John McWilliams teaches botany at Oklahoma Baptist University and maintains several lines of open-pollinated heirloom crops.

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Simpler Than You Think
by John McWilliams       #Propagation   #Seeds

My grandfather’s shed was a mysterious place. Tools I didn’t recognize lined the walls over shelves of coffee cans filled with rusty hardware. Most interesting to me were the dozens of blue glass jars tucked carefully toward the back of each shelf, with seeds of every color and shape imaginable tightly sealed inside.

Seed saving seems to have gone the way of horse-drawn plows. Many gardeners opt for the convenience of buying new seed every year, and some fear that saving their own seed is involves more skill than they wish to acquire. True, there is an art to seed saving, but with a little effort, most gardeners could save a significant amount of money by doing so, and experience a few more of the rewards of self-sufficiency.


Which Seeds to Save

One of the rumors that keeps some gardeners from saving their own seeds is that “homegrown” seed stock will produce plants that are inferior to the original parent plants. This is one of those cases in which generalizations are misleading. As a rule, most seeds will produce a crop that is similar to, and just as good as, the parent crop. These user-friendly varieties are called “open-pollinated” crops and have been the mainstay of agriculture for centuries. Open-pollinated varieties usually have very consistent genetics (geneticists might use the term homozygous for all traits). In addition, many of these cultivars self-pollinate, which further ensures that different crops don’t mix.

Having stated this generalization, however, let’s look at two exceptions that you might encounter. Some open-pollinated crops that cross-pollinate easily (meaning that pollen from one plant is transferred to another plant of that species) may cross with each other to produce offspring (seeds) that are mixtures of the two parent plants. This is not a problem if there is only one variety of that crop within pollinating distance.

For example, in a field of ‘Golden Bantam’ corn, it doesn’t matter whether pollen from one plant fertilizes another. Since the plants are all genetically the same, the seeds will all be the same. However, if a neighbor plants a crop of multicolored Indian corn next door, the pollen will mix between the two crops, and the resulting seeds may exhibit millions of possible genetic combinations. Future crops grown from these seeds will be very unpredictable with regard to the corn characteristics expressed.

Another exception to the rule occurs when growing hybrid plants. Plant breeders produce hybrid seed by crossing parent stock from two different varieties of a certain crop. This is done for the purpose of creating a new mixed variety that expresses a trait known as “hybrid vigor.” This new variety is typically larger, heartier, healthier or otherwise more robust than non-hybrid crops.

The problem for the seed saver is that the seeds produced by hybrids will now contain the same variable mixtures of genetics as discussed previously, even when self-pollinated. Crops produced from seeds collected from hybrid plants will produce a multitude of different characteristics. Although this may make an interesting experiment for the curious gardener, consistent, predictable crops are not likely.


Harvesting Seeds

Seeds are living organisms, carrying the genetic information from their parent plants. Collect seeds from only healthy, mature fruit. Remove any residual fruit tissue before drying and storing seeds.

You have a great deal of power as a seed saver. The seed that you select for next year’s crop will determine the traits passed to that crop. So, harvest seed stock from plants that display the characteristics you want. If your parent crop is variable in some way, such as plant height, then seeds from tall plants will likely produce taller offspring. Or if the fruit on some plants is better than others, by all means try to save seeds from those plants. If, however, you want to maintain the variability in the crop, be sure to collect seed from as many different plants as possible.

The fruit you collect seed from should be mature and even overripe, if possible. Seed from immature fruit may not be viable. In most cases, pods that are drying, fruits that are changing color or stems that are shriveling are good indicators of full maturity. Some crops such as beans, corn and okra may be allowed to dry on the plant before harvesting. Also, be sure to harvest from healthy plants. Many plant diseases are transmitted on or in seeds.


Processing Seeds

This step is generally easier than it sounds. Try to remove as much fruit or pod material as possible. Spread the seed in a well-ventilated area to dry. An old window screen makes a good drying surface. Drying time may vary, but in summer heat, about two weeks will usually give good results.


Storing Seeds

A seed is a living organism. Although in its dehydrated state it is dormant, its life is still limited. If processed properly, most garden and flower seeds will remain viable from one to five years, however, germination rates will continue to decrease the longer they are stored.

For the best results and the longest viability, try to keep the humidity, temperature and light levels as low as possible. Airtight containers, such as jars or plastic bags, are best, but paper containers are usually acceptable. Label the containers and place them in the coolest, driest and darkest place you can find.

Insect pests may become a problem. If you see weevils, moths, droppings, powdery residue or other signs of infestation, it’s probably best to destroy that particular lot before it spreads. Sometimes, freezing the seeds for a couple of weeks before final storage will kill hidden insect eggs and larvae. Rodents can also destroy an entire seed collection in a few hours, so consider this when choosing storage sites.

Tips for Specific Crops

Tomatoes: Set mature fruits aside for a few weeks until they begin to spoil. This ensures that the seeds are fully mature and helps decrease disease transfer.

Melons, squash, cucumbers, gourds: Since these crops cross-pollinate easily, you may have to cover a few unopened blossoms with a paper sack. Shake the sacks daily to ensure self-pollination. Tag the fruit from these flowers and harvest when they are very mature. Clean the seeds well before drying.

Corn: If there are other corn varieties around, you may need to cover several very young ears with paper sacks to avoid cross-pollination. When silks appear, cut off the tassel from a plant and shake it onto the silks inside the sack. Tag these ears for seed saving. Let the seed dry on the stalk.

Pepper: Remove seeds when fruit ripens. Dry them for a day or two before storage.

Beans and peas: The easiest seeds to save. Let the pods dry on the plant, then shell out and store.


A version of this article appeared in print in Arkansas Gardener Volume VI Issue VIII. Photos by John McWilliams.


Posted: 08/08/12   RSS | Print


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