Seed Saving: An Act of Revolution

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Two hands cupped together holding seeds

Author: Rebecca Last, Gardening at LastMaster Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission

Why Save Seeds?

Saving my own seeds saves me money and ensures I can get the seeds I want. So many people started gardening during COVID that the seed vendors couldn’t keep up! Perennials grown from seed tend to be hardier and better able to survive our harsh winters. Expert seed-savers can breed their own varieties. Saving seed from heritage vegetables and flowers connects me to the history of these plants.

It also preserves biodiversity. Nothing beats the bragging rights of being able to say, “I grew it myself from seed!”.

To Save or Not to Save

Not all plants produce seeds worth saving. Years ago, my passion for cream-coloured double marigolds led me to try saving their seeds instead of spending a fortune on the bedding plants. After three years, I had produced a weird, meter-high marigold with no petals at all. I’d been saving seeds from a hybrid, so they didn’t breed true. Only seeds from open-pollinated plants will produce plants that look like their parent.

How and When to Save Seeds

Autumn afternoons, after the dew has dried, are an excellent time to save seeds. Allowing plants to go to seed means leaving them on the plant longer than you normally would. Tomatoes, peppers, and squash should be overripe, while the pods of peas and beans should be dry and brittle.

Peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers are among the easiest seeds to save. All these plants produce seed the same year they are planted. They are self-fertile and have closed flowers, so there is little risk of cross-pollination that will produce strange results.

Members of the Cucurbit family (everything from acorn squash to zucchini, melons, cucumbers, etc.) are considered “promiscuous” because they have both male and female flowers. Although seed is produced in the plant’s first year, this promiscuity makes seed saving more challenging. You must hand-pollinate the female flower and isolate it inside a paper bag to keep out unwanted pollen.

Brassicas (e.g., cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, turnip, rutabaga), the carrot family, and beets are considered among the most difficult plants for seed-savers. You have to wait two years for these plants to produce seed. As with squash, separation is usually required to ensure you don’t get unwanted characteristics.

Seed Sanitation and Storage

Dryness is key to long-term seed storage. You must separate the seed from its protective casing.

The seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers, and other squash are encased in jelly. Spread these seeds on a paper towel and allow them to dry. Then pick them off the towel for storage. Other seeds, such as cosmos and grains, have a dry, papery shell that can be blown off because it is much lighter than the actual seed.

All seeds should be thoroughly dried before storage. If in doubt, place the seeds in a glass jar and put it in the sun. If condensate forms inside the jar, your seeds need more drying time. Big seeds like peas and beans can be frozen for two to three days to eliminate any microscopic weevils that can reduce your stored seeds to powder. Store your seeds in a cool, dry place where temperature and humidity don’t fluctuate.

Master Gardener Judith Cox suggests how to test the viability of seeds after storage.

Be a Revolutionary!

With the mergers of giant seed companies like Dow and Dupont, Bayer, and Monsanto, the global seed market has grown increasingly concentrated, and much of our food is now grown from just a handful of varieties of proprietary seeds. Saving your own seeds is fundamentally an act of quiet revolution and may help to assure our future food supply. This year, why not become a seed revolutionary?

Tip on How to Discourage Suirrels from Digging Up Your Bulbs

To discourage squirrels from digging up your bulbs, try mixing daffodils, hyacinths, scilla, muscari, fritillaria, or snowdrop bulbs with your tulips, crocus, and other tasty bulbs. Planting under a groundcover helps hide bulbs, as does mulch. Tulips can be planted deep (20 cm), so they are harder to dig up, especially if the soil is tamped down.

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