Why farmers and gardeners are saving seeds from this year’s crops

Saving seeds
Roberta Bailey of Seven Tree Farm in Vassalboro with white oilseed poppy seeds. She is saving seeds to grow plants with next year.| Courtesy of Roberta Bailey

Fall is a busy time of year for farmers who need to harvest the last of the season’s crops and work on preparing the soil for next year. But Roberta Bailey of Seven Tree Farm in Vassalboro, Maine, is occupied with something else, too: saving seeds from this year’s crop.

“I’ve been cleaning seeds all morning,” the grower and inventory manager at Fedco Seeds said Tuesday.

After she cleans and dries seeds from flowers, tomatoes, soybeans, corn and more, she puts them away for the winter. Then in the spring, they will be ready to plant. People save seeds for all kinds of reasons, she and other advocates of the age-old practice said. Some of those include thrift, independence, an interest in saving heritage plants, and a desire to grow vegetables and flowers that are best suited to a particular set of growing conditions.

Once you get started, you just might get hooked, Bailey said.

“I hope for people to have more seed independence,” she said. “But mostly, I hope for them to discover how exciting it is. You’re dabbling with science and genetics. There’s so many surprises and you’re always learning. It’s worth taking the time for it.”

Those interested in learning more about saving seeds might venture to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, held from Friday, Sept. 21, to Sunday, Sept. 23. The calendar of events is rich with educational talks about the practice for both beginners and experts, as well as seed swaps held Saturday and Sunday. More and more folks are interested in saving seeds, according to Daniel MacPhee, the education programs director at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who also produces organic seed commercial at Blackbird Rise Farm in Palermo. Seed saving programs at some Maine high schools are becoming known nationally and even internationally.  

“I think there’s been a lot of interest, particularly in the organic community of gardeners and farmers,” he said. “We don’t have control of what commercial seed companies will be offering. If you have a variety you know and love, you can grow it yourself. … Whenever you save a seed, you are breeding. You are saving a plant that grows the best. I think people are realizing the value in producing their own seeds adapted to where they live.”

Tomato seed beginnings

Bailey’s interest in saving her own seeds began years ago, when someone gave her an Italian heirloom tomato. She loved it, and realized that she needed to start saving seeds so she could grow the plant again year after year. Bailey found a book called “Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners,” by Suzanne Ashworth and started learning. Back then, the focus of seed saving was mostly on heirloom vegetables, such as her delicious Italian tomato.

“To save heirloom seeds and save the varieties from extinction,” she said, adding that things have changed. “To me now, the reasons I save my personal seed is one, because of the seed corporations merging and dropping varieties left and right. There are certain varieties that I save because of seed security.”

But there’s another big reason people get into it, she said.

“Most important now to farmers is that when you save seed, it’s adapting to your farm. It’s adapting to your microbial biome,” she said. “Every time you save seed, it’s adapting to your region and your soil. Your weather. That, to me, is right now the most important reason to save seed.”

Saving seeds also goes hand in hand with food sovereignty, MacPhee said, which allows communities control over the way food is produced, traded and consumed and is a growing interest. The seed swap and scion exchanges that MOFGA holds every spring attract many people who bring a bewildering variety of seeds with them. Efforts such as theirs help to counteract a long-term trend in the national seed industry, which is a decline in diversity that he calls “precipitous.”  

“It’s staggering how consolidated the seed industry is. This is a way to preserve and regain some of that diversity. That’s really important, for any kind of resilience,” MacPhee said. “And it’s really neat to get these stories of particular crops that have historic importance or cultural importance to a place and then see new people pick them up and steward them. That’s pretty awesome.”  

Seed saving 101

For beginner seed savers, it is easiest to work with plants that do not cross pollinate, such as beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers, as well as flowers such as cosmos, hollyhocks and sunflowers.

“Those are some of the things you can just take, for the most part, right out of the pods,” she said. “I think the critical thing is making sure it’s dry enough.”

That’s because if a gardener stores seeds that have too much moisture, they could easily mold or rot when in storage for the winter. It’s possible to check beans for dryness by feeling them with your teeth, she said.

“If you bite one and it has any give to it, it’s not dry enough,” Bailey said.

Saving tomato seed requires a little bit more work because the gel sac around the tomato seed actually serves as a sprout inhibitor so the seed will not grow inside of the tomato. For tomatoes, squeeze out a bit of seed into a container and add a little water, then wait a couple of days. After that, add more water and swish it around in the container, she said.

“What is happening is that you are mimicking when a tomato falls to the ground and starts to rot,” she said.

The good seed will sink to the bottom and can be gathered and then dried for storage. That can be done by placing them on a paper plate and leaving them out for a week or so until they feel dry and papery. Once seeds have been gathered and dried, Bailey often will just put them in a paper envelope and label with what they are and the year. She encourages storing them in a cool, dark cupboard all winter long.

Saving seeds is a little more complicated with other plants, including those that cross with each other, such as melons, squash, cucumbers and corn.

“Those crops you really need to just grow one type, and then you can save from it,” she said.

Other plants, such as onions, carrots and beets, are biennial and need two seasons to develop seed. If a gardener can store those plants all winter long and plant them in early spring, by August, they will go to seed. It’s more work but certainly worth it for those who, like her, become entranced by the science and luck of saving seeds. 

“It puts another world of depth into your farm world and your farm life,” Bailey said. “You start thinking about the soil much more, and the air, and what’s going on with the genetics of your farm.”

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