All this heat is causing my plants to bolt early! Here, you can see my basil has started shooting up flower/seed heads…
I’m really excited about this tutorial. And the reason I’m excited is because I’m going to be trying it for the first time myself, along with anyone out there who wants to try it with me!
Okay, so I admit that this topic is only an issue because of my sub-par gardening skills. That and the extreme heat/drought that we are experiencing in this part of SC. All of my (admittedly unattended) garden crops are bolting… well, the greens are… my lettuce and herbs. The tomatoes are coming along, as is the corn and cucumbers and watermelons. But seeing my lettuce bolt and discovering an extra cuke or two that is past it’s prime got me to thinking… how can we turn this into a positive? Saving seeds, folks… that’s how.
There are lots of reasons to learn how to save the seeds from your current crop to use in next years (or even just next seasons) garden. For one thing, you can continue to perpetuate and re-plant your seeds… and if you use compost you create yourself to fertilize your soil, you literally are providing free, healthy, organic food for your family. That feels sooooo good. Another reason might be just to have the knowledge and pass it along to your children, so that in emergency types of situations, you would know how to grow and propagate your own food source. And another reason might be that it is eco-friendly… cutting down on the need to rely (read: consume) on getting seeds mailed to you, decreased packaging and transportation consumption. Likely, most folks who save seed do it for all three reasons, and I’m feeling that way too.
When your lettuce starts looking like this ginormous beast, it’s time to start thinking of saving seeds!
I have set out to learn how to save seed from all of my major crops this year: lettuce, cucumber, watermelon, carrot, onion, tomato, and popcorn. Those are the seeds I will include in this tutorial. Luckily, this very topic came up in my latest Backwoods Home magazine… written by self-sustaining off grid living guru Jacki Clay. She wrote a fabbo article that basically walked me through this step by step. I’ll share what I gleaned from it here with you. She recommends the book: Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, for those that want to learn more!
Here is where you will be so glad you invested in using heirloom quality seeds, like the ones I adore from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Company (blogged about here,) because heirloom quality seeds means that they are pure seeds. Not hybrids. No GMO. Meaning, you can take the seeds from the parent plant, replant them, and you will get the exact same plant growing in the next generation. If you use hybrid or GMO seeds, you are getting a crapshoot — two or more plants were crossed to produce that product, so the seeds they produce may give you one parent plant or the other, or some variation in between.
The other reason you may not get the exact plant growing in your second generation is if you have grown two different types of the same fruit/veggie near each other in your garden. There may be some cross pollination involved and you may get a hybrid product. For most home garden owners, this isn’t a problem. For example, I grew two different types of cucumbers near each other… it is possible that the seed for these cukes may give me some offspring that are a blend of the two types of cukes. I don’t mind, as I know both parent plants were grown organically and on my own soil… in fact, I think it would be neat and I can’t wait to see what kind of cukes I get from the seed next year! But if you want to be sure you are only reproducing heirloom seed, you should consider only growing one species of fruit/veggie in your garden each year… and/or space them out into two different gardens/areas of your yard.
Basically for saving seed, all you need to do is select a plant or two of each crop that you are going to allow to mature fully, and bolt. Then we’ll harvest the seeds and let them dry for a few weeks… storing them in airtight containers and using them next season/year. If you save your favorite seeds each year, this will free up your budget to try out new heirloom seeds that you might have otherwise passed over! I plan to keep my favorites going year after year, and add on one or two new fun things to try (next year I hope to try growing sage to make sage smudge sticks!)
Here is the guidelines for each plant, but you’ll soon see that the process for each is basically the same:
1. Watermelon —
Easiest. Seed. Ever. To. Reuse. Simply select a nice, ripe melon, enjoy eating it, and pick out the most plump, black seeds (discarding any thin seeds and any immature white seeds) and spread out on wax paper or a cookie sheet to dry. Allow to dry for about 2 weeks… flipping once or twice. Once completely dry, store in an airtight container.
2. Cucumber —
Second easiest. All you need to do is allow one or two fruits to go all the way past the eating stage to the fully ripe, huge yellow cucumber stage. If you are like me, you’ll do this accidentally anyway, as I’ve already noticed I didn’t see one of my cukes until it was already turning yellow. I’ll just let this little fella go until he is fully yellow and then pick. Allowing the fruit to fully ripen will tell the vine to stop producing fruit, so only do this to a vine you don’t mind being done with.
Find the largest, fattest seeds and let dry for about 3 weeks on a cookie sheet. Jackie says to dry them for 1 week on a towel and 2 more on a cookie sheet… then store in an airtight container.
My undiscovered cucumber… I’m going to let it go a bit longer, then harvest for seeds.
3. Corn —
Again, so easy. I have popcorn this year, and harvesting popcorn amounts to about the same thing as saving seed. I’ll allow the ears to dry out, then store in an airtight container until ready to pop or re-plant! You can do this with any corn, not just popcorn. Allow the ears to fully mature and even dry right on the stalk, or pick the mature ears off and remove the husk (to prevent mold) and allow to dry right on the cob on a dark, cool shelf somewhere. Once dry, use your thumb to shell the kernels right off the husk. After you get a few off, the rest just pop off right on down the line. Continue to allow to dry spread out on a cookie sheet for another two weeks or so, then store.
4. Tomatoes —
Same story as before. Let several tomatoes fully ripen to a deep rich color on the vine. Harvest the seeds. One trick Jackie shares is to place the seeds and gooey pulp in a bowl of water, and let it sit overnight. The next day, the seeds will have sunk to the bottom and the pulp will float. Allow seeds to dry on a cloth for a few days, then transfer onto a cookie sheet for another week or two. Once fully dry, store in an airtight container.
I plan to just scoop up some of the pulp/seeds that get extruded from my tomato mill as I process the tomatoes to make sauce. So easy! I’ll grab a handful and throw it into a bowl of water overnight… the next AM, voila! Seeds to dry and save! I’ll share my tomato sauce recipe a bit later on in the season.
Lettuce throwing out some flower heads, which will soon turn to seed pods…
5. Greens (lettuce and such!)
Allow the plants you would like to harvest to bolt. This is easy for me too, as I have so much lettuce I could not eat it all, and several plants started to bolt right in front of my eye, despite my best efforts. Whenever you find a plant has bolted or you discover an overripe tomato/cucumber/melon hidden in your garden, you are halfway to having the seeds for your next garden! Just scoop it up and harvest.
For greens, watch the plants that are bolting… after the flowers turn to seed heads, just snip the head and lay out to dry. Once dry, rub the seeds from the husks into a pan, dry for another week or so in the pan, then transfer to an airtight container to store.
I plan to harvest all of my bolted lettuce heads, realizing that many will have cross pollinated… and just rub all the seeds out together to create my own lettuce seed mix. I’ll keep you posted when I plant lettuce this fall for my winter garden… it will be so interesting to see if I get all my original lettuce types plus a few new hybrids, all hybrids, or all parent plants. Check back this winter and I’ll show you what I get!
6. Carrots and onion —
These plants take two years to develop seeds. This is even easier, as I do nothing but let a few mature plants winter over in place in the garden, and wait for them to bolt next year. If you live in a very cold zone, just mulch on top of the plants to protect them during the winter. In SC, do nothing 🙂 Next year, allow the plants to shoot up a flowering stalk, and watch for the seed heads to form. Process as with the greens, above.
I’m going to save each seed type (and my mixed lettuce seeds) in envelopes, and then fold all the envelopes up into one large quart sized airtight glass canning jar. I’ve got tons of those!
Let me know if you give it a go, and I’ll share pics of the process with you here in a few weeks, once my garden has yielded the seed heads and mature fruits I’ve been waiting for! xoxo