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.
Thank goodness that “Hoarders” TV show doesn’t ever focus on seed hoarders. Gardeners who are very tidy and organized and otherwise not people who collect or hoard things can secretly have boxes full of seed from years and years of seed saving. Sometimes the seeds are gifts from friends, or seeds ordered because you forgot you have some leftover and bought more or just surplus seeds from generous seed packages. I knew my seed habit was getting out of hand once I started seed saving, myself – now I have paper bags full of saved seeds and had to move from the tiny shoebox to a big box.
This year, I’ve come up with a way to use those old seeds without feeling too guilty…and I’ll save some money, too. Early Fall is the traditional time to put in cover crops…seeds that will germinate and grow some but die back with a freeze or simply be chopped down and turned into the soil to replenish it in the Spring. Cover crops get lots of organic matter into the soil without much trouble. But there’s no reason you have to use an official “cover crop.” The idea is just young plants that get chopped up and mixed in with the soil. This year, I decided to turn some of my seed hoards to cover my garden soil this winter. (Let’s not be ridiculous and use all those good seeds.)
So as I have clear patches of the garden after harvesting, I’m going to remove the big debris, lightly rake the soil and sprinkle out old and gathered seed. Many of the old seeds won’t germinate but there’s enough that will make a good protective cover. And as long as you PROMISE to turn the cover crops in before perennials establish themselves, you can even include old packets of grass seed.
My cover crops won’t be as cute as when I put in just winter rye and get a nice even green lawn effect….but it will be great fun to guess what is what!
My hoarded cover crop this year includes:
Years of half-used radish seeds, hybrid tomato seeds from 1996, leftover lawn patch seeds that got wet in the bag, cabbage seeds I forgot about and never gave garden space too, dill, cilantro, caraway and fennel seeds collected from previous years gardens, hollyhocks collected from alleyways. Lots of black-eyed susans, marigolds and cosmos. While I’m on the seed purge, I’m cleaning out the kitchen pantry and throwing in old spices (coriander, dill, mustard seed) and old whole wheat berries that have bugs, or old beans I’ll never like. Talk about recycling!
You can decide which seeds are iffy by checking out this list of lifespans of vegetable seeds:
Phew. Now that I understand which seeds will happily last until next year, I can order from the End of Year Seed Sale and have good viable fresh seed to save in my seed box for next Spring.
by Sandy Swegel
We all know it’s a good idea to grow from seed. Every winter I fantasize about the amazing garden I could have if I just got started earlier. And every year I somehow end up buying plants that I know I could have started on my own with a little more planning.
This year will be different she says. To strengthen my resolve and not fall into winter doldrums, here’s my list of Why Grow from Seed.
Native plants are better for pollinators, better for the environment, and more likely to survive and thrive in our yard.
There’s only one way to be sure our plants haven’t been treated with pesticides that will hurt pollinators or poison your food. Grow it ourselves from seed. It’s also the best way to keep down unwanted pests like whitefly and thrips that thrive in crowded Big Ag type greenhouses and then come to live in our home gardens.
If we want a standard garden that looks like every other garden on the block, we buy plants where everybody else buys them. Beautiful but kinda conformist. Growing from seed gives us a nearly infinite palette of possibilities. I love having a garden where someone stops and asks “What is That amazing flower?”
This is the obvious Number One reason to grow from seed. For just a couple bucks we get dozens or hundreds or thousands of plants. The gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens often let some reseeding annuals seed themselves all over until their acreage. Last year snapdragons were allowed to grow wherever the wind and birds planted the seeds. We can get the same effect at home. One $2.50 packet of snapdragons has over 14,000 seeds. That’s a lot of adorable low-care flowers to have throughout the garden.
And why do we want more flowers? My first impulse is because they’re just so pretty. But as I happened to read on the front page of our website this morning in big red letters:
“Remember, the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.”
by Sandy Swegel
That’s a great question that comes up every year during our end-of-the-year Fall Sale. Everybody wants a good deal but are afraid the seeds won’t still be good next year.
The answer is as expected…”It depends.”
If you can keep your seeds in a cool dry place, your seeds can last for years.
Here are the seed killers:
Excess Moisture. The year we had catastrophic flooding in Boulder the seeds in my storage area sprouted right in their packets up on a shelf from the high humidity from only one inch of water on the floor in September. The seeds were well packed out of the water, but the temperature was 85 degrees and the humidity 100%. If you live in a humid area, you can save all those little silica gel packets to reuse.
Excess Heat. Seeds do survive better in cooler temperature. A cool basement, a cold closet, or a freezer. The actual temperature is a little less important than keeping the temperature consistent.
Light. Some seed germination is triggered by light (lettuce is an example) so keep your seeds dark by storing in a dark bag or box.
Rodents. It seemed like a good idea to keep the seeds in a shoebox in the unheated garage. Cool and dark. Then in early Spring, I discovered little mice had chewed right through the cardboard box and chewed the seed packets to get at the yummy treats inside. Ewww.
What works for me is to put the seeds in mason jars that I keep in a cool dark basement closet in a closed box.
Once you know you can keep the seeds cool and dry, then the only thing to consider is seed longevity. Some seeds last easily for years. Others only last one year before the germination rate goes down. Below is a chart from the Chicago Botanic Gardens on longevity in vegetable seeds. Some of the really good “keepers” are ones you only need a few of every year such as tomatoes and squash.
Seed Viability Chart:
What We Gardeners Have in Common with Thomas Jefferson
by Sandy Swegel
This Presidents’ Day led me to researching about the gardens of the White House. I expected to write about the many “heirlooms” that Jefferson gathered and preserved for us. He grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruit! I found myself instead captivated by the gardening relationship he shared with his oldest granddaughter Ann. His letters to the teenager Ann have been preserved and give us great insight into these talented gardeners.
There isn’t much about gardening that has changed much since the early 19th century. These are some of the things we know we have in common with the third US President and his granddaughter Ann.
We all want more flowers.
Jefferson was famous for collecting seeds from distant lands in order to grow more varieties at home. He quickly saw the natural consequence of his love of variety — running out of garden space — for he writes Anne in 1806:
“I find that the limited number of our flower beds will too much restrain the variety of flowers in which we might wish to indulge, and therefore I have resumed an idea…of a winding walk surrounding the lawn before the house, with a narrow border of flowers on each side.”
We know how to care for young plants.
In this late winter time of year, we gardeners always start too many young plants too early to actually plant and then have to prepare for their movement from my sunny light shelf to the cold outdoors. Ann too reports how careful she was with the many treasures her grandfather sent her in the winter of 1806.
“The grass, fowls, and flowers arrived safely on Monday afternoon. I planted the former in a box of rich earth and covered it for a few nights until I thought it had taken root and then by degrees, for fear of rendering it too delicate, exposed it again. I shall plant Governor Lewis’s peas as soon as the danger of frost is over.”
We watch the weather
When Ann was only 12 years old, Jefferson in the White House relied on her to report on the weather and its effects on the garden. “How stands the fruit with you in the neighborhood and at Monticello, and particularly the peas, as they are what will be in season when I come home. The figs also, have they been hurt?
We are never finished.
After Jefferson retired to Monticello, he and Ann continued to design and redesign the gardens. Ann’s younger sister Ellen described the delight the garden gave the entire family.
. . . Then when the flowers were in bloom, and we were in ecstasies over the rich purple and crimson, or pure white, or delicate lilac, or pale yellow of the blossoms, how he would sympathize in our admiration, or discuss with my mother and elder sister new groupings and combinations and contrasts. Oh, these were happy moments for us and for him!”
Jefferson on Happiness
Jefferson planned many years for his retirement to Monticello. When at last he was able to retire to the gardens Ann had nurtured in his absence, he wrote:
“the total change of occupation from the house & writing-table to constant employment in the garden & farm has added wonderfully to my happiness. it is seldom & with great reluctance I ever take up a pen. I read some, but not much.”
Fortunately for us as a nation, most of his life was not spent in the garden, but he knew, as we do, how special and sacred our gardens are.
The story of Monticello with 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 of fruit is a grand story. You can find out more here: https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/thomas-jeffersons-legacy-gardening-and-food
by Sandy Swegel
To get the best tomato plants, you need the best seed. If you want to save your own tomato seeds, you need to select from the very best tomatoes this year.
Timing is critical. My friend Frank is a wonderful market farmer who has taught many of us a lot about organic growing.http://www.fatherearthorganicfarm.com/aboutus.htm. Yesterday, he emailed us an alert saying,
“So pick your best, most ripe (even to the point of over-ripe) tomato, pepper, etc., and save and dry the seed. Choosing an over-ripe veggie will ensure the seed has fully developed. If you wait for a frost or freeze before you pick the fruit or veggie, most of the seed will not be developed enough to be viable next year. “
That makes perfect sense, but many years it’s not been until the first frost that I remember that summer is over and I’d better save some seed. Although I’m not as bad as my friend who had planted a mixed pack of heirloom seeds and just realized she had served the last of the best tasting of those tomatoes in a sandwich to her daughter. Dear daughter still tells the story of crazy mom running across the room to yank the sandwich out of her hand and claim the tomato for its seeds.
Once you’ve selected an overripe tomato to be next year’s seeds, be sure to taste the tomato to make sure it’s the perfect tomato. A restaurant critic I know calls this the Platonic Tomato….the tomato that in its very form and essence defines what a tomato is.
You’ve probably read lots of online info about saving tomato seeds…you need to let them ferment a bit in a saucer before letting the seed dry and then save it in a cool dry place for next year. Even though this is easy, I have to admit most the time I let the organic farmers who grow for us at BBB Seed just do all that work and I buy the seed in the cute packet in January.
That said, I’m off for my morning breakfast of slices of tomatoes with my morning egg from my backyard chickens with some melted Swiss cheese. It doesn’t get better than this!!!
By Sandy Swegel
Seeds are the New Hollywood Celebrities
The importance of seeds to life on Earth is growing in our consciousness. Have you noticed there are a number of new movies and other media about seeds? “Seeds” and “Sustainable Farming” are definitely “IN.” Many films are now available online for free and others are being screened in local communities.
Here are a few that I know about.
“Seeds of Time” 2013
SEEDS OF TIME follows agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler’s global journey to save the eroding foundation of our food supply in a new era of climate change. The reviews rave about great nature photography.
“Open Sesame” 2013
This film tells the story of seeds by following the challenges and triumphs of some of their most tireless stewards and advocates.
“Bitter Seeds” 2011
These are sad stories about farmers in India
“Harvest of Fear”
A Nova, Frontline PBC special about the GMO debates.
“The Vanishing Seeds Film Project.”
about seeds and deforestation in Africa.
Here are a few of the TV Programs:
“Farm Kings” about farmers in Pittsburg
A Reality TV program “The Farm” is popular in Europe.
And the newest show, Chipotle has sponsored
“Farmed and Dangerous” on Hulu
2 Easy Ways to Have More Flowers Next Year!
by Sandy Swegel
Your task this week is to go stand in the part of your garden that has wildflower-y plants. You’ll notice two things. The first thing is that there are lots of spent flowers and seed heads that need to be deadheaded. Everything from rudbeckia to dill to penstemon has mature seed heads. You can always collect these seeds and put them in little envelopes to save for spring or you can take my lazy way out and Snip off the seed head and Fling it in the general direction you’d like it to grow next year. Flowering plants always seem to migrate to the edge of the garden bed and need some encouragement to move to the middle and back of the bed. Keep flinging seeds knowing that some of them will germinate right in the place they fall…so Fling merrily.
Your second assignment is to find a spring or early summer bloomer and stand in front of it. A Columbine or Penstemon, Agastache and Echinacea are good possibilities. Often right at the feet of these now finished beauties are dozens of little plants or even seedlings that have germinated in the past month and are growing next year’s plants. I take my hori-hori knife and gently dig or carve out (we have lots of clay soil) a nice plug of soil that keeps the baby plants roots intact and plant it where I’d like more plants. If the plant is young and you didn’t disturb the roots much, there won’t be transplant shock…just a new perennial that will bloom next year.
Whether you are flinging seeds or digging up plant plugs, you’ve saved yourself a lot of time and fussing with seed starting trays under lights and you’ve tricked Mother Nature into letting those perennials bloom next year. New plants easy, quick and free. That’s my kind of gardening.
Meadow: Sandy Swegel
Best Wildflower Seed
Heirloom Vegetable Seed
Organic Vegetable Seed
by Sandy Swegel
You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them. One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to educate other people to care and get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too. Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit. Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.
So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators? I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years. Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns. And she did it without preaching. So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.
Make a demo garden in your front yard. It was a slow start for Niki. She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds. But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by. She invited the kids over to watch butterflies. She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did. Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships. Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t. Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals. That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.
Teach the kids
Kids have open minds. Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around. They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.
Give away free stuff.
It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away. People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s. They also learned they could get free plants. She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.
Offer Free Public Classes
Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use. So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another. Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes. Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids. They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things. Not preachy…but well-researched information. A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.
Be generous with your time to talk to others
Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies. Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy. Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.
Pollinator flower mixes
Heirloom vegetable seed