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Saving Seeds

September 15, 2013

My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, was born and bred on a red dirt farm in Saluda County, South Carolina. His parents reared seven sons and three daughters. His father plowed with a mule, planting cotton, corn, tobacco, and sugar cane, and raising pigs, chickens, and cattle.

Mr. Jack was a teenager during the Great Depression. He pulled himself up by his boot straps, graduated from the college of hard knocks, and eventually became a corporate executive. Upon his retirement, he moved to Leesville, South Carolina. Though only fifteen miles from his birthplace in Saluda County, the soil in Mr. Jack’s garden in Lexington County was black, sandy loam.

With a Troy-Bilt tiller, Mr. Jack returned to his roots. He planted nearly a full acre of growing vegetables to savor fresh, to freeze and to can, and mostly to give away to family friends and neighbors. One September weekend, our family visited Mr. Jack and his wife, Miz Lib, in Leesville. We enjoyed the delicious produce from the garden at every meal.

After a breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits, Miz Lib’s melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, tomatoes, and cantaloupe, Mr. Jack took us on a tour of his late summer garden, which included a few squash and okra. His fall garden, which had already been planted with collards, turnip greens, and lettuce promised a bountiful crop.

The hybrid tomatoes planted in July as a late crop were still producing, but the heirloom tomatoes were spent. We saw one very large bright red Brandywine still clinging to the vine. One of our sons said, “Mr. Jack, we need to pick that big tomato.”

“No,” he said, “I’m saving that one for seed.”

I, too, am a seed saver. I keep old prescription bottles, especially the clear amber ones. With their childproof caps they make the perfect containers for saving seeds. Just last week I collected seed pods from my big red hollyhock, from black-eyed Susans, Shasta daisies, and purple cone flowers that have graced our backyard throughout the summer. A neighbor shared with me seed pods from the rose companion plants that are prolific in her garden.

Every year a few gardeners ask me about saving seeds from their flowers and vegetables. We would not have the wonderful heirloom varieties if someone hadn’t kept the seeds from year to year. Seed saving can be a rewarding and cost saving way to garden, but beware of the pitfalls.

Never save the seeds from hybrid varieties. They are not worth the trouble. Hybrids are developed by crossing specific parent plants. While they are desirable, the seeds are often sterile.  They don’t reproduce true to the parent.

Plants with flowers that are pollinated by insects or wind cross with others in their family. These include squash, cucumbers, melons, cabbage, mustard greens, spinach, and onions. The only way to maintain the original variety is to isolate the plants.

Some seeds may transmit diseases that infected a crop at the end of the growing season. If the seeds are saved and planted the following year, the disease may severely injure or even kill the young seedlings.

Biennials such as hollyhocks and foxgloves do not bear seeds the first year. They require one season to grow before flowering the second year. As in most worthwhile endeavors, patience is a virtue in gardening.

Don’t bet the whole garden on saved seeds.

What can you save? Standard or heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants are good candidates. Many gardeners successfully save bean, tomato, lettuce, and pepper seeds. Heirloom varieties are easy to save.

Always harvest from the best. Choose disease-free plants with qualities you desire. Look for the most flavorful vegetables or beautiful flowers.

Always harvest mature seeds. Allow the fruit and seeds to fully mature. Because seed-setting reduces the vigor of the plant and discourages further fruit production, wait until near the end of the season to save fruit for seeds. Mr. Jack’s luscious Brandywine tomato is a fine example.

Seeds are mature or ripe when flowers fade, become dry, or develop tops. Plants with pods, like beans, are ready when the pods are brown and dry. When seeds are ripe they usually turn from white to cream-colored or light brown to dark brown. Collect the seeds of fruits when most of the seeds are ripe. Do not wait for everything to mature because you may lose most of the seeds to birds or animals.

Seeds must be stored dry. Place them in glass jars or envelopes. My medicine bottles work well, but they must be clean and dry inside.

Make sure you label all the containers or packages with the seed type or variety and the date. Place containers in the freezer for two days to kill pests. Then store them in a cool, dry location like a refrigerator. Mold will develop if the seeds were not sufficiently dried before storage. If that occurs discard the affected seeds.

Seed viability decreases over time. Most should be used within three years.

The art of saving seeds has been practiced by gardeners long before the appearance of commercial seed producers. Many of the vegetables and flowers we have today owe their existence to early seed savers. With an eye for quality, they preserved the seeds of their best plants, sowed them the next year, and in this way improved the species.

The responsibility for maintaining and improving vegetable seeds has been assumed by seed companies. Still, many home gardeners enjoy following this old custom.

On the same weekend that we saw Mr. Jack’s big Brandywine tomato, he and I were trying to complete a repair project in his workshop. Mr. Jack used plenty of nails on everything he built or repaired. Before our work was finished, we ran out of four-penny finishing nails.

Mr. Jack, who did a stint in the Marine Corps, uttered a few choice words to express his frustration. I searched the cluttered shelves in the workshop and discovered an old tin can containing a few nails just the right size.

“Mr. Jack, look what I found. Will these be enough to finish the job?”

“Yep, I knew those were in here somewhere.”

“Here they are,” I answered.

“I was saving them for seed,” he said with a grin.

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2013

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