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Saving Seeds Successfully

Q. I'm interested in saving seeds from this year's garden for use next season and would appreciate a general discussion about this topic. Thanks,

    ---Steve from Bigfork, in Western Montana
A. Thank YOU, Steve! It just happens that seed saving is the topic of my latest publishing project! (Honest, folks—you know I'm not bright enough to be duplicitous.) This coming Spring, Quirk Publishers will release a special boxed set of cards I authored about the topic, complete with envelopes for the actual saving and a recipe-box container to keep everything in. So the information is still nice and fresh in my crowded little brain.

And Steve's location about an hour from the Canadian border makes seed saving an especially good idea. Although many people save seeds to save money or preserve rare old varieties, a potentially larger benefit is the development of locally acclimated plants.

Let's say that someone in Maryland sends Steve and someone in the Deep South the seeds of a really fine tomato. They both grow it out, save the seed, grow it fresh from that new seed, save those seeds, etc. After several years, the Southern plants will have become better at surviving their specific local problems, like excessive heat and humidity; while Montana Steve's will have done the same, perhaps adapting to the shorter season I'm guessing he has. After a decade or so, he'll have such a locally adapted variety he can name it anew. "Steve's Bigfork" is a great tomato name!

Now the details: You can only save seeds from open pollinated plants; not hybrids. Seeds from hybrid plants will not produce the same plants or fruits; their produce may not even be edible. But don't misunderstand: Hybridizing is NOT genetic engineering, and there's nothing inherently wrong with the process. Gardeners in really dicey conditions often achieve better success with hybrid varieties of certain crops. But as with Daffy Duck's Dynamite Trick, "you can only do it once". By law, all hybrid seeds and plants MUST be labeled 'hybrid' in their variety name, or have "hybrid" or "F1" after their name. So don't fall in love with seeds from supermarket produce or purloined fruit; it might have been a hybrid.

Then there's cross-pollination. It is tricky to save seeds of plants that readily cross-pollinate, like corn, squash and cucumbers. Now, contrary to common thinking, cross-pollination never affects plants that are actively growing. You can have a squadron of squash bees buzzing from flower to flower and your butternuts, hubbards, zukes, cukes and pumpkins will produce fruits that look and taste their parts all season long. BUT if you save seeds from those fruits and grow them out the following season, you will harvest the messiest menagerie of hopelessly confused cucurbits known to man.

This is NEVER a problem with tomatoes; you'd have to have paintbrush sex with the flowers to grow a hybrid tomato. (You pervert!) Same with beans, both fresh eating (i.e., "green beans") and drying. Cross-pollination is a technical possibility with peppers, but in over 25 years of growing them and saving the seed, I've never had it happen. Same with eggplant, peas, and lima beans. But with many other crops, the possibility is strong. Some super seed-savers insure purity by growing promiscuous plants inside big screened cages to exclude pollinating insects. (Yes, they then have to hand-pollinate, but their plants also get total protection from bad-bug attack.) Wind-pollinated crops like corn must be isolated from other varieties by a good distance to produce savable seed.

And the edibles from which you save your seeds must be dead ripe. That means no green peppers. And no cukes, eggplant or zukes that are still edible. Peas, beans and corn are easy; let the last run of the season dry on the plant and then dry the seeds a little longer indoors. Peppers are also easy; just cut the fruits open and work the seeds onto a china or plastic (not paper) plate to dry. 'Wet' seeds, like squash, cukes and eggplant must be excavated, washed clean and then dried quickly. Try suspending the seeds in the air in a metal strainer taped to a shelf with a small fan blowing on it.

Seeds are ready to save when a sample snaps in half (tomato, pepper, cuke) or shatters when you hammer it (peas, beans and corn). Place your seeds in envelopes or glass jars with some desiccating packets; you know, the things that say "do not eat" that come packed inside vitamin bottles and shoe boxes. Then store them in the coolest, driest room of your home—a temperature and humidity that add up to less than 100 are ideal.

Ah, but the saving of tomato seeds is very different. Which brings us to….

Q. Mike: Thanks to the great advice in your awesome book, "You Bet Your Tomatoes", I have lots of great tomatoes, one variety of which I am especially in love with. They're not grape or cherry tomatoes; more like baby plums; and the greatest things I have ever tasted. But I lost their plant tag and can't remember the name! How do I "harvest" and save the seeds from this year's plants so I can grow them again next year?

    ---Anita in Bucks County, PA
A. Thanks, Anita! That tamata book developed such a following after going out of print that its being re-issued by Plain White Press this coming Spring!

Anyway, because of their gelatinous coating, tomato seeds must be fermented before saving. Slice open several fruits of the same variety and squeeze the seeds and juice into a bowl. Add some water and let it sit out in the open at room temperature, stirring twice a day for three days. Then add more water, stir really well, let it sit for a minute, and skim the nasty stuff and any floating seeds (they're not viable) off the top. Pour the good seeds into a strainer, rinse until all the juice and gunk is gone, then blot the bottom of the strainer with dry paper towels. You need to get the seeds fairly dry to begin with here, or they might sprout. (If they do, eat the sprouts and try again.) Then dry and store the seeds as described earlier.

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