My cousin, Angie Yadon of Bowling Green, turned 100 years old this year. Many years ago, she gave me the seeds of a green bean variety that she had been saving since the 1930s. I grew out the bean, a prolific, bush type called WPA (for the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s), and found it to be a fantastic garden variety.
With the help of Seed Savers Exchange, a grassroots organization of savers of heirloom seeds, I shipped Angie’s beans all over the country and even across the Atlantic to Europe. At last count, the seeds have gone to growers in 38 states and have even gone to college—they were sent to the Southern Legacy Seed Project at the University of Georgia.
Not bad for a bean variety that probably would be extinct by now if Angie hadn’t kept it for years before passing it along to me. Sadly, many of our old varieties of vegetables and flowers are going extinct because no one thought to save them and pass them along. Some of those probably deserved to go extinct because they were surpassed by far superior modern varieties. (Though who knows what we may want or need in the future? Observe, for example, all of the interest in heirloom tomatoes.) But many of the older varieties are still excellent additions to modern gardens and were often passed over only because they didn’t ship well, didn’t look like the magazine picture-perfect fruit or just got overlooked.
Happily, heirloom vegetables and flowers are being rediscovered as modern gardeners seek to recapture the flavors, sights and smells of the past. Gourmets have discovered the rainbow of flavors as well as colors of heirloom tomatoes. And if you want to recreate an authentic Victorian flower garden, you must have the seeds of the species and varieties that were available then.
Rules for Seed Saving
So that’s the why-to of seed saving. Here’s the how-to.
First, remember that to save seeds you need to seek open-pollinated varieties and avoid hybrids. Saving the seeds of a hybrid is usually an exercise in futility because hybrids are crosses between varieties—sometimes complicated crosses. The progeny seldom look or taste like the parents. And some hybrids are even sterile. The seed packet or catalog should tell you if the variety is a hybrid. If it doesn’t say hybrid, it should be open-pollinated, but you might want to call or email the company to confirm.
Second, if the variety is insect-pollinated (all vining crops and most flowers, for example), you should plant only one variety to avoid crossing. For example, if you plant the heirloom ‘Iroquois’ cantaloupe, you can’t plant another heirloom or hybrid cantaloupe nearby. The flavor won’t be affected, but the seeds for next year’s crop will be crossed and no longer pure. As an aside, squash that we plant in our garden is an exception. It comes in four species—pepo, mixta, moschata and maxima. You can plant one of each of those and they won’t cross with each other. Again, consult the catalog or seed packet to make sure of the species.
A further complication is that sometimes the varieties have to be separated by considerable distances. For example, to be sure your watermelon is not crossed with another variety, you want to know that no other watermelons are grown within a half-mile of yours because bees can pollinate your watermelons with the neighbor’s melons down the street.
Third, get some seed-saving experience before you attempt to save the seeds of biennials—flowers like foxglove, or vegetables like carrots, cabbage and broccoli. Biennials produce seeds in their second year of production and have to be held over winter—not easily done in this part of the country.
Beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers are among the easiest vegetable seeds to save because they rarely cross-pollinate. If you’re new to saving seeds, start with one of those first.
Collecting and Storing
Collecting seeds for storing requires patience, as you wait for the flowers or fruits to mature. Flowers should be shriveled and completely dry before you attempt to extract seeds. Fruits should be fully ripe, sometimes even to the point of being rotten or nearly so. If the seed coat is so hard you can’t dent it with a fingernail, chances are the seed is ripe enough for collecting. Also, do not collect seeds from fruits, flowers or plants that have shown signs of disease just in case the disease is seed-borne.
Collect and separate seeds on a dry day, preferably in mid-afternoon when the air is driest and warmest. Seeds from fruits and vegetables need to be separated from the gooey insides, washed thoroughly in a colander with holes small enough to contain the seeds, and left in the sun or on a sunny windowsill to dry. Tomato seeds will germinate better if allowed to ferment before storage. Scoop the seeds out of the tomato along with the gelatinous insides. Put them in a cup, add a little water and set in a warm place for a few days. The mixture may bubble a little and get moldy. Separate the seeds, wash thoroughly and dry on a paper towel.
Always mark the seeds you collect and the date collected. For storage, think cool and dry. An old but still-functioning refrigerator works well for seed storage. So does the freezer. The viability of seeds varies. Some will last in storage no more than a year or two; others up to 10 years or more. Ideally, try to plant seeds every two to three years to maintain a fresh supply.
Then share. The biodiversity of our garden heritage is every bit as important to save as our wilderness and wildlife, and our cultural and social history.