Seed Saving at Home
Preserving your heritage with heirlooms
The word heirloom is deep and earthy. It suggests a passing down of tradition. How fitting to call open-pollinated plants, whose seeds are collected with the intention of holding fast most of the characteristics of their parents, heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are currently very popular, but throughout history, home gardeners who have saved seeds from their family gardens over decades have preserved many heirlooms. The act of seed saving leaves the gardening circle unbroken.
On the NH Seacoast, local seed saving expert, Erik Wochholz, the Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth orchestrates the collection of a diverse amount of open pollinated varieties, which they grow organically on the 10-acre site. On an annual basis, Wochholz saves a remarkable amount of seed including borage, sweet cicely, calendula, fennel, coriander, kale, turnips, winter savory, tennis ball lettuce, leeks, tomatoes and West Indian Gherkin cucumbers.
“The simple practice of saving seed,” says Wochholz, “sustains both the garden itself and the healthy diet of the garden caretaker. An essential part of every seasonal garden is sourcing seed, and while it’s a popular option to rely on seed companies, collecting seed within the home garden provides the gardener with a multitude of benefits.” Wochholz notes that certain types of heirloom plants produce viable seed while others do not. “Many of the seeds people purchase through seed companies today are what we call F1 hybrids,” says Wochholz. “These are not open pollinated, as they exhibit the exclusive genes of two different parent plants which produce sterile seed. These types of plants became very popular beginning in the early 20th century to protect farmers and seed companies while allowing them to grow and own particular cultivars exclusively without competition. This genetic standardization may have benefits for the commercial grower, but loses the potential for desirable plant characteristics and genetic diversity.”
Wochholz offers the following plants for beginning seed savers: beans, lettuce, onions, carrots, calendula, and dill. In confined spaces, gardeners can encounter cross-pollination; a Mortgage Lifter tomato planted next to a Rutgers tomato will produce seed that reflect the genes of both tomatoes. The home gardener does not need to worry about this for sustaining food, but it creates problems for trading seed and sustaining particular heirloom varieties.
Similarly, “if you save seeds out of Cherokee Purple or Brandywine, the seeds will give rise to plants that are the same as the parent plants,” says Jason Cavatorta, a plant breeder at Johnny’s Selected Seeds located in Maine. “If you save seed from hybrid varieties, like Early Girl or Better Boy, every plant in the next generation will be unique.”
Cavatorta personally saves seeds from melons, winter squash, tomatillos, and tomatoes. “Fruit is cut up in my kitchen and I extract seeds by hand,” says Cavatorta. “I put them in a colander and run warm water over them and remove any pulp. Then I spread seeds out on white paper to let them dry for five days or so. Seed saving from these crops is particularly easy because the seed is mature when the fruits are mature.” Other crops, such as zucchini and summer squash, have to over-ripen before harvesting their seeds.
Libraries across the country are starting seed banks with growing success. The model most regularly in place involves patrons borrowing seeds at the beginning of the year, and returning with saved seeds in the autumn months. Locally, the Concord Seed Lending Library in Concord, MA has an extensive offering of seeds for patrons to sign out as well as events related to soil health and growing food. They also provide information on their website for planting guidelines and how to save seed. Several resources exist for gardeners who are interested in saving their own seed. Begin small and above all, have fun. In the words of Robert Stevenson, “don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”