As Master Gardeners, we are committed to volunteering our time in our local communities to educate and answer gardening questions. We use science based facts and we only share organic garden practices. Our backgrounds and experience vary, but we all have something in common, the love for plants and gardening. The title indicates that we are all knowing…. well some of us are, and the rest of us continue to unearth the facts as we continue our journey as gardeners.
This past weekend I had the privilege to share my new found knowledge of seed collection at the Pemberton Farmers Market. My lack of experience has not stopped me from my enthusiasm to share what I can, and I am grateful for both the Stewardship Pemberton Society and the Pemberton Farmers Market for giving the space to do so. In my research, I was impressed by the significance of collecting seeds. I had no idea the socio-economic impact that seed collection had on creating healthy food systems and people.
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, we have lost 75% of the diversity in our agricultural crops since the beginning of the last century. This has much to do with the global agricultural model that has changed over the years. However, we can minimize this erosion by taking action in our own communities. It’s great to see a resurgence of growing our own foods and plants in both in urban and rural areas.
Did you know collecting seeds helps to maintain seed health & resilience, better genetic diversity in our gardens, farms & kitchens, and can save you money? Having a seed library and sharing our seeds within our community also plays a significant role in the health of our food systems.
Seeds come in all shapes and sizes and captured my attention at very young age. My earliest memory and fascination with seeds started as a young girl visiting my grandmother’s farm, where we found a stash of seeds in the summer house and decided to use them as part of our make believe cooking recipes. It’s no wonder my grandmother was mortified when she found us playing with them, destroying hours of painstaking work, not to mention affecting her ability to grow the lovely veggies we enjoyed throughout the year. I now appreciate why she was so upset by our actions. Sorry Baba!
Not every seed is created equally…
Many of us buy seeds from seed catalogues or at our local garden centres. Most seed companies nowadays sell F1 or Hybrid seeds that may produce seeds that are sterile or no seed at all. F1 or Hybrid seeds produce seeds that may not produce true to type.
If you can, choose to buy seeds that are open sourced. These are seeds that are not restricted by patents or other intellectual property rights. This keeps our food supply secure for future generations – this is where the socio-economic impact comes into play. Or better yet, take advantage of seed libraries in your community (i.e. Pemberton Seed Library).
Look for open pollinated seeds, which are non-hybrid plants that are more genetically diverse, have a greater amount of variation within the plant population, and they allow plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions & climate year to year.
Collecting Seeds – what you need to know first before you pick!
Collecting seeds requires some good planning as well as understanding the fertilization process. Pollination is key for fertilization, and it’s different depending on the type of plant. Some plants can self-pollinate (i.e. beans), while others depend on insects (honeybees being the most efficient) or by wind (i.e. corn).
Before you start to collect seeds, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Will these plants cross with any others? Is this good or bad? (usually bad)
- How does this happen? (wind or insect)
- What can I do to control this? Do I need anything?
- Do I need a minimum of healthy seed? (do they breed as a group?)
- Do they pollinate on their own and self-pollinate (need only one?)
- Have I chosen the right plant for the seed?
When it comes to seed extraction and drying….
- Do I need to do anything special to the seed?
- Is my seed well dried and labelled?
The answers to these questions are different for each vegetable, and my recommendation is to get a good reference book on seed collection that will answer all these questions in greater detail.
The process of collecting seeds is easily summed up in the diagram below:
A few more steps…
To maintain purity of seeds, they may require isolation through distance to prevent insect or wind contamination, time (planted in stages so that the first crop sets its seeds and stops shedding pollen), mechanical that is using physical barriers to prevent unwanted pollen (cloth bagging or caging), and hand pollination, which is the most commonly used method to produce pure seed.
Choosing seed comes down to observing the whole plant and not just the fruit, checking for disease & insect resistance, drought resistance, trueness to type, colour & shape of fruit, flavour, etc. Other factors include vigor and population size (saved from the greatest possible number of plants).
The process of removing and cleaning seeds can include washing, drying; and some plants require fermentation first. Washing seeds (tomatoes) requires placing the collected seeds in a bucket of water, stirred with vigor to help separate viable seeds, strained, and dried on a non-stick surface (glass or ceramic dish, cookie sheet, or screen – not paper towel). Plants that produce seeds in pods (peas) or husks (corn) are usually harvested dry, threshed to break the seed from the covering, and any chaff or debris is removed by a process called winnowing (wind).
Storing seeds is the final stage of the process. Glass or metal jars, zip lock bags, paper envelopes provide air tight homes, and make sure to keep the seeds away from heat or moisture. Ensure they are clearly labelled and stored in a cool, dark place where there is minimal temperature fluctuation.
Plants are incredible wonders of our world that deserve to be cherished if we are going to enjoy healthy & resilient lives now and for future generations to come. My own discovery has energized my participation in contributing to our local seed library. There are fabulous resources out there to help you. Listed below are a few that will help you along your way to becoming a seed collector ambassador.
Happy Seed Collecting everyone!
How to Save your Seeds by Seeds of Diversity Canada
Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
The complete guide to Saving Seeds: 322 Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, Flowers, Trees and Shrubs by Robert E. Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough.
The Seed Garden – The Art and Practice of Seed Saving by Seed Savers Exchange, edited by Lee Buttala & Shanyn Siegel