For the past year, I have interviewed a variety of the vendors that sell products at the Portland Homestead Supply. I have been inspired and fascinated by the diverse ways that these vendors are reclaiming ancient processes and skills, which are in danger of being subsumed by newer technologies. Homesteading, I have discovered, is apprenticing yourself to the skills that have kept the candle of humanity burning for centuries, from farming techniques to blacksmithing to pottery to crafting candles.
Not only does homesteading keep ancient practices alive, it also allows us to live more autonomously within our regional communities. We are more resilient if people within our communities contain the knowledge and skills to produce nourishing food. Already, Oregon has a rich local agricultural economy, but we can support ourselves more fully by spreading knowledge about seed saving to farmers, home gardeners, and anyone else interested.
In Cindy Conner’s book Seed Libraries: And Other Means of Keeping the Seeds in the Hands of the People, she proclaims that the most important reason to save seeds is because “whoever owns the seeds controls the foods supply.” In an era where Monsanto owns almost a quarter of the global seed market and intellectual property laws for seeds threaten farmers who save their own seeds, it is important that small scale farmers and gardeners preserve seed varieties that grow well in their climates by practicing seed saving. To parrot Conner, if we own the seeds, we control the food supply.
Seed saving varies dramatically depending on the plant. This article is meant to be an introduction to seed saving and will just scrape the surface of what is possible. The first thing to consider is whether the plant you are working with is an annual or a biennial. The beginner seed saver should start learning by saving the seeds of annual plants, which are much less complicated because you do not have to store the plant over winter in order to harvest the seeds.
|Type of Plant||Description||Examples|
|Annual||Life-cycle completed in one growing season.||Corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, broccoli|
|Biennial||Life-cycle completed in two growing seasons (the first year the plant produces vegetables and the second it flowers and seeds).||Carrots, beets, chard, rutabaga, cabbage|
Seed saving is an intentional practice. You must think about saving your seeds before you have even planted them because you want to prevent cross-pollination. Cross-pollination will occur if you plant different varieties of crops too close together. Thus, if you are serious about seed saving, you must plant your garden with it in mind. Seed Savers Exchange has created a useful chart that lists crops and the isolation distance that a home gardener should leave between plants in order to prevent cross-contamination.
The easiest crops to start learning how to seed save with are self-pollinators, which means the plant’s flowers contain both male and female parts and can pollinate themselves, thus reducing the chances of cross-contamination by external pollinators. Some common self-pollinators are sunflowers, lettuce, peas, beans, eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes.
Within the easy crops listed above, there are two categories categories of crops: wet seeded and dry seeded. The seeds in wet seeded crops are embedded in the flesh of fruits (think tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squashes etc), whereas the seeds in dry seeded crops are enclosed in dry husks or pods (think peas, corn, beans, cabbage, lettuce, etc.) There are different harvesting and processing methods for wet seeds and dry seeds. We shall take on the simple steps for processing pea seeds (a dry seed) and tomato seeds (a wet seed) below.
The first step to saving peas is resisting the urge to harvest every single delectable pea on the plant, thus leaving pods to dry on the plant until they are brown. Harvest them four weeks after one would normally harvest them for eating, and then remove the seed from the dried pod. Place into a paper bag, label, and put in a cool, dry place until you want to grow peas again!
To save a tomato seed, you must harvest the tomato when it is ripe, bisect it, and squeeze out the jelly-like substance inside the tomato that contains the seeds. Place the seeds and jelly in a small jar, cover, and put in a warm location for three days, stirring once a day. You are essentially fermenting the seeds; after a few days fungus will appear on the top of the tomato seed mixture. This fungus performs an essential function, eating the gelatinous coat that surrounds the seed. After three days, fill the container with warm water. The viable seeds are heavier and will sink to the bottom, which means you can easily pour out the water, tomato pulp, and immature seeds that are in the top of the mixture. Take out those clean seeds, let them dry completely, and label and store them until the next planting!
There are many helpful resources online for the beginner and advanced seed saver. I have listed a few below.
Vegetable Planting and Seed Saving – Crop-specific planting and seed saving instructions from Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Saving Zine – The Seed Ambassadors Project, a group of organic farmers and gardeners based near Crawfordsville, Oregon, produced a beautiful zine that is a user-friendly introduction to seed saving.
Organic Seed Alliance: A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers – need to enter your email address to download the guide, but it is well worth it!
Saving Seeds from Biennial Plants – informative blog post about biennial plant seed saving
Portland Seed-Saving Resources
For those who live in the SE neighborhood, the SE Tool Library is an amazing resource. Not only do they have all sorts of tools to rent for free, they also have a seed library. I have picked up sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds, and basil seeds, and given back snap pea seeds and kale seeds. The SE Tool Library has odd hours because they are entirely volunteer run, so make sure you are stopping by on either a Tuesday or Thursday evening or a Saturday day.
If you live in NE, you are not out of luck! There is a NE Tool Library based out of Redeemer Lutheran Church that hosts a seed library as well. They are open on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday daytime.
If you want to participate in a more hands-on experience, various organizations in Portland offer seed-saving classes. One of them, Handmade Gardens, has classes throughout the year focused on different gardening skills. The September 3rd class, Growing Seeds for your Garden and Community, will get your seed saving fire blazing.
The Portland Nursery is also an amazing resource for everything garden related. They get extra bonus points for providing classes to the public for free! There is a Wet Seed Extraction (Tomatoes and Cucumbers) class on August 22nd and a Finishing the Seed Harvest class on September 19th.
In summary, we will be working on our gardens all summer long, nourishing our vegetables to eventually nourish our bodies. But it doesn’t have to end there! As your vegetables and fruits ripen, consider saving the seeds ~ a practice which preserves diversity of agricultural crops, resists the global dominance of monolithic seed corporations, and saves you dollars because you don’t have to buy seeds all over again the next year.