How to become an Heirloom Gardener (Lesson in seed collection)

Do  not let spacious plans for a new world divert your energies from saving what is  left of the old.
-Winston Churchill

How do you save these seeds? This was the question I was asked after I posted a reflective blog entry called, “I am an Heirloom Gardener on Foreign Soil”. My husband was the first to tell me, “When I read that blog, the first thing that came to my mind was “How?”. You have written about the “Why?” and should give your readers the “How?”. So now I will heed his advise and share with you some of the things I have learned about seed saving.

First, lets discuss a basic question. “What makes your seeds heirlooms?” To me, the answer is simple. If your grandmother gave your mother a piece of beautiful jewelry, then your mother gave you that jewelry, it is an Heirloom. The same is true for seeds. You extract the seed from a parent plant, sow it into the soil, watch it grow, then produce its own seeds which you then gather for the next generation of plants. So why then are red tomatoes just called tomatoes and purple or orange tomatoes called Heirlooms? To put it simply, these unusual varieties would disappear if gardeners did not save the seeds. Red Tomatoes can be heirlooms too, it’s just more popular to call rare varieties heirlooms. Make sense? Many mainstream varieties of vegetables have actually been genetically modified or developed to have longer shelf lives, which is what you normally see at your local grocery. This isn’t to say “everything” on the shelves is modified, but you get the idea. In a nutshell, heirlooms are about trying to grow particular varieties.

Here are my Seven Steps for Heirloom Seed Saving:

1. Determine where the seeds of your desired plant come from.
As you are all aware, many fruits and vegetables have seeds within them while others do not. Some seeds come from other parts of the original plant. If you have a fruit or vegetable with seeds, go ahead and dig them out and move to step two.

If the plant you are trying to derive seeds from doesn’t have a core of seeds, you may need to do a little research. I’ll give you a few examples. If you want seeds from a potato, garlic, onions, or ginger, you will need to let sprouts develop on the veggie itself. You can then pluck those sprouts off and plant them in soil. A new root crop will develop and the cycle will repeat. Often times, the plant that grows on the surface from those sprouts–root crops included–will put off a flower head that will eventually dry up on the plant and produce a seed head. Then you will be able to get seeds from that dried up flower.

DSC03404 [Spuds sprouting from potato and ginger]

Many ornamental flowers (flowers can also be heirlooms) will produce seeds from the dried flowers as well but some will create seed pods. For example, the Petunia will bloom for several days and then suddenly the bloom will droop and fall off the plant. The spot on the plant where the flower fell will grow a small pod. When the pod is mature, it will dry, crack open, and release its teeny tiny seeds. The same is true for many herbs such as Basil. Flowers such as Marigold dry and the seeds are actually attached to their petals. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Marigold seeds actually look like little match sticks.

DSC03405 [Basil Seed Pods, most are already dry]

DSC03406 [Marigold Seed Heads]

2. Clean the “messy” seeds if necessary.
What if the seeds are gooey and wet? You must find a way to dry so that they will not end up molding. For tomatoes, some heirloom gardeners will put them in water, blend them, and let them ferment for a couple of days so that the seeds will actually separate cleanly and able to be dried. Personally, that’s not how I do it. I am too concerned that I would leave them too long. I actually place the seeds with the sticky pulp into a kitchen strainer and wash them with cool water thoroughly. Often times I can’t get all of the excess pulp off but I get as much out as possible and then I prop the strainer over a bowl for a couple of days to dry. The remaining pulp will dry and flake away from the seeds after that. Other “messy seeds” that aren’t so gooey will be okay with a simple rinse and air dry. You can actually lay them out on a piece of butcher or news paper. I like to write on the paper so that I can keep track of the days they are laid out.DSC03237[Gooey Dragon Fruit Seeds]

DSC03233 [Shikuwasa Seeds; messy, but not as messy]

3. Let them dry, TOTALLY!
This step is very important. The slightest amount of moisture can cause mold when you try to save the seeds. Usually the magic number is three days. So set the seeds out for three days and let them dry. If you extract seeds from seed pods, they may already be quite dry. Let them sit in a paper bag or cheese cloth so that they can drop out easily when they are ready.

DSC03232 [Moist Okra Seeds left out to dry]

4. Protect them from the elements.
Some seeds lose their germination capabilities when they are left out in the air or too much light for too long. When leaving the seeds out to dry, place them in a darkish spot in the house where they are undisturbed. Once they have dried completely, place them in a sealed jar or plastic bag then in a dark place. I usually go with one plastic bag and one envelope for each set of seeds so that they are air tight and placed in the dark. I used to only use plastic bags and often that still worked but this year I found that many of my Jalepenos refused to sprout. I learned then that pepper seeds are more “light-sensitive” than most seeds. So, I’m using envelopes from now on.

DSC03342 [Plastic bags for the seeds then to be placed in a dark spot]

5. Be a master Labeler.
Seeds do last a while; many of them for years. But they don’t last forever. Different seeds have different life expectancies. So, that’s a good reason to label by date. A few years down the road when you’re sifting through your collection, you can determine which seeds will stay, which ones will go, and which ones need to be used up ASAP. I like to label mine with the name, dates, and place of origin (as best as I know).

DSC03384 [Inside the seeds are sealed in plastic bags then placed in labeled envelopes]

6. Plant in season if know the season. If you don’t, fret not trial and error then take notes.
Many fruits, vegetables, and herbs grow as annuals. There is no guarantee that they will be productive in the winter if they are meant to be a summer crop and vice versa. Lettuce crops grow well in moderate to cool weather, tomatoes grow well in warm weather, and hot peppers grow well in blazing hot weather. A little planning goes a long way. If you’ve saved seeds from a vegetable you have limited information on, don’t be afraid to test them out. You can always try again a couple of months later or the following year. Be sure to take notes about your results or lack there of and you’ll get it.

7. Research early, relax and enjoy later.
In addition to knowing about your crop’s seasons, find out about potential bug pests and diseases that affect the particular plant you are trying to grow. Find out about water and light needs. Get to know all that you can so that you can plan accordingly. Use labels so that you don’t have to keep it all memorized in your head and get overwhelmed. My system for container garden watering is as follows: I find out if the plant needs consistent moisture or drying in between watering. I place the dry plants in clay pots and the wet plants in self watering containers like “Plant Spa.” It takes the guess-work out of it for me and I can avoid under/over watering. If you know a certain bug likes to attack your selected crop, find out what plants repel that pest and apply a little companion planting. This is a lot of research and work at the beginning of each growing season, but hard and purposeful work in the beginning saves you a lot of trouble later on. It’s worth the effort.

DSC02893

With these steps, you can begin saving your favorite varieties as you come across them in your local market or travels. It’s not very hard, it just takes a little time, planning, and organization. I hope this article helped. Please feel free to ask me questions or share your Heirloom Garden Experiences!

I am an Heirloom Gardener on Foreign Soil

Life  is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let  us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live  better in the future.
William Wordsworth

I am an heirloom gardener on foreign soil. Originally from Texas, I have Hispanic and Jewish Roots on my Mother’s side; European Roots on my Father’s side. My great grandparents were immigrants from Mexico, Lithuania, Ireland, and Germany. My parents and I were born in America; we are American. I now live in Japan.

I began this journey as a gardener in the States where everything was familiar and comfortable. Seed packets at the local stores were almost always Ferry-Morse or Burpee, not that you had to use seeds because the hardware stores had transplants for just as cheap every spring. You never had trouble finding the name of anything unfamiliar to you. You could count on tomatoes to be red, cucumbers to be green, and all other things to be entirely predictable. You also realized that you would have start up costs for your garden and reason that it was an investment.

Then I started doing something a little different. When we bought produce at the store that I particularly liked; I saved the seeds. What did it cost me besides a little bit of time? I began saving seeds in every fruit and vegetable that I liked. Next I found new produce at places like Whole Foods such as “Yellow Pear Tomato” or “Speckled Roman”  or a Mexican variety of a Cherry Tomato. I began recording where I was finding my seeds, when I found them, and if I knew where they were shipped from.

That is when I learned about Heirloom Gardening. Heirloom seed collection is much like passing down family Heirlooms. You attain seeds from a parent plant and replant those seeds in the future then repeat the process with the generation of seeds that follows. Seeds are passed on to family, neighbors, and friends so that future generations can enjoy growing something as  tangibly in the present as a vegetable but at the same time capable of rebirth through its seed. This is how Heirloom Varieties have stayed around without being stocked in grocery stores; old time gardeners are still saving and passing them on for future generations. I now order seeds from a catalogue (the way the old timers used to do) by Baker Creed Seed Company as they specialize in collecting rare varieties of seeds.

Now I too specialize in collecting rare varieties. I am an heirloom gardener on foreign soil. I am presently growing vegetables from seeds that were from Texas, Mexico, Georgia, and Florida. I now collect new varieties from mysterious foods I find here because today is a part of the story my garden will tell. Imagine a garden in the future where I will tell people, “This is a small Shikuwasa tree started from seeds I collected in Okinawa. Over here is a plant some call a Cape Goose Berry, but in Okinawa it’s called a Hozuki and is said to be extremely rare. At my parent’s house is an Avocado tree I actually started in Georgia and then loaded into the car and took with me to Texas. Then over here is a collection of rare purple varieties of veggies like Jalapeños, Tomatillos, and Cayenne Peppers.” Rather than seeing them only as plants, I will recall the history that is theirs and mine alike.

One thing I find amazing is the miracle of how small a seed is and yet the greatness of it’s potential. It reminds me of myself–of all of us really–and how we start out so small but have the potential to grow to endless heights. A single seed appears so insignificant; yet it can become a huge tree or three foot plant that produces hundreds fruit. Plus, each seed carries the DNA of it’s parent plant. It won’t just randomly turn into another plant–it will be like it’s parent. AND, each new generation of seeds carries traits that help it adapt to the environment that it has been introduced to. Also, if you allow it to be in close proximity to a similar plant variety, the cross pollination will cause it to have traces of the other plant’s DNA. The new generation might come out looking a little different but in most ways it will be the same.

Anyway, this is what I’ve been striving to do when I shop at the local markets. I’m searching for the pieces that I will add to my story–the one that my garden tells. Now you’ll know the significance of Market Day Sunday.

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