Saving Seeds from Heirloom Vegetables
by Rebecca Hansen
What are “heirloom” vegetables? An heirloom vegetable is a non-hybrid, open-pollinated variety that has been passed down from generation to generation and, in some cases, can be traced back hundreds of years. These seed lines have been carefully selected to maintain uniformity and consistency for germination. Heirloom seeds become ‘heirloom’ because they exhibit exceptional traits desired by the gardener. Often this means the plants are more colorful, flavorful, unique, or have great germination and vigor. Often the traits are location dependent. Meaning, seeds planted in one garden will not produce in the same manner in another location. We encourage you to try heirloom seeds, see which have the qualities for your area to become your favorites, and make them into your own very special seed line. Seed saving from heirloom vegetables is easy and fun.
Gardeners have found that as seeds are selected and saved over many years, production is increased and the quality is improved, creating plants that will produce best for that locale and will resist diseases and pests of that locale. Contributing to genetic diversity strengthens the ecosystem. Historically farmers and local gardeners have created and sustained this rich genetic heritage by learning to save their own seeds from varieties that perform best in their own mini-ecosystems. The current trend toward mono-crops where only one seed type is used to produce a crop worldwide is eliminating the ability to be able to find genetic variations that will withstand emerging pathogens and climate changes.
Planting your crop: Start with good Heirloom Seed varieties. Keep in mind that to allow the plants to produce seed and to allow the seed to fully mature, you will have to allow for a longer growing season. This can be done by starting plants indoors and arranging for protection from frost in the late season. You will be growing some for food or flower harvest and some for seed production. Fully mature seeds will be viable (able to germinate) and produce vigorous plants. You may want to do some research on the different flower types for proper pollination techniques and plant with row/species separation in mind, to prevent cross-pollination. You may look into caging procedures to isolate species that are in flower at the same time. By caging different plants on alternate days, you can take advantage of the pollinators to do the work without cross-pollinating your crop. Cage one plant or group on one day and early the next day, before the bees wake, transfer your cage to a different plant or group. Some crops are biennial and do not produce seed until the next year, so you will need to determine whether you should leave the roots in the ground over the winter or dig and store them.
There are many publications with detailed information on seed saving and growing techniques for each species. “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, 2002 by Seed Savers Exchange, Inc. is a good way to get started. www.seedsavers.org. Also, Easy instructions for seed saving, written by the International Seed Saving Institute, a non-profit established to teach seed saving, can be found at:http://www.seedsave.org/issi/issi_904.html
Harvesting and collecting seed: When saving seeds from heirloom vegetables look for favorable characteristics such as; freeze and cold tolerance, heat tolerance, adaptability, winter hardiness, early maturation, vigor (strong germination, and growth), flavor, color, size, texture, etc. Also, look for desirable traits such as; vine or plant type, seed type, specific disease resistance. Plan to be ready to harvest the seed as they mature. Often the pods will pop open when you are not around to collect the seed and it will be lost.
Allow the seed pods to remain on the plant in the ground for as long as possible. Usually, the seed will not continue to mature after the pods are cut from the plant. The process of cleaning and separating (thresh) the seeds from the chaff (pods and stems) is easy for a small home gardener. Break apart the pods by crushing or breaking the pods and collecting the seed. Sometimes the chaff can be blown away from the seed, by pouring the seed onto a pan in front of a small fan or by using cleaning screens that come with different sized openings.