Eight Things to Consider When Saving Vegetable Seeds

seed saving

The directions for seed saving in our last book, Making It, almost got cut. Perhaps we should have just changed those directions to “Why it’s OK to buy seeds.” The fact is that it’s not easy to save the seeds of many vegetables thanks to the hard work of our bee friends.

That being said, Shannon Carmody of Seed Saver’s Exchange gave a lecture at this year’s Heirloom Exposition with some tips for ambitious gardeners who want to take up seed saving. Here’s some of her suggestions:

1. Maintaining varietal purity
Is the vegetable open pollinated or hybrid? Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to type. You can’t save and regrow the seeds of hybrids, at least not without a lot of complicated multi-generational outcrossing in order to create a new variety that produces true to type. [I'll note that I'm not anti-hybrid. The increased vigor of hybrids can be advantageous if you're having trouble in your garden.]

2. Know how the vegetable is pollinated
It’s much easier to save the seeds of self-pollinating vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes. Remember that bees can fly for miles–anything pollinated by insects have to be isolated or caged to prevent cross-pollination. And many vegetables have weedy cousins. Try to save the seeds of carrots without caging and you may get a carrot/Queen Anne’s lace hybrid that won’t taste good. And some supposedly self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes have rogue varieties that can be cross pollinated by insects.

3. Consider your climate
Bienneals require two years of growth in order to set seeds. If you live in a cold climate that could be a problem.

4. Population size
Serious plant breeders often plant a minimum of sixty plants so that they can choose the most vigorous for seed saving. And they’ll often plant just one variety to reduce the risk of crossing. One way around the population size requirement is to crowd source the problem and get a bunch of friends to grow the same vegetable.

5. Space requirements
Some biennials get really big in the second year. You’ll need to make sure they have space and won’t shade out other plants.

6. When to harvest
Fruits harvested for seed may need to stay on the plant for a long time. For example, eggplants that you want to save seed from need to be harvested well past when they’re still edible.

7. Prepping seeds
In general, seeds harvested when dry, such as lettuce need to be air dried before storing. Seeds harvested wet, such as watermelons, need to be washed with water before drying and storing. Tomato seeds need to be fermented in water for a few days before drying.

8. Storage
Moisture is the enemy of seed storage. Those packs of desiccant that come with electronic gadgets can be recycled and used in your seed storage boxes.

There’s no shame in buying seeds

In our small garden it would be nearly impossible to save the seeds of readily pollinated vegetables such as members of the Cucurbitaceae family. But it would be great to have varieties of vegetables adapted to our dry Mediterranean climate. Most seed saving operations use lots of fertilizer and water and the result is vegetables that are adapted, unsurprisingly, to requiring tons of fertilizer and water. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a notable exception. But we need more regional seed saving groups run by trained horticulturalists. In the meantime I buy seeds and stick to saving just the easy ones–beans, peas and tomatoes.

If you want more information about seed saving the bible of the subject is Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed.

How have your seed saving endeavors gone? What seeds do you save? Have you ever gone through the trouble of bagging seed heads or caging plants and hand-pollinating?

Vegetable Garden Note Taking

A page from Thomas Jefferson's garden diary.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s garden diary.

My worst mistake in the fifteen years we have been gardening here in Los Angeles has been my shoddy note taking. Even though we don’t have frosts to contend with, it still can be tricky to figure out when to plant vegetables.

In a lecture I attnded at the National Heirloom Exoposition, Sonoma County gardening guru Wendy Krupnick had a simple suggestion for what to take notes on in your vegetable garden:

  • variety
  • planting day
  • first harvest
  • last harvest
  • comments

She suggested a minimum of three years of note taking.

If only I had this data! If there isn’t one already, someone should come up with a social note taking app for vegetable gardening that would aggregate information for each local microclimate. Leave a comment if such a thing exists.

And for more great gardening advice from Krupnick, check out iGrowSonoma.org. Most of the info is relevant even if you don’t live in Northern California.

The Connection Between Human Health and Soil Health

What’s the connection between soil and human health? It’s an intriguing question that family physician and author Dr. Daphne Miller discusses in the lecture above and in her book Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing. In the research for the book Miller visited farmers who, as she put it, “farm in the image of nature,” who approach the farm as a living organism.

While she cautioned that there is little research behind the connection between farming practices and health, she suspects that biodiversity on the farm may be an important factor in our well being. To back this idea up she cites:

  • Erika von Mutius, who found an intriguing connection between children who grew up on farms and their lack of asthma and allergies later in life.
  • Research that is taking an Integrated Pest Management approach to cancer, treating it as a symptom of a lack of internal biodiversity.
  • Studies that have shown the higher nutritional value of eggs from chickens raised on pasture.

It seems obvious that there’s a connection between the health of a farm and our own health. Biodiverse soils produce healthier, more nutritious food. And way too much of the food we eat comes from farms where the soil is treated as a sterile growing medium. As Miller notes, “We are the soil.”

How to save tomato seed

tomato seeds rotting in water

Seeds fermenting in water. Not pretty, but pretty important! The jar got shaken up while walking it outside for its photo op., so it looks a little cloudy and messy. In your jar, you should see a layer of scum on top of the water.

I can’t believe we haven’t posted about this before–it seems like we have, but I can’t find the post if this is so. Perhaps we wrote about it in one of our books…the old brain is getting foggy.

It’s easy to save seed from your favorite tomatoes. Seed saving in general is actually a little tricky. You can’t just save the seed from any old vegetable in your garden and hope that it will yield plants like the parent. Cross-breeding is an issue. Professional seed savers use all sorts of sacks and screens and boxes to ensure that busy bees or flirtatious winds don’t make romance happen where it ought not. Otherwise you get acorn squash crossing with melons and who knows what not. It depends on the type of vegetable you want to save seed from–as well as what else you’re growing around it.

Tomatoes, however, are a pretty safe bet for seed saving. They are self-fertile, and the structure of their flowers makes cross pollination difficult. Our seed saving Bible, Seed to Seed, says that there are only three types of open pollinated tomatoes that you can’t save seed from (without putting them in isolation):

  1. Currant tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium)
  2. The potato leaved varieties of L. lycopersicum
  3. Any fruit born from double blossoms on Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Double blossoms are prone to cross-pollination.  You can save seeds from fruit that came from a single blossom

Odd, but simple! You can basically save seed from almost any heirloom/open-pollinated variety you’re likely to  be growing. You cannot save seed from hybridized plants. These are the type you are most likely to find in the nursery–plants bred for performance, not seed saving. This would include popular breeds like Early Girl and Better Boy and Sun Golds.  If you’re not sure if your tomatoes are hybrids or not, just Google the name. The Internet is wonderful that way.

The process of saving tomato seed is simple. All you have to do is rot off the protective gel sack which surrounds each seed. This gel inhibits germination, keeping the seeds from germinating while still in the tomato. In nature, the gel rots off while the fallen tomato sits on the ground. Here, you will speed the process along with some water. In addition to removing the gel sack, this fermentation process also kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.

How to Save Tomato Seed

  1. Choose your best, tastiest tomatoes for seed saving.
  2. Scoop out the seed pulp and drop it into a jar. Or just squeeze a whole tomato over the jar.   It’s best to just squeeze cherry tomatoes. (You can use food processor, too, if you’re doing big batches.)
  3. Pour a little water over the pulp. It should cover the pulp by say, 2-3  inches or so.
  4. Cover the container and let it sit for a few days (3 days, roughly–weather makes a difference), until white or grey mold forms on the surface of the water. If you do a big batch, you will smell the rot. Don’t worry about it–just keep the dogs away! Watch for the mold to form and continue on to the next step. The mold may be impressively fuzzy, or it may just be a slight opaque slick on top of the water. Don’t let it sit in this state too long, or the seeds will start germinating in their bath.* If you’re in doubt as to whether it is ready, it’s ready. Far better to stop a little early than to let the seeds accidentally germinate.
  5. Pour off the moldy water, reserve the seeds.
  6. Add clean water back to the seeds and give the water a swirl. Let it settle. Any bad seeds will rise to the top. If they do, pour them off.
  7. Strain the seeds with a fine strainer (a teas strainer is fine for small batches) and spread them out to dry. They need to dry on something which will wick water away, because it is important that they dry quickly–otherwise they might germinate. Coffee filters work well, as do pieces of window screen, or paper plates. Tomato seeds stick to paper towels, so if you use those you may end up having to plant the seeds on their little bits of towel.
  8. Once they are bone dry, transfer to envelopes or glass jars for storage. Be sure to label!

*I just lost a batch to germination. I blame the heat. It didn’t seem like they’d be fermenting that long, but after I drained my seeds I saw the tiny little white nubbins poking out of the seeds. Now I have to begin again. This is one reason why you should not wait ’til your last tomato to think about saving seeds. Also, this is a reminder to keep a close eye on your projects!

ETA: We’ve had some comments from what I’ll call the Paper Towel School of seed saving, and I thought I’d amend this post to point out that another method is to just spread some tomato pulp on a paper towel and let it dry out. The seeds will stick to the towel, so you store the whole towel and when planting time comes next year, you tear the towel into tiny pieces and plant the pieces. This does save steps. The method described above is the Official Method, and the method I’ve always used. I’ve not tried the paper towel thing myself, but it seems sensible. However, as  I understand it, the fermentation process in the water bath method kills diseases, so it is considered good etiquette to put your seeds through this process if you plan to share them with others.

Also check out the comments for more on the mystery of cross-pollinating tomatoes!

The Genetic Diversity of Watermelons

Navaho Watermelon

Damn those supermarket watermelons! Every one I’ve bought this summer has been mealy, old and tasteless. Why? Yet again, the folks who sell us our food have decided to grow only a handful of the over 1,200 known varieties of watermelons.

The one pictured above is a Navaho watermelon I picked up at the National Heirloom Exposition. Note the vibrant (and tasty) red seeds. Navaho watermelons are sometimes called “winter melons” since they can be stored for a few months.

Another watermelon I tasted at the Exposition was a yellow fleshed variety called Orangeglo. It was probably the sweetest and tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten.

The problem with supermarket watermelons is not due to the seedless vs. seeded issue. Seedless watermelons are created with a complex genetic process you can read about here. What’s more relevant to taste is how early watermelons are picked, how long they’ve been sitting around and the limited varieties commercial growers plant.

The Heirloom Exposition eloquently demonstrated the benefits of genetic diversity with its watermelon display and tasting. And that diversity is something we can all address in our gardens, if we have one, by planting unusual seeds. You can bet I’m going to try growing watermelons in next summer’s straw bale garden.

What kinds of watermelons have you grown and what’s your favorite?

Tips on growing great garlic

IMG_0041

This week I’m at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California. Kelly is at home, tending to our herd of milk cats. Yesterday I learned a lot about garlic.

Garlic is one of those crops well worth growing if you’ve got the space. Why? unless you know an heirloom garlic farmer, the stuff you buy at the supermarket is one of just three bland varieties. According to garlic expert Jeffrey Nekola, who spoke yesterday, garlic has twelve times more information in its DNA than we humans do. Meaning, that garlic is a plant capable of vast biodiversity.

Cultural needs

When I asked a garlic farmer I met yesterday how to grow garlic he said, “It’s like giving a credit card to your wife . . . you’ve got to give her all she wants.” When I asked him to clarify, he told me that garlic requires as much compost, nutrients and water as you can spare. Nekola said he doesn’t even plant garlic unless he’s prepped his beds for at least two to three years and noted that one of the best heads of garlic he ever grew took root accidentally in a compost pile.

Pull the garlic cloves apart (leave the skins on) and plant them in the ground with the pointy end up. Nekola suggests planting them with a tablespoon of soybean meal (found at feed stores as animal feed). Nekola also recommended mulch. Let the garlic sprout first, but then pack down at least an inch of straw. Lay your drip tubing under the straw.

When to plant varies by location but it’s usually sometime in the fall. For us in Los Angeles the farmer I spoke to suggested October 1 as a planting date, but noted that he “usually screws up” and doesn’t get the garlic in until October 9. No doubt I will screw up even worse and not get the garlic in until November 1.

Thereafter, it’s a waiting game. Garlic takes a good six months to mature. You harvest most types of garlic when the stalk is nearly brown. And don’t forget to pick off the flowers if they appear. The flowers pull energy from the plant that is better spent making big cloves. The flowers are also edible: some farmers are actually making more money selling the flowers as culinary exotics.

Growing garlic in hot climates

I’ve had mixed success growing garlic in Los Angeles. It turns out I was growing the wrong varieties. Most garlics appreciate cold weather, including some time spent under a blanket of snow. For hot climates you need to grow Creole garlics that, come from the Iberian peninsula. Pictured above are some of the Creole garlics on display at the Expo.

One quirk with Creole garlics is that the cloves don’t develop until the last second. Nekola cautioned about picking them too soon. You have to really wait until the stalks are almost totally dead. And Creole varieties take a very long and sunny growing season.

For more information on garlic varieties, Nekola maintains an encyclopedic garlic website at:  http://sev.lternet.edu/~jnekola/Heirloom/garlicFAQ.htm

Gardening Mistake #12: The Annual That Ate Your Backyard!

squash and lavender

Is that a lavender bush cowering under the monster squash leaves?

I just thought of another mistake: allowing annuals, whether they be volunteers or valued vegetables, to overrun the garden and smother your perennial plants. This happens to us more than we’d care to admit.

It’s really easy to miss. In the spring, you’re so happy to see lush growth erupting all over your yard, that you’re not looking at it with a critical eye. Also, plants are sneaky. One day they’re nowhere near that little sage seedling you planted, the next day, they’ve swallowed it, and you’ve forgotten it was even there– and you won’t remember until you find its sad, withered skeleton when you’re cleaning out the faded annuals at the end of the season.

Generally, our worst culprit is the rampant nasturtium. This year, though, the serial killer prize goes to our meandering squash plants, which are doing their best to cover everything in our yard less than knee high with their 15″ leaves.

This morning I wanted to cut back a squash vine which had done some damage to a patch of yarrow and was reaching for my succulent zone. Erik threw his body across it and said I’d have to prune him first. As we all know, he’s a little crazy when it comes to squash.  I want a plaque inscribed above the garden gate: “Perennials Before Annuals. That is the Whole of the Law.”

Have you lost plants to rampant annuals?

squash vines in front of door

And by the way, I’ve given up on entering our back shed ’til harvest.

Make that 11 Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

inconsistent watering

In my post, Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes, several readers and Mrs. Homegrown pointed out that I left out “inconsistent watering.”

I plead guilty. I would also suggest an “absentminded” watering category, such as setting up a irrigation system on a timer and not adjusting it throughout the season.

And those of us in dry climates could also be better about selecting and saving seeds for drought tolerance. Gary Paul Nabhan and the folks at Native Seed Search are working diligently on this problem.

Now excuse me while I go check on my drip system . . .

Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

vegetablefail

Not ready for Martha Stewart: our front yard vegetable bed.*

Some of the worst meltdowns and temper tantrums of my adult life have their origins in failed vegetable gardening projects. I thought I’d list off my top ten vegetable gardening misadventures  so that you don’t have to repeat them.

1. Not paying attention to soil fertility
This is my number one mistake. Most vegetables suck up a lot of nutrients. They need lots of compost and a source of nitrogen (fertilizer, manure or a rotation of beans). The difference between our prodigious straw bale garden, which got a lot of blood meal and fish emulsion to get it going, and our obviously depleted front yard raised beds highlights this common error. I  have to do more soil tests and remember to add nutrients (most likely nitrogen) before even thinking about planting veggies.

2. Planting at the wrong time of year
It took us awhile to find the right sources of information to guide us as to when to plant in our quirky Mediterranean climate (see this calendar and this book if you’re in SoCal). Seed package directions are useless here (what’s a frost date?). But, in fact, all climates have their quirks. Even two sides of the same town might have different planting dates. You have to find experienced gardeners and sources especially in places with either year round growing seasons or very short growing seasons. Ultimately, all gardening advice is local.

3. Planting things that don’t do well in our climate
Yes you can grow almost anything here, but that doesn’t mean you should. Carrots don’t like clay soils and warm temperatures. Cabbage gets lots of pests here. Some veggies are best to outsource to the professionals at the farmer’s market.

4. Not having a plan
My brain, to put it politely, is non-linear. If I were to overcome that cognitive flaw and plan out how much and where things should be planted I’d have both a steady supply of produce as well as a more attractive garden.

5. Not labeling plants
What kind of okra is that? I have no damned idea. Too bad when I want to plant it again next year. All it takes is a sharpie and a plastic knife to fix this problem.

6. Not keeping a garden diary
The two most important things to know are when something was planted and when the first and last harvests took place. With this data you can plan out next years garden more easily. Some other things to note: how did it taste and were their any pest problems?

7. Not staggering planting
I guess this is why canning was invented, but it really would be nice to have a continuous supply of veggies rather than a ton all at once. Stagger planting by two weeks, for most vegetables and you won’t have the feast or famine effect.

8. Growing things we don’t like to eat
We had a hell of a lot of turnip gratin one winter.

9. Missing the harvest
This is the most heartbreaking for me. Suddenly there’s a bunch of tasty heirloom vegetables ready to harvest. But . . . I’m going on a trip, or I’m too busy to cook . . . or I’m just too lazy to cook form scratch. It reminds me of a quip beekeeper Kirk Anderson made about beekeeping. Beekeeping, Anderson said, is like going to the bathroom, “When Mother Nature calls you’ve gotta go.”

10. Meltdowns
Vegetable gardening requires the patience of the Buddha. Crap is going to happen and you just have to accept that. Bad weather, bug infestations, marauding skunks and absentmindedness will intervene in even the best planned vegetable garden. I have at least two major meltdowns a year. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to change.

Did I leave anything out? What mistakes have you made in your vegetable garden?

ETA: See Rule 11

*A note from Mrs. H. re: the top photo: Argh! Erik likes to be melodramatic with the pictures. Let me explain. This bed was indeed not a success. It needs soil inputs, and perhaps is hosting nematodes, so the seedlings didn’t thrive. This we realized way back in the spring. So we decided to just let that bed go for the rest of the summer and focus on the straw bales. That photo above is what a bed looks like after sitting neglected all summer long–it’s not the fruit of our best gardening efforts, or even the result of a pitched struggle. (But it did make a few tomatoes, bless it!) As soon as it cools down here I’m going to attend to that soil and bring it back to life.