giveaway: learning to save seed, with seed savers exchange’s tim johnson
“The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving,” just released by Seed Savers Exchange in collaboration with Organic Seed Alliance, provides a comprehensive overview of seed saving–both art and science. It includes detailed how-to’s on more than 75 crops: how to grow them with a seed crop in mind, right through to harvest, cleaning and successful storage. (Enter to win a copy in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.)
One of the book’s expert contributors, Dr. Timothy Johnson, head of preservation and also the seed bank manager for Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa, joined me on the May 4, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast to help us start our gardens with seed saving in mind.
Tim has worked for more than a decade in the field of conservation, helping to preserve wild and domesticated plant species. Now, with a fulltime staff of 12, he maintains the Seed Savers’ plant collection—more than 20,000 different varieties in about 100 species, primarily edibles. (Part of SSE’s Heritage Farm is in the photo below.)
Listen in using the player below, or at this link, or read along, or both, as we learn what seeds to try to save, and how, as backyard gardeners.
read/listen: seed saving,
a q&a with dr. tim johnson
A. As a seed saver, I consider myself to be a novice. And I’m also a pretty lazy seed saver—I’m opportunistic. If I happen to see something that I really like around the farm, I might save a fruit of a tomato. Or if I grow something in my garden and just absolutely loved it, I might save one or two fruits. I don’t have any family heirlooms; I’m pretty low-intensity. If I lose the seed, that’s OK—that’s kind of my style.
Q. Today we’ll help people take it a notch farther than that [laughter]—but without getting too uptight. And I think that’s the key, because the plants want to make seed, given the right conditions…
A. …and with the book, “The Seed Garden,” we really address that whole range of intensity, from people who have never saved seed before and might just be looking to save seed from one tomato fruit, all the way up to people who have things that they are really concerned about saving for the longterm.
The book provides lots of instructions and suggestions based on what people’s goals are—so it can be just as easy as the way that I do it, or it can be much more intensive.
Q. On the back of the book, printed on a dreamy photo of maybe dried garlic chives with the black seeds spilling out of the seedheads, I love this inspiring statement:
“The simple act of saving seeds carries forward centuries of work by humans to cultivate plants that sustain and inspire us.”
That says it all: There is really awe, and history, and this co-evolution—we and the plants have evolved together, them helping sustain us.
A. At the very beginning of modern human history is saving seeds. Those first saved seeds really freed up our ancestors and made their lives a lot more convenient and predictable.
Q. The book is in collaboration with Organic Seed Alliance—good friends—and there is so much wisdom between the two entities, a formidable collaboration.
A. The go-ahead for the book really happened in 2010. “Seed to Seed” was first published in 1991 by Seed Savers—really the first book on seed saving. It was updated in 2002. Our board of directors was rumbling that it was time for an update, and in 2010 they charged us to do it. In 2011 we contracted with OSA to help us, because most of the knowledge and published information is about seed production at more of a commercial scale.
Q. Yes, agricultural or commercial scale—and it’s hard sometimes to get it down to the backyard level, or even small farm or market-grower level.
A. We spent a lot of time working on that, trying to extrapolate backwards, drawing on all of our wisdom and expert friends to try to figure out what really makes sense for gardeners.
Q. We might not have thresher or specialized equipment in our homes.
A. And even things like population sizes, where it might be for a commercial seed producer more about how large of a population you need to get a good harvest, more than how many plants do you need to produce good seed.
Q. I loved the section of the book that talked about if you’re new or newish to seed saving, here are some easy crops that you can save. The first piece of guidance it offers is that one should start with “annuals that self-pollinate,” because those are the easiest candidates.
A. The book is really divided into three sections. The front section is a lot of theory and biology, and general information about seed saving and techniques. Section 2 is more instruction about specific crops and how to grow those for seed production. The third section is the short notes: If you’re already a master seed saver and you’re just curious about isolation distances, you can jump right into Section 3 and look it up.
With any of the crop types—for example peas, which are a great beginner crop—the first thing in the book is a little popout of short notes, suggestions on what you’re going to need for spacing, population size, and a little biology just to help orient people.
Q. Speaking of peas: As I said, “annuals that self-pollinate” are recommended as easiest, but you think: “What does that mean?” But you can look at some flowers’ structure and how open they are to cross-pollination—what they look like—and maybe get some clues to whether they self-pollinate or not.
A. That’s right. With peas, for example, one of the petals is modified into what’s called a keel—just like the keel of a boat, and it looks like that. That holds all of the reproductive parts inside the flower—it closes them in.
That means with peas, there is very little chance that an insect is going to get in there and pick up some pollen, and then fly away and pollinate another flower. Most of what happens with peas is that they’re actually pollinated very early, even before the flower is fully open.
Q. So peas are a good one to start saving. And beans, another legume?
A. Beans are also a good beginner crop.
Q. Another great thing about peas and beans: They create little packages of seed for you—the pods.
A. And it’s also such a familiar crop. If we’re talking about dried peas and dried beans, then producing your food crop is producing your seed crop. Just saving back a couple of seeds—not eating everything but showing a little restraint—means that you’re a seed saver, as long as you’ve taken some precautions to isolate one variety from the other varieties with some crops.
A. Lettuce is another crop that is almost entirely selfing…
A. Yes, and that means that having even just one plant, allowing one plant to bolt, that you can produce lots of seeds, enough for a couple of years worth of lettuce harvest.
And the other nice thing about lettuce—and peas and beans, too—is the [relatively small] distance that’s needed between varieties to prevent them crossing with each other (because the goal with seed saving is to produce seed that’s true to type: that looks like the parents). With lettuce, unless you’re touching flowers together, they will be selfing.
Q. Talking about the lettuce bolting reminds me: Sometimes that happens, and you think, “Oh, I should save that seed,” but you can get a little misled there: You don’t want to save seed from the earliest-bolting lettuce in the garden, because being quick-to-bolt is not a favorable trait, right?
A. That’s exactly right. A couple of other crops will do that, too: spinach, for instance. There is some variability, and you don’t want those early ones, because they’ll pass on that trait. Suddenly your next generation, your next grow-out of that seed, will bolt even earlier in the year for you.
Q. We have to be the seed selectors, to manage with our human hand and our eyes and our observation. Like the book says: It’s the “art and practice” of seed saving, and we have to use our human touch and our inferences, and draw from careful observations.
A. The term we use in the book is rogueing, which is basically looking for plants that do not meet the stereotype, and removing them. They’re not the right color, they’re not the right shape; they’re flowering too early; they’re the wrong taste. Just to make sure that the variety maintains its ideal characteristics.
Q. A friend who is a seed farmer at Turtle Tree, the biodynamic seed company near me, says she starts her seed-selection process from the minute she sows the seed. She even “rogues out” any tiny seeds in the packet that don’t look as robust as the others.
A. When we’re working with our collection, we’re pretty rigorous, too. We’re looking for the color of the seedling; we’re looking for vigor in those seedlings. But at home you can decide how involved you want to be.
If you’re lazy like me, and not too particular and just want tomatoes, maybe that’s OK to have a couple in there that don’t look exactly like the last generation.
Q. And as a home gardener, you’re not going to sell your seed; your reputation isn’t being eroded if you have a few oddballs in the next generation. [Laughter.]
We’ve said that peas and beans, lettuce, tomatoes are easy beginner crops for seed saving. I think cucumbers and melons are easy for beginners, too.
A. With cucumbers, melons and winter squash, you are relying on the plant to tell you when the seeds are ready. When they’re at the eating stage, the seeds are also fully mature.
It’s not that way with zucchini—with your summer squash. When they are fully mature they’re not that appetizing; they’re gigantic, and hard.
A. That’s exactly right.
Q. That’s such a good point: They’re all related, all cucurbits—but the summer squash is different from winter squash or melons, because the seeds aren’t ready at eating time, when their shells are soft.
A. And you wouldn’t eat them when they are seed-mature. Cucumbers are like that, also. When you’re pickling your cucumbers, they’re not fully mature; they’re fruit-immature. You need to let some go fully ripe, to the point where you are not going to want to eat them, if you want to save those seeds.
But with melon and winter squash, you can actually have those do double-duty, where you harvest for eating, and you’re also harvesting for seed (if you’ve taken some precautions to make sure that the variety has only been pollinated by individuals of that same variety).
Q. I was interested to see that okra—with its beautiful, ornamental flowers and pods—was on the easy list.
A. It’s another crop that will readily self-pollinate. Okra flowers will also out-cross, so you have to take some precautions. But in most regions of the country you don’t have a ton of people growing okra in your neighborhood. So if you’re only growing one okra in your garden, and your neighbors aren’t, you probably don’t have to do anything else but let those pods develop, and dry down, and then harvest the seeds to have seed that’s true to type in the next generation.
Q. If we want to go beyond the beginner crops, to an intermediate-level choice, maybe we try a biennial, like onions.
A. There is a little bit more to know about onions, but it’s still an easy crop. You just have to do a little more planning.
Q. In my Zone 5B northern garden, a big onion bulb won’t reliably overwinter in the ground—it will rot. So I’d have to lift it, store it very cool, simulating winter, and then replant it and let it go to flower.
A. This is where “The Seed Garden” is really going to help people. How you grow onions really depends where you are in the country, or the world. Onions start to form their bulbs in response to daylength. Whether you’re in the North or South, you might want one that’s longer or shorter in order to get the plant to a suitable size before it starts to bulb. You don’t want it to start bulbing as a seedling. The next step is whether you can overwinter it in the ground or need to get it out of the ground; whether you’re in a region where you get hard enough frost that will kill your bulbs.
And then there are also parts of the country that are so warm that you can’t vernalize onions; you can’t get them ready to flower outside.
Q. Create that simulated winter, you mean? Some places you’re preventing it from freezing, and some places you’re providing the sufficient trigger in terms of cold?
A. Yes, that’s right.
Q. Let’s finish up with some seed-storage basics—because after all, you are in change of the Seed Savers seed bank. [Laughter.]
The ideal conditions are? (And of course you have a state-of-the-art facility there, but I don’t.)
A. For the home gardener, the general tips are cool and dry. When we store seed cool and dry, we’re actually slowing down the rate of deterioration. Seeds are alive, and they only have so much energy. Cooling them down, drying them out slows down that process.
For people in arid regions, they can probably rely on normal ambient relative humidity to dry the seeds down to a point where they can actually put the seeds in the freezer when they’re dry.
A. So you’re left with one of two routes: One is that you don’t freeze your seeds; you store them in a refrigerator, or a basement. Something other than freezing them, because the danger is when they’re too wet, and you freeze them, ice crystals form and it will kill the seed.
The other option is to try and dry the seeds down. You can do this in a lot of different ways. If you have air conditioning, and the relative humidity in your house is below about 20 percent—you can buy a little relative-humidity gauge at the hardware store; they’re pretty cheap—you might be OK to then put the seeds into the freezer.
You can also try rice; storing the seeds in a breathable bag sealed inside something else with some dried-out rice. You put the rice in the oven first, on a really low temperature, to dry the rice out. The rice will then actually pull water out of the seeds.
Q. It’s a safer, more organic (so to speak) version of silica gel?
A. Yes, and then you can safely put that seed into the freezer. If you’re not sure, but you want to try it, here’s an easy thing to do:
Put some in your refrigerator, or your basement, because you know that will be fine, and put some in the freezer. Just try it. If it lives in the freezer, you might be OK doing that regularly; if not, you might have to take some more precautions, or rely on above-freezing storage.
more about seed savers exchange
- Learn more about Seed Savers’ mission, and shop for seed from their collection at this link.
prefer the podcast?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 4, 2015 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
enter to win ‘the seed garden’
I’VE BOUGHT an extra copy of “The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving,” to share with a lucky reader. All you have to do to enter the giveaway is answer this question in the comments box way at the bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
Do you plan to save any seed this year, and if so what? Have you saved seed before, whether formally or casually?
No answer, or feeling shy? That’s fine; just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, though an answer is better. I’ll choose the winner after entries close at midnight on Sunday, May 10, 2015. U.S./Canada only. Good luck to all.
(Photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange, except curing onions, lettuce bolting, and pea flowers from A Way to Garden. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)