M.C. Byles didn’t start out saving seeds. He went to work picking cotton when he was four years old. He didn’t have an education; he didn’t even attend third grade. Through wily inquisitiveness, he ended up as a truck mechanic at the base of a massive mountain in West Virginia where heavy-duty mining and logging trucks constantly blew out their radiators in the summer heat. Once the radiator lost its cooling, the trucks would roll back down the mountain to Mr. Byles’ shop where he became known as ‘Radiator Charlie.’
When not fixing trucks, Mr. Byles turned his attention to his backyard garden. He planted German Johnson tomato, famous for its fine flavor and good production. He then bought seeds of the largest tomatoes he could find and sowed them in a circle around his prize. Using rudimentary tools, Charlie used the pollen on the big tomatoes to fertilize his named variety (still available today) over a period of seven summers. Then he began selling tomato seedlings for a buck apiece to his neighbors—who knew his large and tasty tomato. Charlie sold enough plants to pay off the mortgage on his house. A legend was born and so was the tomato variety you can still buy today: Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
All the food produced in the world prior to 1950 was almost exclusively the work of men and women who were not professional plant breeders, but were folks much less educated than an average high school graduate. And yet, the wealth of food we enjoy today rests on their work and imagination. Scores of grandmothers and grandfathers handed down seeds to the coming generations: seeds more valuable than land. These became ‘heirloom seeds’ and have stood the test of time in flavor and other benefits for the home gardener. These varieties of vegetables (and herbs and flowers) represent years of selection by generations who cared about passing on the best they could give to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Each of these seeds has a story not unlike Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.
Today, with the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs or genetically engineered, GE) many people are concerned about our food system and the apparent lack of will on the part of our government to look out for the average citizen’s well-being. When governments from both parties are composed of senior officials of some of the companies that have vested interests in GMOs, many feel powerless to ensure that their food is as safe and clean as it can be.
Saving heirloom seeds is one way a conscious person can become more responsible for the food they eat and feed their children. But to ensure these seeds are available year after year, a lot of those same people are saving the seeds from the past and growing them out again in the years ahead.
Saving seeds takes very little knowledge, although a few important bits of data are essential. It requires more mindfulness about your garden – which of course is not a curse; though it often does involve an uncomfortable learning curve. Beyond the seeds themselves, some of the value of saving seeds includes the additional wildlife that will become part of the woof and warp of your garden, the masses of flowers that you’ll enjoy as some of your plants advance to seed-bearing stage and a whole new way of relating to your garden and the nature it embodies.
It is important to note: don’t try to save seeds from fruits and vegetables you purchase at the supermarket. Although the fruit might taste good, those seeds are probably from a commercial hybrid that might have been grown thousands of miles away and may dislike our climate. If you want to open up a melon or a winter squash and scoop out the seeds to plant in your garden, you will have a better shot with those purchased at a farmers’ market. They will have been grown closer to home (hopefully) and you can ask the seller, “Is this a hybrid?”
If the answer to that question is no, you have a real good candidate for seed-saving. If yes, pass because it won’t bear a duplicate fruit in the coming season. If she hedges, assume it’s a hybrid and don’t bother with it. Another consideration when seed saving: The fruits for sale from most plants in commercial production have not been left on the plant long enough to allow the seeds to fully form. I like to start with seeds from a seed company and grow them out, marking my plants in the field and in a notebook so I’m sure of what I am saving. Another good source for seeds are gardening friends or neighbors.
Start with the easy ones: tomatoes and beans in the summer garden are some of the easiest and most satisfying to grow and save. They have self-pollinating flowers and so it is highly likely that the seeds you save will produce plants you might expect; unless you have desperate bees in your garden that pry these flowers open and pollinate them, these will be a sure-fire easy-peasy way to start.
Bean seed is inside the pod you eat; that’s easy to see. You can buy bean seeds in the bulk food section of your neighborhood co-op. They should germinate just fine. Allow a few beans on several plants to stay there until they begin to dry up. Once you’ve picked them, dry them some more and then package with a label (you must label, as you may not remember the seeds’ identity later) and store in a cool dry place. The refrigerator is one of those places. Seeds of all types last the longest in cool, dry environments.
It is the same for tomatoes, you will leave a couple of fruits on the vine longer than you would like if you were going to eat it. This insures the seed inside has fully matured. Carefully harvest your over-ripe tomato from the vine. Imagine that the stem end is the North Pole and the blossom end is the South Pole. Cut your tomato across the ‘equator.’ Squeeze the seeds and accompanying gel into a shallow bowl. You can do several tomatoes in a small bowl, but keep the varieties separate.
Add a couple tablespoons of water per tomato and set out covered in a warm place where you can’t smell it. It will stink.
In a day or two, a scum will form on top. This will vary depending on many conditions, but will be about several days. Once the scum has formed, strain the seeds under cool water and wash off the scum. Dry on a paper towel or a coffee filter for a few days, then put in an envelope, label, and save for next year. The scum forming on top breaks down a covering on the seed that inhibits sprouting and helps your growing next year.
Other seeds require a little more attention. Lettuce is self-pollinating, but it dries in an odd pattern which you will discern by careful observation a lot faster than I can describe it here. Suffice it to say, each flower gets ripe at its own pace and so requires many visits to see which ones are ripe (very brown and dried) in order to get it all – if you simply let the seed fall to the ground, it will sprout in the appropriate season and you can move the baby plants to where you want them. Arugula and cilantro are two other plants this works well with. For a lot of gardeners this is the extent of their seed saving.
Peppers and eggplants are two others that are more or less easy to save, although they are pollinated by bees and other insects. If you grow only one variety of pepper or eggplant at a time, you have nothing to fear for the most part – unless you are growing in a community where a lot of other plants abound; then you’ll need to be pro-active.
If you have gardening neighbors or you garden in a community garden, you’ll need to try to grow your plants out somewhat later than your neighbors. You can control the pollination, but there is more to that process than can be covered here.
This advice also relates to squashes, cucumbers and melons, which are the most ‘promiscuous’ of the vegetable garden. They are pollinated by bees who are not particular as to variety. Ms Bee will happily go from squash to squash crossing between different varieties. Not all squashes will cross, but enough of them will to make you crazy. A gardener ends up with zucchinis crossing with crooknecks and in the next year’s garden, those seeds produce zuccanecks or crookinis. They might taste fine. They might not. Either way, they will occupy a lot of space in your garden.
Almost all cucumbers will cross with other cucumbers – the exception is the Armenian cucumber which is actually its own species and so can be saved very much like tomato seeds and without worry of cross-pollination.
For seed saving, the fruit has to be ripe beyond the good eating stage, so select which one to save and allow it to get really ripe on the vine. That plant will stop producing more cukes, so grow more than one plant. Split the chosen cuke open and remove the seeds. These can be washed and dried at once, without the fermenting step. Remove all the pulp. It will rot if it remains. If you only have one variety of the other cucumbers growing in your garden, or a neighbor’s, you can save seeds from those too.
Pumpkins are a squash, but because they fruit so late and most other squashes are finished by then, we can usually save them and they’ll reproduce nicely. Besides, if you only grow them for Halloween, you may not be concerned if they don’t maintain good pie-making quality.
Once you have begun, you’ll soon be hooked on seed saving and, like any greater understanding of a new adventure, will find your appreciation enhanced for your garden and the plants in it. Over time you will enjoy the more life in your garden and feel a sense of kinship for your ancestors and your place as one of the guiding generations for the children that are yet to come.
David King is the Gardenmaster at The Learning Garden, on the grounds of Venice High School, for the last ten years. The Founding Chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles, he teaches gardening and sustainability for gardeners at UCLA Extension.
SLOLA – The Seed Library of Los Angeles
Saving seeds in a group or community has advantages. The Seed Library of Los Angeles, housed at The Learning Garden on the grounds of Venice High School, maintains about 160 different varieties of vegetable seeds for members to check out. Members ($10 for a lifetime membership) grow the plants and return at least as much as they took for others to check out next year.
Through the years, varieties become more adapted to our climate and our soil. The seeds themselves are cost-free and non-GMO. Seed libraries work for greater food justice enabling individuals to make a clear statement about what we want in our food supply. It also allows us to maintain ownership of seeds and our food.
SLOLA meets on the third Saturday of each month. Lifetime dues are $10. Seeds are checked out for free on the promise that you will return an equal or greater amount of seed after harvest. They teach you how: slola.org