Entries Tagged 'Seeds' ↓

Saving Seeds – How to do it

As mentioned in my previous seed saving post, I had a hard time finding consistent, believable information online about how to save seeds. One webpage would talk only about the method for cleaning and storing tomato seeds, not addressing whether or not you should worry about whether the seeds you were so carefully saving had been cross-pollinated by something else, while another would insist that all tomato varieties must be separated by at least 25′ or you’d end up with a funky, undesirable new tomato variety when you grew out the seed next year.

Saving Seeds, by Marc Rogers So, to the library!

While Suzanne Ashworth’s book “Seed to Seed” is the definitive guide to seed saving, as a novice I found it a little impenetrable. It’s the place to go for every nitty-gritty detail, but I needed a stronger general understanding before I could make best use of it. “Saving Seeds: The Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Saving Vegetable and Flower Seeds” by Marc Rogers was less intimidating to a beginning seed-saver like myself.

“Saving Seeds” is written for the home gardener learning to save seeds, with clear directions on how to prevent cross-fertilization in all the usual (and some unusual) garden vegetables, written in an approachable, conversational way. Most important, the author states clearly which seeds are easy to save (beans, peas, and tomato) and which should be left to the intrepid expert (cauliflower, beet).
    The main points:
  • Maintain genetic diversity by harvesting seed from multiple plants. If you harvest seed from a single plant each year, your stock will eventually get inbred and be more susceptible to disease (exception: saving seed from just a single squash or the self-pollinating beans and peas will not weaken the strain).
  • Choose only your best plants and best fruits/vegetables from which to harvest seed.
    • Decide what you want to emphasize – earliest tomatoes? turnips that keep well all winter? disease resistance? lettuce that bolts latest in the summer? dwarf variety for container planting?
    • If you just save what’s left at the end of the summer (like I was) you’ll end up selecting for the latest-producing peas and beans, rather than the earliest.
  • Isolation to prevent cross-pollinating – how to do it and when is it necessary?
    • Beans, peas, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating and rarely cross-pollinate even between varieties (e.g. my Black Cherry tomato is unlikely to cross with a Brandywine tomato), but it can be a good idea to separate varieties with a different kind of plant.
    • Since isolation by distance for corn, cucumber, squash, melons, eggplant, and peppers is impractical in the confines of a home garden, you can bag the flowers to prevent them from being cross-pollinated by different varieties. Bagged blossoms of corn, squash and melons must be hand pollinated, while the eggplant and peppers will self-pollinate.
    • Members of the brassica (broccoli, cabbage, etc.), mustard (turnip, chinese cabbage, etc), and celery (parsley, carrot, etc) families are biennials and in my zone most must be dug and overwintered, then replanted in the spring to produce seed the second year. Almost all of these must also be physically isolated (flowers bagged) to prevent crossing.
Having read “Saving Seeds”, I now have a much better understanding of what I need to do to save my own seeds, and feel much more confident that it is possible (and not nearly as complicated as some other sources made it seem) to save seeds even within a small garden. I’m especially excited to begin saving some tomato and pepper seeds this year. Essentially, I’ll be starting my own breeding program, over time developing varieties adapted to my particular growing conditions.

Why save seeds?

Seeds In many cases we’re eating the seeds of our garden – beans, peas, roasted pumpkin seeds, and corn. Or just throwing them away, like bell pepper and melon seeds. Can’t we just plant some of those next year?

Well, yes and no.

Some seeds (like beans and peas) can just be saved and planted the following year. However, some special work is necessary to keep a pumpkin from being cross fertilized by a zucchini and resulting in seeds that produced an inedible squash, for example. In the last couple years I’ve saved some of my own bean and pea seeds, and I saved seeds from squashes purchased at the farmer’s market last fall (we’ll see if they grow true to type this year) but that’s all. I wasn’t saving the best beans and peas, trying to improve the strain, I was just saving what I accidentally let grow beyond the yummy stage.

Looking for instructions for how to save seeds from more plants, I was beset with confusion. The online sources on seed saving I found were contradictory and I knew enough to know they were leaving a lot out. Most of them attempted to summarize seed saving in one of two ways:
  • How to harvest and store the seed, but not even mentioning the potential problem of cross-fertilization between varieties and how to avoid it.
  • Declare that all different varieties must be separated by the distances used by mono-cropping commercial seed growers to prevent cross-fertilization and keep their seed completely pure – often 1/4 – 1 mile, depending on the plant.
Obviously, the latter isn’t possible within my small home garden – the property is only about 50′ by 145′, and the whole front yard is too shady for growing vegetables, leaving me a maximum possible separation of only about 70 feet. Even the 25-foot separation recommended by some for tomatoes would be difficult, since I like to grow lots of different kinds of heirloom tomatoes. Also, I have no way of knowing whether there are other gardeners within half a mile growing spinach that could cross with mine, for example.

I knew there had to be a better way of saving seeds from the home garden – we’ve been doing it for a long time, after all. It’s only in the past century that most people have stopped saving their own seeds and started buying new seed every year instead. In large part, that’s because hybrids have become so popular. F1 hybrids are developed by deliberately cross-pollinating varieties in order to produce a new variety with characteristics of both parents. Unfortunately, these desirable traits are rarely passed down to the next generation, so saving seeds from an F1 hybrid is a bad idea, unless you just want to see what monstrosity results – usually inedible. Instead, you have to buy new seed every year. And the cost of seeds adds up.

However, if we plant open-pollinated varieties instead of hybrids, we can save our own seeds. Indeed, given how many seeds are in a single tomato, we can share with friends and neighbors. Admittedly, some seeds are much more difficult to save than others, but I can start small, saving seeds from just one of those difficult ones, and maybe swap with someone else for others.

Coming up: general seed saving guidelines and book recommendations.

My seed-starting experiment

Science!  Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics

The pea experiments of Gregor Mendel,
the father of genetics

I’m doing an experiment this year. Not a scientifically-rigorous Gregor Mendel-style seven-year thousands-of-plants experiment. I’m just starting my seeds by three different methods, and we’ll see which has the best results (and look at considerations of energy usage and costs).
  • Method 1: Winter sowing
    I started flowers, some perennial fruits, brassicas, some root vegetables, and one of each of the tomato varieties this way.
    • Pros: Proponents claim that winter sowed plants are generally hardier than seeds started indoors. You can plant early in winter and don’t have to have space for the containers in your house. Seeds will germinate when the weather is appropriate. Can use plastic containers that would otherwise just be thrown away. Free, aside from seeds and soil.
    • Cons: Some plants are not amenable to winter sowing (e.g. tropicals, although tomatoes supposedly can be successful). An early warm spell could cause the seeds to germinate too early, and be susceptible to later freezes. Most seeds will germinate later than they could be started indoors, which may not leave enough time for slow-growing plants to mature in shorter-summer regions.
    • My thoughts thus far: A few seeds have sprouted! So far, just some of the cool weather plants, but given that this is the first time I’ve tried winter sowing, it’s very encouraging. I have noticed that my winter sowed containers are a bit too easy to ignore. At least one container dried out and I didn’t notice for a long time. Now that some of them are starting to sprout I need to be sure to check them often so sprouts don’t bump their heads on the container lids.
  • Method 2: Indoors on the windowsill
    I’ve started brassicas, greens, and a few tomato varieties so far.
    • Pros: By timing your sowing correctly, plants will be ready to transplant outside when the weather is likely to be best for them. Can reuse old containers – egg cartons, plastic six-packs from the transplants you bought last year, etc. No hardening off period necessary. Free, aside from soil and seeds.
    • Cons: Requires a sunny windowsill. Takes up space in your windowsills, and makes it hard to close the blinds. The cats could knock them over. Small volumes of soil and the heat of the day results in a need to water often. If the weather is bad there may not be enough light and the seedlings could be weak and leggy.
    • My thoughts thus far: It’s very enjoyable watching the seedlings emerging. Some of them sit right next to my office chair, so they get quite a lot of attention.
  • Method 3: AeroGarden with seed starting tray
    I’m planting one of each of the tomato varieties, two of each pepper and eggplant, and squeezing in some chard and herbs.
    • Pros: No dealing with dirt. Self-watering. Provides plenty of light.
    • Cons: Costs money to buy new plugs and nutrient tablets for the seed starting tray. Uses electricity. May be necessary to transplant to larger/individual containers for hardening off and before transplanting outside.
    • My thoughts thus far: I started almost all my seeds this way last year and was very happy with it, in general. A few varieties didn’t sprout, but that may have been old seed. (Although I have to say I simply never have any luck with cilantro, no matter how often or by what method I try to start it.) This year I have ambitious plans and simply won’t be able to start everything in the limited number of spaces in the AeroGarden. I’m considering buying replacement bulbs, but $21 for two (proprietary) bulbs (including shipping) makes me cringe.

Seed starting with an AeroGarden

AeroGarden with seed starting tray

AeroGarden with seed-starting tray

My mom gave me an AeroGarden a couple years ago, and while I greatly enjoyed the first year’s herb garden, I also used it last year to start seeds quite successfully. Since there are only so many spaces in the tray, I’m reserving it for the warmth-loving, slow-maturing plants that I want to make sure succeed.

First, you need some equipment
The only drawback to using the AeroGarden is the initial cost…and the ongoing costs. :) Obviously, there’s the AeroGarden itself, which comprises a stand, water reservoir and pump, florescent light bulbs, and one set of six or seven seed plugs and nutrients slated to last about 6 months (although I kept mine going quite nicely for nearly a year) – $99.95 if not received as a gift. To start seeds, you need to purchase an add-on kit of styrofoam insert and sponge plugs in which to plant and grow your seeds – $29.95. Subsequently, you’ll need to buy new plugs every year (or for every batch of seeds you start, if you start seeds indoors in the summer for a fall garden) – $19.95. It is recommended that you replace the proprietary bulbs every six months – $14.95. I haven’t replaced my bulbs yet, but I admit what I planted late this fall did not do nearly as well as the initial herb kit (however, I was also re-using old sponge plugs and using non-AeroGarden nutrients). My AeroGarden uses 42 watts when on, and is on 17 hours per day for starting seeds. That’s 22kWh per month, or $3.01 per month to run.

There are similar plug-style seed starting systems for use with regular grow lights or in a windowsill, but since I have an AeroGarden I might as well use it. The cost of the electricity is considerably less than the cost of the sponge plugs. :)

Planting time
Planting is easy once you have the equipment. Make sure the sponges are still moist – if not, soak them in a tiny bit of water until they are saturated but not dripping – and drop them into the holes in the styrofoam tray. Put a couple seeds in the divet of each plug. As with the other seed starting methods, be sure to write down what seeds got planted where! Put the styrofoam tray in the AeroGarden’s bowl and fill the bowl with enough water to cover the bottoms of the plugs. Cover the tray with a plastic bag to keep in moisture and reduce mold growth until seedlings start appearing. You don’t need to plug the AeroGarden in initially, but be sure to start the lights’ daily cycle as soon as seedlings start to appear.

As the seedlings grow, raise the height of the lights so they don’t accidentally touch the plants. You may need to transplant seedlings into pots for the week or two of hardening off necessary before transplanting outside, if all the seedlings aren’t going to be transplanted at the same time.

That’s basically it. Coming up: a summary of my seed-starting experiment and the pros and cons of each system so far.

Windowsill seed starting

Starting Seeds in an egg carton

Kale started using two egg cartons: seeds are planted in a paper egg carton, which sits in the flat top of a plastic egg carton, which acts as a watering tray. Keep covered until seeds sprout to retain moisture.

There are infinite sets of instructions on how to start your seeds indoors. Some say you must use florescent shop lights and heating mats, while others contend that you can just put them on a South-facing windowsill. I’m being ambitious this year, and only have so much windowsill, so decided to use it mainly for relatively fast-growing cool weather plants like greens and brassicas. I’m also starting a few tomatoes this way as an experiment.

The local, pastured co-op eggs I prefer come in those paper/cardboard cartons (which are compostable, by the way). Once in a while I buy eggs at the chain store across the street, where the nearest to pastured eggs come in a clear plastic carton. By cutting a paper carton to fit inside the flat top of the plastic one, I have a set of little ‘pots’ to plant seeds in. Cut off the paper carton’s top, the lip around the egg-holes, and the tips of the peaks so the cover fits, and poke some holes in the bottom of each cup. The flat top of the plastic carton serves as a drip tray, allows bottom-watering, and keeps the paper from letting water evaporate too quickly. I use masking tape keep the tray in place on the windowsill (in case of interested cats).

Don’t use regular garden soil – it’s too dense for consistently successful seed starting. You can use sifted compost or buy a seed-starting mix, which is what I did this year. Moisten your chosen dirt-substitute, mostly fill up each egg-hole, then put the whole carton in a pan (cookie sheet, casserole dish, etc) with an inch of water.

Plant your seeds
Take the carton out of the pan when fully damp, let drain a bit, and place in the flat plastic egg carton top. Put a couple seeds in each cup and cover with a thin layer of soil – read the instructions for the specific seeds you are planting. You don’t need to water again, just wait a couple minutes and the water will wick to the top.

Be sure to label what you just planted – I’m telling you, you’ll be sorry if you don’t. I used a Sharpie pen to write on the plastic tray what I planted in each cup.

Flip the other side of the plastic egg carton on top to retain moisture and put it in the windowsill. Once the seedlings start popping up out of the soil remove the cover – it could retain too much heat on a sunny day and cook the plants. Be sure to water when the soil even starts to look dry – I add about 1/4″ every day or two. Having cut off the tips of the ‘peaks’ between the egg cups left holes just big enough for me to (carefully) pour water through into the plastic tray, so I don’t have to take the paper carton in and out.

Eventually it will be time to transplant your little seedlings, whether to bigger pots or outside (be sure to harden off before transplanting outside). Don’t wait too long though, egg carton cups are pretty small and don’t leave room for a ton of root development.

Even though the paper egg carton is compostable, I don’t recommend planting the seedling in the ground still in the egg cup. Last year I used purchased peat pots which you are supposedly able to just plant directly in the ground, reducing transplant shock – however, the pots didn’t break down nearly as fast as was claimed. Given how much thicker the walls of egg cartons are, I’m almost sure they would restrict root growth way too much. But once you’ve transplanted everything, be sure to throw the remains of the damp dirty egg carton on your compost heap.