not just romantic and historically interesting, it’s a matter of ensuring a healthy future for humanity. As industrial agriculture becomes increasingly focused on growing fewer and fewer varieties of food plants, home gardeners play an unexpected important role in propagating and saving old varieties of vegetables, fruit, and herbs by continuing to grow them, sharing the seeds and providing the seeds to organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange. Native Seeds Search is another important seed stewarding organization- they specialize in crops of arid regions (South Western USA), and prioritize providing heritage seeds to Native Americans.

Label your saved seeds carefully; you'll be thankful when its planting time!
Seed Saving Basics
If you have never had the pleasure of saving seeds and planting them the next season you are missing one of life’s simple and deeply gratifying pleasures. Fall signals the prime time for saving seeds and it is not difficult for many popular garden plants; all you need to know are a few basics. Try starting with easy seeds such as beans, nasturtiums, and basil, for example.

First, remember that the plant you intend to save seeds from must be an open pollinated type and not a hybrid. If it is an heirloom type it is open pollinated.

Follow these key steps:

1) Make sure you let the seeds stay on the plant until they reach full maturity. For example: if you pick bean pods while they are still green you may as well eat them, because the seeds won’t germinate!

2) Let mature seed pods or flower heads dry on the plant as much as possible. The timing is tricky in some cases because you need to collect the pod or flower head before it begins to release its seeds. In general, wild plants disperse seeds very efficiently with clever spring-loaded pods (poppies) or flower heads that fall apart readily to be transported by animals or blown away (dandelions). Domesticated agricultural plants were bred and selected for seed collection and for food harvesting, so the pods stay intact.

3) After collection and harvesting the seed pods or flower heads must dried completely. This is very important to prevent mold and spoilage. I like to keep my harvested collection in an open container in the house for a couple of weeks to make sure they dry out before extracting the actual seeds. Choose a cool dry spot out of direct sunlight.

4) Next, remove the seeds being careful not to damage them, and discard any debris. At this point I leave them to dry some more (a week or two) then store in a labeled airtight container. If I have a small number of seeds of different types I put them into labeled envelopes then put these into a jar with a lid.

Calendula flower seeds from a dried seed head.
It's a good practice to get in the habit of labeling your seeds with basic information that will be very helpful later such as: the exact name of the variety, where you got the parent plant or original seeds, and the year of collection. You'll be amazed at how fast your collection will grow, and you'll enjoy sharing them.

There are good reasons for saving the seeds of your favorite food plants besides just the fun of it: perhaps you have a special heirloom variety that is in limited supply, or one given to you by a neighbor. Saving the seeds allows you to expand the number of plants for next year’s planting season, or to share them with others for years to come.

You might even create a new variety or cultivar from natural crossbreeding in your garden!

But most importantly, you will be a a part of a growing movement to save our agricultural biodiversity, all from your own home garden.