by Susan LeBlanc, Master Gardener
To plan seed saving with regular plants in the garden, begin with plants that are self fertile such as tomatoes or beans. Select the best looking, disease-free, true to type plants. If you choose to grow the plants for seed saving separately, rogue, or remove any plants that are inferior or show undesirable characteristics. These rogued plants are still fine to eat, just not good for seed saving.
Records and labels, are very important to the seed saving process. Indeed, to save seed for the likes of the Canadian non-profit “SEEDS OF DIVERSITY” member catalogue, one must absolutely know what the neighbours are growing. To correctly save seeds that are guaranteed true- to- type for the “SEEDS OF DIVERSITY” for member cataloguing or donating at Seedy Saturdays, steps must be taken to restrict the introduction of the pollen of other varieties by insects.
The restriction can be achieved by isolating plant varieties by distance. Some isolation distances are remarkable. Lettuce, for example, requires a distance of 1.6 kilometers and beets 3-8 kilometers.
Luckily the isolation distance for tomatoes is only 5 meters! It is interesting that insects prefer flowers and flowering herbs to vegetable blossoms. To further decrease the introduction of pollen of another variety carried in by insects, plant some of the following: Mignonette, Calamintha, Alyssum, Cosmos, Zinnia and older varieties of Sunflower (new sunflower varieties are almost all pollenless).
Barrier Isolation will also exclude pollinators. Barrier methods include mesh bags, nylon stockings and row cover gauze to cover the flowers. These are light, can be anchored and closed up and dry quickly if wet, preventing mildew. Barrier cages of wood or ABS frame covered with mesh or screening can also be constructed around or over seed plants.
With barrier isolation pollination must be done by hand on your chosen seed bearing plants. You must know how the plant would be pollinated naturally. For example, to protect specific plants like corn, which is wind pollinated, one can use Lawson Shoot bags or Lawson Tassel bags. Pollen is captured in a Tassel bag and shaken over the just developing “ear” which is then quickly covered with a shoot bag. Leave it until you see the corn silks turning brown. Pollination has occurred.
Runner beans are insect pollinated. Therefore the flowers must be depressed and using a pollen loaded brush dab inside each flower, remembering to replace the barrier. This is done every day until you see a small bean developing. With Cucumbers or Squash, insect movement can be mimicked by rubbing several male flowers (long plain pedicels) over the female flower (a small round area at flower base). Re-apply the barrier and continue daily until you see a small vegetable developing.
Only save mature seed from healthy plants. Learn what mature looks like. Green peppers will never have mature seeds as they are the immature stage of the red or orange peppers. It is always best to allow seed to ripen on the plant. If frost threatens, some like beans, peas and tomatoes will continue to ripen after picking. Hang the entire plant or vine upside down in a dry, warm and airy space. If indoor- drying is necessary use lattice, screening, trays or plates. Remove anything that become moldy. The consequence may be less good seed or compromised viability but worth the effort. Label everything, recording seed type, variety name, colour and date. When seeds are dry, transfer to airtight containers and place in a cool dry and dark spot. To prepare for freezing place seeds in an envelope and then put into a container with silica gel for no more than 3 days as they can become too dry. After 3 days remove the silica gel, replace seeds in labeled airtight jar and freeze.
To collect wet seed like melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash, cut a well matured fruit (beyond the time you could eat it) scoop pulpy seed into a container and allow it to ferment for several days stirring occasionally. When you can see definite layers, carefully dump off the fermented layer and dispose. Pour the remaining liquid into a sieve and run under water till all gelatinous material is gone. Spread thinly to dry. To test for dryness the seeds will break under finger pressure rather than bend.
The seeds of biennial vegetables require extra care and knowledge to save. Carrots, onions, celery, beets and varieties of the Brassica Family, such as cabbages, kale and rutabagas are biennial vegetables and need special winter storage in our Canadian climate. This entails added commitment, and another level of growing to achieve eventual seed saving. Winter storage allows the biennial plant roots to be carried on through to spring when they are replanted, grow flowers and set seed in their 2nd season of growth. Biennial plant roots may be stored in damp sand, sawdust or peat in temperatures from 0-5oC at 90% humidity. Storage in a root cellar, second refrigerator or cool unheated garage or shed is ideal. If these storage methods are not available, roots can be wrapped well in plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator, recognizing it is crucial to check them often for rot, mould or excess moisture.
Last thing to remember is never plant all your saved seed at one time, leaving nothing for contingent plantings. Always prepare for the unexpected when dealing with Mother Nature.
For more information:
About seed saving go to: https://www.seeds.ca/diversity/seedsaving
About isolation distances of tomatoes go to: https://www.southernexposure.com/isolationdistance-