As Master Gardeners in Training, we are committed to volunteering our time in our local community to educate and answer gardening questions. We use science-based facts and we only share organic garden solutions. Our backgrounds and experience vary, but we all have something in common: the love for plants and gardening. Our title indicates that we are all-knowing… well, some of us are, and the rest of us continue to unearth the facts about all things botanical.
In early June, I was asked by Sarah Jones from Stewardship Pemberton Society if I would speak about collecting vegetable seeds and pollination at one of their free garden seminars at the Pemberton Public Library, the library is home to the Seed Library for Pemberton. Immediately said “Yes!!!” The only caveat was my experience in seed collecting was pretty much, well, non-existent. However, that did not stop my enthusiasm to dig deeper into a topic that I am sure would come up one day at one of our Master Gardener Clinics.
After much research and discovery, my confidence in the subject was better, but what impressed me more, was the significance of collecting seeds. I had no idea the socio-economic impact that seed collection had on creating healthy food systems and people.
Did you know collecting seeds helps to maintain seed health & resilience, better genetic diversity in our gardens, farms & kitchens, and can save you money? It’s no wonder as a child, my grandmother was mortified when she found us playing with her seeds; destroying hours of painstaking work, not to mention affecting her ability to grow the lovely veggies we enjoyed throughout the year.
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. If they do produce seed they 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).
Open pollinated seeds are non-hybrid plants which 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 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:
When it comes to Pollination…
- 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 one only?)
- 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. I have listed a few websites, and a couple of books at the end, that the Pemberton Library has ordered for its book collection.
The process of collecting seeds is easily summed up in the diagram below:
To maintain purity of seeds, they may require isolation through distance to prevent insect or wind contamination, time (being planted in stages so that the first crop sets its seeds and stops shedding pollen), mechanical isolation (i.e. using physical barriers to prevent unwanted pollen, like cloth bagging or caging), and/or 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.
I want to thank Sarah Jones (Stewardship Pemberton Society) and Lisa Richardson (Traced Elements) for asking me to share my new-found appreciation and knowledge about seed collection. I have an utmost respect for those gardeners and farmers who have been collecting seeds and who are able to pass down their seed from generation to generation. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, we have lost 75% of our diversity in our agricultural crops since the beginning of the last century. Having a seed library and sharing our seeds within our community plays such a significant role in the health of our food systems, and is good for our mind, body and soul.
Happy Seed Collecting everyone!