Archives For seed saving

Seed saving is an art, not to mention fun and empowering. Plus, it’s a valuable contribution on a deeper level: agricultural biodiversity matters, and seed saving in home gardens is mainstream conservation of biodiversity!

PHOTO: John Withee bean collection.

A highlight of our 2013 Seed Swap was the John Withee bean collection. A family tradition of “beanhole” cooking led John Withee to collect and organize 1,267 bean varieties. He donated the collection—and its handcrafted case—to Seed Savers Exchange before he passed away.

Here’s why you, the home gardener, should start a seed collection:

Seed saving promotes self-reliance, and swapping seeds connects and builds community. It connects us to our agricultural roots. Additionally, it helps conserve our agricultural resources. Preservation matters. Once varieties are lost, they cannot be recovered. A century ago, seed houses had hundreds of varieties, and now just a few remain. Think about this vegetable fact: In 1903, 544 varieties of cabbage were listed by seed houses across the United States. By 1983, just 28 of those varieties were represented in our national seed bank at the National Seed Storage Laboratory (now the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation).

Saving seeds encourages adventurous eaters. Growing heirloom varieties holds culinary appeal because it offers the opportunity to grow interesting vegetables that aren’t readily available in grocery stores.

Thrifty seed collectors save money because there is no seed to buy each spring. They maintain a personal seed collection.

Seed savers are lifelong learners, and home gardeners play an important role in helping to preserve our diverse seed histories. Home gardens become living laboratories to learn about plants. Seed saving builds observation skills, and there is a need for more seed growers to evaluate varieties for disease resistance and variety. 

Finally, saving and sharing seed just feels good. 

PHOTO: Broccoli seedlings

Broccoli seedlings

Which seeds should be saved (and are the easiest to save)? 

Deciding which seeds to save requires a working knowledge of several definitions:

Hybrid varieties (F1) produce seeds that, when grown the next year, are unlikely to resemble the original plant. Don’t save seeds from a hybrid vegetable. Seeds should be saved from open-pollinated plants (OP), those stable varieties that can reliably reproduce themselves generation after generation. As long as open-pollinated plants don’t cross pollinate with other varieties of the same species, their offspring will carry the distinguishing characteristics of the variety. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated plants that produce seeds passed down from one generation to another, often with historical connections and stories. Heirlooms carry special value and are usually old varieties.

Deciding which seeds to save requires a basic understanding of how plants reproduce:

Very simply, plants either mate with themselves or they mate with other plants. Self-pollinating plants have all the flower parts (anther and stigma) to transfer pollen within their own flowers (achieved by physical contact of male and female parts), or between separate flowers on the same plant (helped by wind or insects). In other words, they mate with themselves. Cross pollination takes place when pollen is transferred from one plant to another plant by insects, birds, or wind. Crossers can’t move pollen without help as the selfers do. Offspring of plants that cross pollinate may have different characteristics than the original variety unless they are isolated from plants of the same species.

Seed packet with description designating F1 seed.

If a package is labeled F1, seeds should not be saved, as they are unlikely to reliably reproduce the same plant as the parent.

A couple of tips on planning a garden for seed saving:

  • Start small and keep it simple.
  • Balance the many factors that comprise the art and practice of seed saving.
  • Begin by choosing a couple of self-pollinating annuals. Peas, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce are easiest to save. Insect- and wind-pollinated annuals may require isolation distances so they don’t cross pollinate.
  • Thoughtfully map out the garden to make efficient use of space. Growing plants for seed may take up more room for a longer period of time. While radish may be harvest-ready after growing 30 days, it may take much longer for your radish crop to produce its seeds.  

Take our classes during the Super Seed Weekend to learn more about planning a garden for seed saving.

Seed savers contribute! Come to learn, swap seeds, and share stories at Super Seed Weekend and experience the satisfaction that comes along with being a seed saver. A broad community of seed savers (new friends) awaits!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There are heirloom seeds from corn grown by Native Americans in Pennsylvania, and seeds from a marigold grown in the Andes for the spice of its leaves, along with some 4,500 other varieties in the collection of William Woys Weaver, Ph.D.

Hear William Woys Weaver in person at 1:30 p.m. on January 22. Register for his free lecture here.

PHOTO: William Woys Weaver

William Woys Weaver

Every heirloom plant seed grown for food has a story, according to Dr. Weaver. Where it came from, who it was grown by, and why it was grown all are pieces of that history. It has a past and a future. The food historian will share the story of these seeds, and of the collection his grandfather began in about 1932 that he now oversees, on Sunday, January 22, during Super Seed Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Weaver’s collection is housed in a seed room in a historic home in Pennsylvania. Built around 1805, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sits on a two-acre kitchen garden that Weaver and his collaborators task with growing and testing seeds from the collection. They employ an artisanal process, doing everything by hand. If the seeds look successful, they are moved on to a university or qualified farm to expand the process.

“People are beginning to realize these heirlooms, organically raised, are much more nutritionally rich than seeds grown commercially,” Weaver said. “We are right at the cusp of a lot of ideas.”

The Roughwood Seed Collection is now home to the largest privately held collection of its kind in the state. The collection is part of the Roughwood Seed Archive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with a working board. Weaver and his team are making big plans to grow and customize their endeavor to better serve the demand from local chefs and the growing list of those who are tuned in to the origins of their food. “A collection like this is very important because this is a source of food locally and farmers can get seed from us. It has a value far beyond its monetary cost,” Weaver said.

PHOTO: Heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes—just one of the many heirlooms worth saving and sharing

Learn more with a class at our expanded Super Seed Weekend. Receive free parking with your paid class registration.

Start Your Own Kitchen Garden

Weaver encourages home kitchen gardeners to start small when growing heirloom seeds for food, and see where their talents are strongest. He suggests joining a seed exchange to gain access to a wide variety of options, but focusing on growing only what seems to do well and obtaining the rest of their produce from other growers.

Weaver hopes that people who participate in community gardens or seed exchanges enjoy the connectedness that comes with the process. “The seed exchanges and the seed networks help build a sense of community, so it’s very important from a social aspect, and also the heirlooms are good teaching tools for kids,” he said. It’s helpful to teach and learn about where our food comes from and what resources—including a grower’s time—go into each fruit or vegetable produced. When we understand those elements, Weaver said, we are more likely to appreciate each bite on our plate, and less likely to waste or toss edible food.

Weaver is eager to establish new systems and opportunities for the Roughwood Seed Collection in the very near future. The ambitious food advocate is also a professor and an author, with a new book on pickling that is due out in 2018, and a forthcoming update to his popular book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

Don’t miss the exciting conclusion of Super Seed Weekend. The Seed Swap begins at 3 p.m., right after Weaver’s 1:30 p.m. lecture, “Our Kitchen Garden for Culinary and Cultural Research: The Roughwood Seed Collection,” on Sunday, January 22.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Come to the Seed Swap on February 28, and see a demonstration of the Lenhardt Library’s new seed library, set to launch next month.

Seed sharing is a resource for the community, just as libraries are a community resource for books. A seed library is where one may “borrow” seeds to sow, and if successful, harvest, save, and return some to the library for others to borrow the following season. We aim to cultivate an interest in home gardening and seed saving.

PHOTO: Seed packets.Many are familiar with planting seeds, so we’ll focus on seed saving—a less familiar aspect of the food cycle. The Lenhardt Library’s seed library will be geared toward the novice who has little experience with seeds, but all are welcome to participate. We’ll provide horticultural assistance and step-by-step instructions as part of our program.

Seeds in this seed library are primarily heirlooms (varieties that have been in cultivation for 50 years or more), and/or open-pollinated (pollinated by bees or wind), so that the next generation seed retains the identical characteristics of the parent. Seed companies Renee’s Garden and Seed Savers Exchange have generously donated seeds to get us started; tomato, beans, lettuce, and more await you.

In 2015, the Illinois Seed Law was amended, making noncommercial seed libraries such as this one legally exempt from commercial requirements such as testing and labeling. Now we’re ready to get started!

We hope you’ll visit and borrow seeds for your home garden, whether it’s a large plot or a terra cotta pot on a windowsill.

PHOTO: peas.Get more tips for starting seed in our Smart Gardener series, and consider starting some early spring crops.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Seed Pools and Jacuzzis

Improving the health of your saved seeds

Mike Kwiatek —  December 19, 2013 — 3 Comments

Have you ever spent days tending to seeds only to find that they rot shortly after sprouting? If you want your seeds to grow into big healthy plants, you should take the precaution of treating them to prevent fungal and bacterial diseases.

Seeds can catch diseases from diseased parents or plants around them. Fungal infections are common because spores can travel on the wind or in water droplets and may land on seeds, sometimes penetrating the outer layers of the seed coat and remaining until germination. When the seed sprouts, the new soft tissue offers a welcome home for the fungus to grow. Bacterial pathogens sometimes will infect the embryo of the seed itself, so the tough outer seed coat protects the bacteria too! When the seed germinates, the bacteria grows and infects the young seedling.

Don’t worry! There is a way to save your seeds from this cruel fate! We use two methods to help prevent disease in seedlings: bleach treatment and heat treatment.

Bleach treatment

PHOTO: Pumpkin and tomato seeds.

Pumpkin seeds (left) require bleach treatment, while tomato seeds (right) will require heat treatment.

If you’re working with squash or melon family members, asparagus, or zinnia seeds, you will want to give them the bleach treatment. These plants are rarely—if ever—infected from within the seed coat. Use heat treatment for seeds of the tomato family, (tomato, eggplant, pepper), carrot family (carrot, celery, parsley, cilantro), cabbage family (see here for a long list of those vegetables), spinach, and lettuce.

Bleach treatment is easy! Your first step is to collect your materials. You will need a work space with bleach, water, measuring cups or spoons, dish soap, seeds appropriate for this treatment (the list above), a bowl, a strainer, and a mesh screen or newspaper.

PHOTO: Measuring cups full of supplies, including seeds, bleach, and water.

A few common household supplies make this an easy task.

Create a bleach solution of 80 percent water and 20 percent bleach. An easy way to do this is to combine 1 cup (8 oz.) of water with 1/4 cup (2 oz.) of bleach in a bowl. Add a drop of dish soap to the solution to break the surface tension, add the seeds, and allow them to sink. Mix the solution for one minute. Next, pour the contents of your bowl through a strainer, and rinse your seeds well in cold water for about 5 minutes. Finally, place your seeds on a screen or newspaper and allow them to dry before putting them in bags or containers for next spring.

Heat treatment, or the “seed jacuzzi” method

If you’re concerned about your seeds carrying a bacterial disease inside their coat, do for them what our bodies do for us when we are sick: heat them up! Bacteria don’t respond well to higher temperatures, which is why you develop a fever when you become ill. Since seeds can’t get fevers, we put them in a seed jacuzzi.

For this treatment, you will need water, a warming plate, thermometer, nylon bags (I use coffee filters instead), a glass container, and a screen or newspaper.

PHOTO: Tomato seeds, wrapped in a coffee filter and rubber-banded, are soaking in a glass of water.

Allowing seeds to pre-warm will prevent the embryos from being shocked by the heat. If you don’t pre-warm your seeds, fewer seeds will survive the treatment.

First, place your seeds in a bag or filter that will allow water to flow through. Next, pre-warm the seeds by placing the bag in a glass container of 100-degree-Fahrenheit water for 10 minutes. Make sure the temperature stays within a few degrees of this range.

Next, place the seeds in water heated to between 118 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Use the chart below to identify the proper temperature for your seeds and maintain this temperature within a few degrees for the time listed on the chart.

 

Chart of Seed Treatment

Chart of Seed Treatment via Ohio State Univeristy Extension Program


PHOTO: Pumpkin seeds sprouting on a dampened paper towel.

Healthy, sprouting seeds will be back before you know it!

Finally, place the bag of seeds in cool water for 5 minutes before putting them on newspaper or a screen to dry.

Whether you take the seeds to the pool (bleach treatment) or the jacuzzi (heat treatment), treating your seeds to prevent disease is very important. When spring returns, you’ll be very happy that you did.

Mark your calendars for our annual Seed Swap on Sunday, February 23, 2014.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

An All-American Salute to Our “Founding Gardeners”

Paying tribute to promoters of the American farming tradition.

Adriana Reyneri —  July 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

Our “founding gardeners”— author Andrea Wulf’s depiction of early U.S. presidents who passionately promoted farming as a means to independence — would be tickled to see the American Seed Saver bed in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. There, visitors will find varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables grown by our third president, Thomas Jefferson, in his country estate at Monticello, just outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Many of these varieties are also grown in Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden on the White House grounds.

PHOTO: tomatoes and marigolds

Grown together in a companion planting, marigolds deter pests from tomato plants in the garden.

The American Seed Saver bed also honors everyday gardeners who help safeguard the genetic diversity of plants, according to Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg, who oversees the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “Because of the work of home gardeners and seed-saving organizations, an increasing number of heirloom varieties are now available to the public,” she said.  

Learn about saving your own seeds!

Heirloom vegetable varieties are open-pollinated plants that reproduce themselves, staying “true to their parents,” according to Hilgenberg. They’ve been handed down through generations, a practice that helps maintain the food crop gene pool for future generations.

PHOTO: Beans in flower

Flowering beans
Photo: H. Zell CC-BY-SA-3.0

PHOTO: Harvested rattlesnake beans

Harvested beans
Photo: centeroftheweb.ecrater.com

The Abraham Lincoln tomato (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Abraham Lincoln’) was planted in our American Seed Saver bed as a tribute to our 16th president, who established the United States Department of Agriculture more than 150 years ago. The big, sweet, and juicy tomato is a good slicer and also makes great ketchup. “What could be more American than that?” Hilgenberg said. “Other cultures dry their tomatoes or make paste. We’re going to put them on our burgers.”

Visitors to the American Seed Saver bed can also see the rattlesnake bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), said to originate from the Cherokee people. The variety is also known as the preacher bean because its abundant yield of purple-streaked green pods gives cause for thanks and praise. The nearby Painted Lady bean (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Painted Lady’), native to Mexico, was popular in England by the 1850s and a favorite in America by the early 1880s.

The sweet and spicy Alma Paprika pepper (Capsicum annuum ‘Alma Paprika’), of Hungarian origin, can be dried and ground into paprika and is cited in one of the earliest American cookbooks, according to Hilgenberg. In the American Seed Saver bed, the plant also serves as a symbol of America as a melting pot of cultures and traditions. “We’re such a nation of immigrants and now we have gardens with plants from all over the world,” Hilgenberg said. “We’ve made them our own.”


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org