Seed Saving Tips – Part 1, by St. Funogas

This is not a how-to article, but rather a few tips on what I do to save seeds each year. I’m hoping we all can share ideas in the comments section to help us all become more proficient seed savers.

My first experience at saving seeds happened when I was nine years old. I grew lots of sweet corn in my little garden and decided I better save some seed for the next year. I let it dry enough so I could remove the kernels from the cob then stored them in a green candy tin. A few months later when I opened the tin, there was nothing but a large multi-colored mass of various fungi and my seeds were a total loss. I’m surprised the lid hadn’t blown off. Hence I learned Rule Number One early: always let seeds dry sufficiently before storing. Fortunately, I’ve learned many other seed-saving tips since that time.

First, A Little Botanical Enlightenment

Botanically, fruit is a ripened ovary. Much of the produce we call vegetables is actually fruit. If it has seeds it’s a fruit, if not it’s a vegetable. Tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, peppers, okra, eggplant, etc., all have seeds making them a fruit. In some cases, the only part of the fruit we eat is the seeds such as peas, dry beans, and walnuts. Any produce coming from the vegetative parts of the plant are vegetables. Radishes, carrots, beets, and turnips are roots. Celery and rhubarb are leaf stalks while asparagus and potatoes (yes, potatoes) are stems. Sometimes fruit is fleshy like peaches, plums, pears, and pomegranates, and sometimes fruit is dry such as pecans, peanuts, and pearl millet. Sometimes it’s something in between.

The majority of the plants we see around us produce flowers and have covered seeds. Only a few of the higher plants have naked seeds (not covered by the ovary) such as conifers. If you see a “naked seed” from a flower-bearing plant, those are not the seeds even though we refer to them as such, but are actually a type of dry fruit. These include things such as sunflowers and most other daisy-type flowers, and umbelliferous plants such as celery, carrots, cumin, and cilantro.

A fun fact: what we call the strawberry “fruit” is technically not a fruit at all but a part of the flower base called the receptacle. Since seeds from flowering plants are never naked, each “seed” on the outside of a strawberry is actually an individual dry fruit called an achene. Apples are another exception. What you eat is a fleshy receptacle and when you get down to the core, that’s the actual fruit. When you cut an apple along its equator, you can see the distinct line separating the receptacle from the fruit.

For the sake of keeping things simple, I’m going to refer to dry fruits like marigolds, buckwheat, and cumin as “seeds” even though we’ve just learned that these are actually fruits. 

Seed Collecting

There are many different ways to collect seed and each kind has certain requirements. Many seeds we separate out as we are preparing the fruit to eat such as squash, or while eating such as watermelon, so there isn’t any actual collecting involved. Other seeds require that we let the fruit ripen beyond prime eating stage, such as cucumbers. Cucumbers for eating and pickling are best when the seeds are underdeveloped and not yet large and hard. When harvesting cucumber seeds, we have to leave a few cukes on the vine until they turn from green to yellow to a dark yellow/brown. Only at that stage are the seeds mature enough to be viable.

Green beans are another example and the beans must be left on the vine until the pods are dry before the seeds can be collected. Anytime we are collecting seeds we should be sure the fruit is at its maximum maturity. Letting a tomato ripen on the vine until it’s past the normal harvest stage will ensure success.

Many other seeds, especially very small ones such as basil, oregano, and quinoa, have to be sampled from time to time to check if the seeds are ready yet, often turning from light to dark as they mature. Others like poppies have heads which dry out and open up when the seeds are sufficiently mature enough. Yet others like bee plant and various mustards (radish, turnips) often have pods which can shatter and lose the seeds if not collected soon enough after the pods dry. Even more extreme are the ballistichory plants which, yes, go ballistic and shoot their seeds, some up to 200 feet. Impatiens and some lupins are in this category so plan ahead when collecting these.

There are many ways to collect seeds in the garden. I use a contraption I made from a small bathroom wastebasket, a piece of nylon strap, and a buckle as shown in Photo 1. I not only use it to harvest things like blackberries, cukes, and green beans, but at the end of the season I use it to collect seeds as well.   The double loop of the strap holds the 2-gallon bucket firmly in front of me where it’s easy to drop seeds into.

PHOTO 1 – Collecting Bucket

You’ll learn from experience which seeds can be collected just by picking the fruit or entire seed heads, and which will require special treatment. Some of these such as amaranthus, lambsquarters, and celosia require handling the seed heads very carefully as they are tilted into the bucket lest the seeds fall out before they can be collected. Others will require multiple visits if the seeds don’t ripen all at once.

Aside from my harvesting bucket, I also carry small plastic ziplock bags in my vehicle. When I’m out and about and I see interesting herbs or flowers, I can take advantage of the situation and grab some seeds and sometimes cuttings. This has the added advantage of cleaning dead seed heads from the gardens in front of public buildings, in parks, and on town squares helping to keep them beautiful. I count this as doing my civic duty and the majority of my flower seeds come from various foraging sources.

Seed-Processing Equipment

There are a few pieces of equipment I use for much of my seed processing. Most seeds will pass through various sizes of hardware cloth and screens to separate out the chaff. Photo 2 shows two of the mesh sizes, ⅛” (A), ¼” (B), and the lid from a box of copier paper (C). A third screen (not shown) uses common window screen with an opening of 1/16”. The box lid makes a good tray for catching seeds or detritus after they’ve passed through screens and during other processes.   I also have various old baking pans and cookie sheets I use for trays as well.

PHOTO 2 – Screened Frames and Tray

Photo 3 shows a coffee can with the bottom cut out and replaced with a piece of window screen. In some situations this works better than the frame with window screen, in other situations, not.

PHOTO 3 – Coffee Can with Screen

Another piece of equipment I use is a slanted board with various pieces of cloth, each having a different pile or texture. The smoothest pile is from a bed sheet, the slightly fuzzy one is an old dish towel, and a third one (not shown) is very fuzzy and was part of a fleece jacket in its former life. The purpose of the pile is to catch the rough chaff as the smooth seeds slide down the cloth when the board is tilted and drummed with the fingers. In general terms, the larger the seeds the coarser the pile should be when using this piece of equipment. The bottom board is ¼” plywood with two sides made from ¾” thick scraps of wood to keep the seeds within the channel as they slide down into the tray below.

PHOTO 4 – Seed Board

The final type of equipment I use are two fans, one a large 20” box fan which doubles as air conditioning for the house, and a small 12-volt, 4” computer fan. With certain seeds, the best way to get rid of chaff is to blow it away. (Apologies to Clint Eastwood fans: A .44 magnum won’t work.)

Cleaning Seeds 

Some things I keep in mind as I’m cleaning and packaging seeds:

  • When collecting seeds, be sure to either label them as you collect them or include an identifying piece of plant material with the seeds as seen in Photo 5. This can be a few leaves or flower petals (A), a hand-written label (B), or some part of the seed-bearing structures (C).
  • Seeds don’t need to be perfectly clean when packaging, a little chaff or dust is okay.
  • Seeds should be as dry as possible before packaging.
  • Seeds need to be packaged in a sealed container or envelope to help keep the pests out, and envelopes should be stored in a pest-proof container such as an ammo box, plastic tote with a tight-fitting gasketed lid, a refrigerator, etc.

PHOTO 5 – Seed ID While Harvesting

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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