Tuesday, May 1, 2012

This Spring's Seed Saving

Seed saving seems a good topic for Beltane, since it's all about new life and fertility, right? I've been meaning to post more about my seed saving efforts, so here's my first big bout of seed saving for 2012. I got into seed saving pretty fast after getting into gardening in general, and own probably the two best books about the subject out there: Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe. I recommend both books for any gardener who wants to save their own seed (and any gardener who's as much of a nerd as I am about biology and genetics SHOULD save their own seed! It's lots of fun!). The two books compliment each other very well. Have Seed to Seed on your shelf as a reference book to look up specific data about isolation distances, pollination, storage life of seeds, etc., but sit down and read Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties to get inspiration for all the seed saving projects you'd like to try out in your own garden.

This latest seed saving effort was done sort of opportunistically. Our old landlord wouldn't let us get out of our lease early, so we've been stuck with our rent house ever since we moved. This month is the last month of our lease, so we visited one last time the other day to get the last of the cleaning done. In my abandoned garden, a lot of my poor plants had died, but several had gone to seed. I wish I had gotten a picture, because it was a pretty crazy sight. People aren't used to seeing things like mustard and lettuce in a reproductive state. I think it makes them look much wilder and weedier than they do when they're normally harvested.

With all this plant sex going on, it seemed only fair that I, their neglectful gardener, save their progeny they worked so hard to produce, to bring with me to my new garden, even though I hadn't really planned on it.

The Tall Telephone peas were the easiest things to save. Legumes are nice that way. The pods had completely dried down to tan, papery things. I picked a whole bunch of them, and then spent an hour or two popping them open in front of the TV and letting the dry peas plink out onto a plate. Something about shelling beans or peas is kind of satisfying to me. It's like popping bubble wrap or something. I then spread out the peas on a plate and am letting them sit out for a week or two to completely dry out. This is very important to do with large seeds.

After they're completely dry, legume seeds need to be frozen, even if you don't plan on keeping them that way for long. There are bugs that like to lay their eggs on the seeds, and freezing kills them. If you don't do this step, and just put them in a jar at room temperature, you might come back later to a jar full of bugs and chewed up pea dust. I can't remember how long you have to freeze them for, but two weeks should probably do it.

This is my second generation of saved Tall Telephone peas. I really like this variety because it gets so HUGE. This variety gets vines that rival pole beans in length, at 6 feet or more, while most peas get more like 3 feet high. That translates to lots more peas for the space, and the peas themselves are bigger too, which makes shelling them more efficient. The only disadvantage I discovered this past winter, growing them with Lincoln Shell, that they started making pods a bit later than Lincoln Shell. I guess that makes sense that a larger plant will mature later than a smaller plant. However, Lincoln Shell also died much sooner than Tall Telephone. I will definitely continue to grow Tall Telephone as my main pea crop, but I might consider trying out some more smaller, earlier pea varieties to extend the harvest a bit.

Next came the mustard. I planted two varieties of mustard over the winter. One was from a GardenWeb seed swap and was simply labeled "Curly Mustard" and the other was from my CSA farmer, something he called "Horned Mustard". I didn't intend to save mustard seeds at all, but when I came back to my old garden, the Horned Mustard had completely dry and mature seed pods ready to harvest. The thing is, it's highly likely they crossed with the Curly Mustard, since unlike peas, Brassicas are outbreeders. In fact, Brassicas are one of those crops that suffer quite a lot from inbreeding depression, and you have to make sure you save seeds from enough plants to have a big gene pool.

On the other hand, Carol Deppe has convinced me to not be too fussed about keeping things pure. I know some seed savers are very particular about saving pure seed, making sure no other varieties cross with them, and I can see how that's important in some situations, like when you're trying to preserve a rare variety, or if you're sending seed to someone who is expecting a certain variety. But I only had 6 Horned Mustard plants to begin with, which isn't even enough to prevent inbreeding depression, so maybe it's OK they might have crossed with the Curly Mustard. I decided to collect the seed anyway just as an experiment.

Brassica seeds are also kind of easy to save, but not as easy as legumes. They get these thin little seed pods on them, but unlike the peas, these guys were ready to just pop open on their own with only the tiniest bit of jostling. As I picked the dry plants, mustard seeds were flying everywhere! I crammed them into a plastic grocery bag, and when I got home, the bottom of the bag had already collected quite a bit of the tiny, dark seeds. I dumped the contents of the bag into a plastic tub and started scrunching it around to get the rest of the seeds to come out (I put on gloves after my hands started getting irritated by the fine little plant fibers). After running the results through a sieve from the kitchen, I ended up with about a quarter cup of seeds for very little effort.

A quarter cup of mustard seeds is a LOT of seed for planting! That seems to always happen when I save seed. I'm always surprised about how much I get, more than I can ever use myself.

When it comes time to plant them, I think I will just sprinkle a bunch of these seeds directly in the garden somewhere and see what comes up. If they are crossed, I might get some interesting hybrids coming up. And I have enough seed that pulling out any crosses that turn out to be not-so-tasty won't seem like too much of a waste.

The Red Romaine lettuce was the biggest pain to save. It was the only lettuce that had matured with seeds ready (all the other lettuce varieties had died from neglect), so I felt it deserved it, but it was a lot more work than the pea or mustard seeds. If you let your lettuce flower and go to seed, you can easily see why it's classified in the same family as dandelions. I scrunched around the dry plants the same way as the mustard, but this time I got a big bowl of lettuce seeds with almost as much fluff and other debris mixed in. Shaking it and blowing it around didn't help, because the seeds blew around just as much as the chaff (unlike the mustard seeds which sank to the bottom of the pile while the chaff stayed on top to be skimmed off). Passing them through the sieve helped a little, but I still ended up with lettuce seeds that have a lot of other stuff mixed in.

I finally gave up, and started wondering how important it really is to have perfectly clean seed. I spread the lettuce seed out on that yellow plate you see in the top picture.

While I was in seed-saving mode, I also went ahead and finished cleaning the Ms. Burns Lemon Basil seed I saved last summer. I had picked off the tops of the plants, but had a lot of trouble separating the seeds out of their little capsules. After asking online, I was told maybe they weren't dry enough, so I crammed them into a paper bag, and that paper bag has been sitting in the garage every since. With gloved hands, I rubbed them around in the plastic tub, and did get some seed to release, but now I'm worried that maybe I picked the seedheads too early. A lot of the seeds still didn't want to come out, and the ones that did aren't all black like basil seed is supposed to be. Some of them are brown. I'm worried that the brown ones may not be mature.

Good thing I still have some of my original Ms. Burn's Lemon Basil seed left, in case this seed is no good. I should probably do a germination test on this seed to see. Maybe it's fine, but next time I save basil seed, I guess I'd better leave it on the plant longer.

So to recap, here are the seeds I have saved so far this year...
Tall Telephone Peas
Horned Mustard (possibly crossed)
Red Romaine Lettuce
Ms. Burns Lemon Basil

And in my freezer are seeds I've already saved before...
Vates Collards (from only 6 plants, so probably not enough genetic diversity to maintain for long)
Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas
Jalapeno Peppers
Chihuahua Landrace Cushaw Squash
Black Cherry Tomato
Hawkins Plum Tomato
Mortgage Lifter Tomato
Pink Ponderosa Tomato
Red Brandywine Tomato
Rio Grande Paste Tomato

Of course I plan on saving even more seed later this year, from more tomatoes, peppers, squash, and beans.

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