Saving seeds for next year’s garden

Taking a few minutes to collect seeds, dry them and store them for next season is a gift to yourself for next spring.|

Now that the harvest has arrived, your next step, after all that work planting, fertilizing and watering, is to eat what you’ve grown - just like the Little Red Hen.

But slow down. Did you think to save some for next year?

Canning, drying and freezing aren’t the only ways to preserve the bounty. Taking a few minutes to collect seeds, dry them and store them for next season is a gift to yourself for next spring. Although you do save a little money, there are other reasons to save seeds.

Seed saving allows you to pick and choose your favorites and enjoy them with reliability year after year. It is also good for the planet, helping to maintain biodiversity by keeping older heirloom varieties within the food supply.

“Saving seeds is especially appropriate if you have a variety you really like and you want to be sure you plant that variety again. You save those seeds and you’re all set for next year,” said Larry Wagner, a tomato enthusiast from Sebastopol who grows 70 varieties each year in a 110-by-60-foot plot in his yard.

Many common market varieties have been bred for high production, appearance, pest resistance and portability, often sacrificing good taste in the process.

Major developers like the giant Monsanto company forbid commercial farmers from saving their seed and have sued to prevent the practice, maintaining that the lost revenue would hinder their ability to research and develop new products. But a grassroots movement has emerged in recent years encouraging farmers and backyard growers alike to get back to the practice of saving seed.

“Historically. Home gardeners of 80 to 100 years ago always saved some of their own seed. It was just a common practice back in the day. That’s how we ended up with a great amount of diversity in our food,” said Matthew Hoffman, who runs the Living Seed Company in Pt. Reyes Station with his wife, Astrid.

But after World War II, seed-saving lost favor. Within the last century we’ve lost about 94 percent of the varieties that used to be available, said Hoffman.

In recent years people have begun saving and sharing old and heirloom varieties, rediscovering the beauty in their imperfect proportions, their remarkable colors and bursts of flavor.

For the last four and a half years the Hoffmans have grown crops for seed on a small half-acre plot on Black Mountain and give regular talks to help people get started with seed saving. They will deliver a free class Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Mill Valley Library. They will also lead a workshop from 10:30 a.m. to noon Sept. 26, at the Healdsburg SHED.

Heirloom expo

The upcoming National Heirloom Exposition Sept. 8-10 at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds is also a good place to learn about seed saving, with workshops and talks on the importance of collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds. And their are seed libraries scattered throughout the county where home gardeners can swap or stock up.

If you’re thinking of getting started, it’s a good idea to begin with the easiest of crops. Fortunately, the beloved tomato is among them. Wagner, who has captured several best of show awards for his tomatoes at the Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, recommends looking for the best-looking tomato on the vine from which to harvest your seed.

Make sure it is fully ripe and seems healthy and vigorous.

Once you’ve selected your tomato, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds with a spoon or a butter knife. The seeds will be surrounded by a protective gel. Try to avoid the pulp. Place them in a small cup. Add a little water until the seeds are floating. Let it sit, away from direct sunlight, for three to five days. Soon fermentation will occur. When a white crust appears on top, scrape it away, then take the remaining seeds and wash them in a strainer until they’re clean and all of the gel is gone. Place them on a paper plate and let the seeds dry for two to three days. Take a spatula and scrape them off of the paper plate, using your finger to separate out the majority of the seeds so they’re not all clumped together. Save them in a small envelope, marked with the variety and the year.

“I’ll take a spatula and scrape them off the paper plate with the spatula, using my finger to separate out the majority of the seeds so they’re not all clumped together,” Wagner said.

He likes to put the seed in tiny manila envelopes, the kind used by collectors. Store them in a cool, dry place.

Stored properly, seeds can last for years.

“I’ve been using tomato seeds I collected 10 years ago,” he said.

Other easy crops for beginning seed savers include green beans, lettuce, peppers and cucumbers, which are good because they produce what is known as a perfect flower containing both male and female reproductive characteristics so they typically self pollinate,

Hoffman said select for seed saving varieties that are “open-pollinated,” meaning they were naturally pollinated rather than artificially through hybridization.

Let beans dry

With beans, leave them on the plant and let them dry down to a brittle shell on the outside. Inside the pods will be beautiful dry beans to save. Each pod has bout five to seven beans. If you save just a few dozen that should be plenty for next year, Hoffman said.

Peppers are also very easy. Once they’ve ripened to their mature color, scrape the seeds onto a plate or screen. They don’t need to be fermented. Just dry them for a few days. If you’re working with hot peppers, remember to wear gloves and avoid rubbing your eyes.

Another easy crop for seed saving is cilantro. Let it bolt, then allow it to keep going until it eventually dries out. Hoffman said you’ll see the seeds right on the plant. Save some for next season but also set aside some for cooking. Dried cilantro seeds are also known as coriander.

Lettuce is another no-fail crop for seed saving. You’ll need to let the plant bolt. When it does that it will produce a tall stalk with flowers. As it dries down it will have white wispy seeds that can blow in the wind. As the flowers are drying, tip them into a brown bag and shake gently. The seeds that are mature will come loose and drop into the bag. Periodically over a week or two, shake the flowerhead and collect more seeds.

Hoffman said its important for seed saving success to store them in a cool, dark and dry place. Seal them in a glass jar with an airtight lid, thick freezer bag or Tupperware. If you really want to preserve them, store in the refrigerator.

“Seeds will last years. Tomatoes can go eight to 10 years,” Hoffman said. “We say four to 10 years depending on the type of seed.”

Meg McConahey, a staff writer, can be reached at 521-5204 or

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