Easy way to save the fruits of your labors
This story first appeared in the summer issue of Edible Seattle in 2010.
What if you could bank a bit of summer; put by a lucky charm guaranteed to bring back garden fresh flavor and kitchen wonder next year? Practice some simple backyard natural selection by collecting seed from the best and the brightest of this year’s crops and you’ll be one step closer to next year’s bounty; and it doesn’t cost a dime.
I asked Leda Langley, my favorite organic farmer, for some expert seed saving tips. Together with her husband Matt and a small crew, Langley Fine Gardens on Vashon Island generates truckloads of delicious organic vegetables which they sell at their roadside farm stand and at the West Seattle Farmer’s market. But their main business is wholesaling about 250,000 vegetable starts and ornamental plants which they grow from seed, much of which they’ve saved themselves.
Langley began my seed saving lesson by pointing out, “Seed is a living thing. It’s your job to keep that little embryo alive until you can grow it and that takes planning and preparation.” Like any farmer, Langley is practical, no-nonsense and works harder and smarter than the rest of us.
A quick note: you may not have given much thought to “crossing” and “hybrids” since 4th grade biology class, but only non-hybrid plants produce identical or seed that is “true”. Check plant labels and seed packets before saving seed to avoid disappointing surprises.
Many plants “bolt” - that is, go to seed - in the long days of summer, literally handing you the next season’s crop in a dandy little pod. Langley says, “The trick is to harvest seed when it has fully ripened and is completely dry, but before it shatters and spills to the ground.”
Collect seed on a dry day after the morning dew evaporates. If rain is forecast, you may want to wrap the seed head with a scrap of very fine nylon tulle or sheer cotton; something that will catch the fine seed but still allow air to circulate and finish the drying process.
Gently tap the dried pods so seed falls into a plastic storage container like a clean yogurt cup and immediately label the contents. You may think you’ll remember which is argula, and which is mustardbut they’re all just tiny black specks next spring.
Perfectly dry seed should be sorted into little paper coin envelopes, properly labeled with the date and variety of seed and put into cool storage conditions. “Don’t forget what you’ve collected and where you’ve stored it,” Langley cautions. “We have 5 refrigerators dedicated to seed storage and even with careful records it can be difficult to keep track of what seed is stored where.” I store my saved seed in the cool basement or on a shelf in the refrigerator next to the condiments.
Annual plants, those that grow, flower and set seed in a single year (lettuce, cabbage, kale, broccoli, spinach and many herbs like cilantro, dill andchervil) respond well to this “dry and collect” method.
I’ll admit, sometimes I cut a few sorting and labeling corners and take a more passive approach. In late summer, I harvest and sprinkle seed directly into another part of the garden where the soil has been prepped. This works particularly well for cold hardy greens that germinate in early spring like giant red mustard, arugula, mizuna and mache. These flavorful salads fetch top dollar at the grocer but they sprout in my backyard for free, copiously producing until summer’s heat brings an end to the season and offers me another crop of seed.
Saving seed from “fruiting” plants is even easier – think cucumber, pumpkin, peppers, melons and the like. Seed is fully mature when the fruit or vegetable is dead ripe; mere child’s play to separate and dry. The Langley’s young son Freddie, age 5, is in charge of cultivating the farm’s annual pumpkin patch. From what I hear he’s quite the natural and makes a tidy profit besides.
I’ve never tried to save tomato seed. Most instructions involve mixing the jelly-like seed with water, fermenting the mixture and other more complicated machinations. Langley shared her two-step, easy-peasy process with me and assured me that even though it’s pretty disgusting, it works like a charm.
Step 1: Pick fully ripe fruit and place into plastic containers. Cover the container, label and leave to rot. You definitely want to do this in a garage or shed and under cover to avoid attracting vermin and fruit flies.
Step 2: Spread a double layer of paper toweling on a flat surface. Using a rubber spatula spread the now-liquid tomato in a thin layer over the toweling “like you’re frosting a cake” and let dry completely. The dried tomato goo will cling to the toweling making it easy to simply flick the clean seed into paper storage envelopes. Don’t forget to label.
Peas and beans are some of the easiest seeds to save, although without proper storage they are also the most vulnerable to pest damage whether from hungry rodents or bugs that feed on overwintering seed. Pea and bean seed may be left to dry directly on the vine. Simply leave a few pods to ripen until brown and crispy; remove the pods and place in a warm, dry place to allow the seeds to completely dry. Shuck the dried seed and package at once. “Once these seeds are completely dried you should be able to crack them open with a hammer. Dry, package, label and get into cold storage as quickly as possible,” Langley recommends.
“Homegrown” seed packets make unique and welcome gifts and party favors. Share your seed saving wealth and encourage others to do the same. Plan a late winter seed swapping party with friends and family and before you know it you’ll have a bountiful garden full of delicious tried and true vegetables, and all for free. It’s simple, sustainable, and smart.
Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit, member supported organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds was founded by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. . The collection began in 1975 when Diane’s dying grandfather passed along seed for 2 garden plants, Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory and German Pink tomato, that had been grown and saved by the Ott family ever since they immigrated to the United States from Bavaria in the 1870’s. Today, SSE is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the country. It is home to more than 25,000 vegetable varieties from all over the world that might otherwise fade into history were gardeners not willing to preserve these living legacies. Check out a wide world of seed in their online catalog at Seedsavers.org.
Langley Fine Gardens, 10012 SW 268th St just down the road from Dockton on Vashon Island. Their help-yourself roadside farm stand is stocked and open year round. Check out their annual Open Farm tour held this year on Saturday, September 25th from 10am-4pm. Langley Fine Garden plant starts are available at many independent nurseries throughout the PNW and at the West Seattle Farmer’s Market, April – October. The market is located in the heart of the “Junction” at California Ave SW & SW Alaska, every Sunday, 10am-2pm.