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Harvesting Seeds to Save

Containers of seeds drying in the living room

Containers of seeds drying in the living room

By Sylvia Davatz

The gardening season is drawing to a close, and by now the downstairs living space of any self-respecting seed saver is carpeted with flats and dishes of drying seeds awaiting final cleaning, sorting, labeling, and storing, so full of promise for the coming season.

All seeds need to be dried down after harvest to eliminate excess moisture that might cause molding during storage. Larger seeds will require more time, but a good rule of thumb is at least two weeks for all seeds, out of direct sunlight, in a well-ventilated spot. Keep seeds with similar appearance separate in order to prevent contamination from “jumps.”

Flats of pepper, bean, and salsify seeds

Flats of pepper, bean, and salsify seeds

Once the seeds are dry you can test germination. Beans and other large seeds can be counted and spaced evenly in a flat of potting mix. Smaller seeds can be sprinkled over the surface. Or you can fold the seeds into a damp paper towel tucked in a plastic bag. Check daily. Calculate your germination rate based on the number of seeds that sprout.

Store seeds in a cool, dark, dry spot. Either paper envelopes, glass jars, or small Ziplocs work well. Be very sure to label the packets carefully with the exact name of the variety, year of harvest, and, ideally, your original seed source.

P1010584For more advanced seed savers, this is a good time to begin planning your rotations for next season. If you grew any cross-pollinating varieties, you’ll need to research isolation methods and distances or decide which varieties need growing out for fresh seed. Pay attention to the plant population size you’ll need for optimal genetic diversity. Isolation needs and population size requirements vary among crops. For instance, if you are maintaining two pepper varieties you’ll want to separate them by at least 300 feet in the garden. If space is tight, grow only one variety per year. You’ll need six to twelve healthy plants from which to harvest seed.

Keep accurate records, designing a system that lets you capture the information you are most interested in collecting. Planting dates, harvest dates, yield sizes, weather data, observations about pollinators or plant characteristics such as disease resistance, hardiness, or flavor are all possibilities.

Then stoke the woodstove, pull up a chair, and hone your skills by reading one of the best books to come out recently on seed saving in the home garden: The Manual of Seed Saving, by Andrea Heistinger.

Sylvia Davatz has been saving seed for 20 years. She helped start the ‘Upper Valley Seed Savers Group’ and has served on the steering committee of the recently founded Grassroots Seed Network for the exchange of open-pollinated seed. You can reach her at sdav@valley.net.

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