Gone to seed

We’ve talked a lot about saving seeds here at FQF, and since fall is definitely underway, they’re on our minds more than ever at the moment. In addition to all of our canning and preserving projects and other preparations for winter, collecting and storing seeds is a big part of our autumn task list.

Sunflower Seeds 01 sml

Collect your sunflower seeds before the birds and squirrels do!

We use the idiom “go to seed” to refer to someone or something that’s let itself go. It’s become messy or unattractive or disheveled or unkempt; it no longer appears tidy and neat. It’s obviously a phrase of agricultural origin, and this is the time of year when it takes on significance in the garden, as most annuals are coming to the end of their natural lives. In their quest to reproduce, the plants have gone to seed: typically they flower first, then the flowers produce seeds, which are spread by wind, insects, animals or human intervention.

Lettuce Seeds 01 sml

Lettuces are one of the easiest plant families from which to save seeds.

It’s unfortunate, truly, that so many gardeners are offended by the appearance of plants gone to seed, and especially in perfectly manicured suburban settings are likely to rip plants out at the first sign of flowering. Letting plants proceed through their natural life cycle teaches you a lot about botany and helps you become a better grower. Plus, if you’re careful and diligent, you can start building your own unique seed bank, which will both save you money and improve plant diversity.

Chive Seeds 01 sml

Many of these collected onion seeds have already been replanted for a fall crop.

Saving seeds is so much easier than many people think; annuals are typically desperate to present their seeds to any creature who might help disperse them, so collecting is often simple. In most cases, know that you need to leave the plants alone long past the point of edibility for the greatest success. I always abandon a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, tomatillos and cucumbers on the plants for as long as possible so that these internal seeds have plenty of time to mature, no matter how big or shriveled or overripe the fruits might get. (The exception here, of course, is if a hard freeze is forecast; you’ll want to bring all fruits in in that situation.) Greens often turn intensely bitter once they’ve gone to seed, but can be replanted quickly.

Beans 01 sml

Most of these Peregion beans are destined for the soup pot this winter, but a handful will be saved for next year’s crop.

Some seeds are obvious, because they’re the part of the plant we eat: think beans and peas. To collect these seeds, let the pods dry on the plant until they rattle; then shell, bag and label. Others can be trickier; lettuces often take a while to go to seed, unless the weather is very hot; once they do finally turn, the leaves will be bitter and almost crispy, but you’ll see dozens of tiny puffballs on the top of the plant, and these can easily be collected in a paper bag once they’re thoroughly dry. You’ll want them to almost crumble in your fingers when you try to harvest; if some of the little cottony puffs have already started flying away, you’ll know it’s a good time to harvest the seeds. I think lettuce offers the best return on seeds of any edible annual; each single plant will produce thousands of seeds.

Pepper Seeds 01 sml

Don’t try to plant the little packets from your favorite pizza place.

Saving seeds from other edible crops can be a bit trickier. It’s no surprise that tomatoes, the garden’s high-maintenance princess, require more attention. Tomato seeds should be fermented before storage; this extra step actually creates a sort of antibacterial coating around the seed, offering an extra layer of protection. To ferment tomato seeds, simply scrape the seeds and their gel out of the tomato with a spoon; the flesh can still be eaten. Place the seeds in a small, shallow container and cover with just a little water. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for a few days until mold has formed. (Don’t be put off by the fragrance! That’s nature at work.) Once all the liquid has evaporated and the seeds are thoroughly dry, carefully separate the seeds with your fingertips, bag, label and store.

Tomato Seeds 01 sml

Save seeds from the vegetables you love! And maybe even the vegetables you don’t love! Just in case there’s a pandemic!

Saving seeds is one thing, but storing them properly is just as important, if not more so. Never blend seeds from different vegetable varieties, unless you’re intentionally looking to create something like a greens mix. Store all seeds properly labeled in individual seed bags or envelopes, and always keep your seed bank in a cool, dark and dry location, away from bugs or insects. The wildfires decimating the West right now have forced a lot of anxious contemplation of what I’d save if we had to evacuate; I’ve realized that my irreplaceable seed bank is one of those items. Seeds matter. Self-sufficiency matters. And the ability to grow our own food – without the pernicious influence of megacorporations – matters the most.

Arugula Seeds 01 sml

These arugula seeds have already scattered to the four winds.

Like so many other things in the early days of the pandemic, people panic-bought pretty much all the country’s seeds for their quarantine gardens. I’d love to know how many of these impulse seed purchases actually made it into the ground, and how many remain unopened in a forgotten Amazon shipping box in a dusty closet. Considering how quickly the seed companies’ inventory vanished this spring, seed saving has become more important than ever. If you grow anything at all – even if it’s just a pot of basil on a sunny windowsill – consider letting your plants go to seed so you can collect and save that seed. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that nothing about our food system is secure, and seeds are no exception.

5 thoughts on “Gone to seed

  1. This is the first year I have saved seeds in earnest. However, with the smaller space I have the ‘follow on’ veggies may not be ready for picking when the snow comes. Like my scrawny ‘pickles’ and little kale. Of course with all the seeds I may not have to worry about next season! 🙂

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    • Glad to hear you’re saving seeds, Susan! Succession planting can definitely be tricky in our climate. I’m hoping to get another couple of months of lettuces and greens and some hardier herbs, at least.

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  2. After abandoning the garden during evacuation, there were quite a few dried seed to collect. It was not planned that way. For some, I prefer to purchase new seed, but we got it from the garden this time. Because I did not plan to collect seed from the squash, I was not careful about the potential for hybridization between different types. I will see what I get.

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    • Tony, we have a huge number of mystery squash this year! I find it so interesting to just let them run wild and see what we get. The compost pile in particular has been a stellar producer this season – lots of different pumpkin-type things in there!

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      • The mutts are worth the effort. I grow common zucchini only because it is so reliable and so productive; but it is not my favorite. Mutts are more interesting, even if not as productive. Sometimes, one must determine if a mutt is a summer or winter squash though. I do not care, even if a summer squash matures enough to work like s winter squash. Heck, that happens to zucchini that hide under the leaves anyway.

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