I have to confess: my involvement in my vegetable garden varies according to the season. In the spring, of course, I’m excited to start cultivating my little garden in the alley again. During the summer season, I’m almost always outside. Summer unfolds and I spend time staking, weeding, harvesting, watering, fertilizing and inspecting my vegetable plants. So many little actions that make me proud and happy. The result surprises me every year. From gray and bland, my courtyard becomes a lush green oasis. Even after years, I find it hard to believe that such small seeds can transform my space as well as my fridge!
And then autumn arrives without warning. I go out on my terrasse one morning and my garden seems tired and depleted. The leaves turn yellow, become covered with spots, the plants seem stunted. All of a sudden, I find it less beautiful. I know it may sound strange, but at this point my attendance drops drastically, as if I, too, was changing cycles. And I confess: I am gradually abandoning my vegetable garden to favor cooking and processing. This obviously comes with its share of surprises. Some abandoned lettuces go to seed. Several beans dry up on my plants. My flowers are no longer colored, lose their petals and form their seeds.
A few years ago, a friend came to my house and simply asked me if these abandoned vegetables had not been left there so that I could harvest their seeds. This question blew my mind! I, who work in urban agriculture and who studied horticultural production, I had never thought of this possibility! It was funny to me to realize that even during my studies, this theme had been little discussed, if at all. Out of pride, I had probably replied that it was indeed planned. Then, as soon as possible, I immersed myself in the literature on this subject. What a fascinating universe!
Through my reading, I discovered a discipline of passion, that of the seed producers, but also all the work and meticulousness that was required to keep a variety intact season after season. I admit that it inspired and impressed me, but it seemed a bit overwhelming too. There was talk of seed types, isolation distances to preserve variety, crossbreeding and even hand pollination. I understand that to trade in it, it is important to follow strict specifications. But on the scale of my vegetable garden, why not experiment?
But what could happen if I don’t do everything right?
Experimenting With Seed Collecting
Watchword for experimenting with seed conservation in discovery mode: openness! For my part, I collect some seeds for fun, taking nothing for granted about the result that will be obtained. Here are some reasons why. You may not realize it, but pollinators travel considerable distances in a day and forage as much as they can.
Without going into theoretical details, the fact that a bee forages one or more flowers of vegetable plants of the same family and on the same territory (for example several squashes of different varieties), could modify the genetic code of this plant. You won’t realize this in season, the vegetables won’t be affected, but if you salvage the seeds, it’s highly possible that your squash next year will look a little different. Not to mention the work done by the wind, which is also a great pollinator. Imagine the possibilities at the scale of a high-density neighborhood!
There are also seeds whose characteristics are not fixed. For year 1, you will harvest fruits that look just as described on the seed packet. If you collect the seeds of these said plants, you risk finding plants similar to those of the first year, but also a multitude of other possibilities which combine various characteristics of the plants of year 1.
For example, your seeds of large red peppers could result in small red peppers or large orange peppers if cross-pollinated with small orange peppers! To better understand the theory behind seed types, I invite you to read this article by Lili Michaud on hybrids and open-pollinated seeds. Do you now understand why I am talking about openness? By harvesting your seeds in this way, without specific interventions, you expose yourself to a world of possibilities. It’s great, isn’t it? Maybe some discoveries will be less tantalizing than others, but gardening is after all a place of exploration that comes with its fair share of trial and error. To this end, nothing prevents you from buying specific seeds for vegetables whose characteristics you really like.
A Few Suggestions for Getting Started
A bit like learning gardening, I come from the school that advocates starting slowly, consolidating what you have learned and progressing afterwards. For these reasons, I suggest you choose one or two vegetable plants to start the adventure. Personally, I consider beans and peas to be a good place to start. I had done it myself without realizing it! A few pods are left to dry completely on the plants, then the seeds that are inside are collected. Make sure everything is dry before storing. The glass jar remains a very good option, but place it away from light.
I have also already collected arugula seeds in spite of myself. We cultivated, at Urbainculteurs, an experimental rooftop garden. A lot of arugula had been sown and, for lack of time, I had not been able to go and do the proper maintenance. When I returned, I found dozens of arugula plants that had flowered and had now formed a multitude of dry pods, some of which had already sown again. A beautiful carpet of new arugula was already well established. So many seeds produced by a few plants! With this in mind, why not let a little arugula bloom in your vegetable garden? These plants produce a large number of seeds! Like beans, let the pods dry completely on the plants and collect the seeds inside.
I also want to suggest that you collect the seeds of two herbs that I think fulfill a multitude of interesting functions: dill and coriander. I am often told that both of these herbs are difficult to grow, that they go to seed quickly compared to others, it can be frustrating at times. First of all, they are short-lived annuals, so it is quite normal for their cycle to be shorter than other herbs that would be biennials or perennials, for example.
Despite all the care you can give them, they will eventually go up to seeds. In that case, why not let them go? Dill and coriander are part of the Apiaceae family, a family that is particularly prized by pollinating and predatory insects. These beautiful, delicate blooms will beautify your space while attracting beneficial insects to your vegetable garden.
After the flowers come the seeds. Let the umbels (flower bouquets) dry on the plants in order to collect the seeds. These seeds can be sown again the following year or incorporated into your favorite dishes. Yep! Coriander seeds and dill seeds are great spices! If you ever forget to collect said seeds, they will eventually fall to the ground and some may sprout in the spring. Pretty handy for laidback gardeners, right?
A Brief Survey
Before writing this article, I surveyed a few people around me to learn from their experience. Obviously, this is empirical knowledge that does not come from a seed saving manual, but I found it interesting to share it with you. A friend grows a variety of hot pepper whose seeds come from a vegetable bought in a fruit store. The chili was not organically grown and she knew even less about the characteristics of the original seeds. The seeds were collected from the pepper and properly dried before being stored. According to her, the original characteristics have been preserved despite the fact that she did not pay particular attention to these plants.
Will the result be the same for everything you can find at the fruit store? Obviously not, but if you feel like trying, why not! I also have another friend who collects her pepper seeds year after year. She sometimes discovers mysterious mixtures on certain plants, but, according to her, it is part of the discovery and her peppers are still just as tasty. Finally, I have a friend who collected some pitaya seeds, yes, the dragon fruit! Well, he hasn’t tasted a fruit yet, but the experimentation has yielded some great houseplants and it certainly gets people talking when he shows off his specimens!
Methods May Vary
Each plant is unique, so seed collection methods may vary. This short article is not exhaustive on the methods, but aims more to pique your curiosity in order to dare to try new techniques. Some plants like carrots and kohlrabi need to be grown over two years in order to harvest seeds. Can you imagine the work? For fleshy vegetables such as squash or tomato, we suggest leaving the fruit as long as possible on the plant to promote seed maturity. Moreover, to know the procedure, I suggest you read on the blog the article “Can You Harvest Seeds From Store-bought Tomatoes?” There is so much to do and learn if this interests you, a world of possibilities opens up to you.
A Rewarding Activity
Still not sure? Collecting a few seeds is a rewarding activity on several levels. By adopting an attitude of openness towards possible crossings and changes in our vegetable plants, we develop a curiosity about food in addition to being able to be surprised at what nature can create. By dint of recovering your seeds, you create varieties that are increasingly adapted to your environment, you develop your terroir. You will probably continue to buy some seeds, but those from your crops contribute to your autonomy, supply- and productionwise. Whether you are a child or an adult, learning and carrying out the complete cycle of a plant (and especially seeing all that it takes to harvest a vegetable!) is, in my opinion, a powerful educational tool to awaken others to the beauty of nature as well as its fragility.
If you want to go further, know that there is abundant and exhaustive literature on the subject on how to succeed in preserving the characteristics of a given variety when reusing seeds. I suggest “How to Save Your Own Seeds: A Handbook for Small-Scale Seed Production”, published by Seeds of Diversity. A new part of gardening to discover without restraint.
My garden space is rather limited, a common refrain. While I plan bigger, often it ends up mainly tomatoes and peppers that never seem to coincide with my salad greens. I grow a heirloom lettuce, Pre-Civil War, ‘Grandpa’s Pride’, an excellent, sweet, blushed leaf variety shared by some elderly friends of my husband’s grandmother 40 or 50? years ago. I always thought they meant their grandfather. I lost the seeds to mice. Later, in perusing a big glorious catalog, there it was! I’m not just laid back, I’m lazy! If I don’t get the seeds before chickadees and wind do, it self sows generously, so I always have it. I did collect this year, yay! Same for my cilantro/coriander which if left to it’s devices, will cover most of my little raised beds and beyond.
But, let me tell you about my tomatoes: I simply do not have room for monstrous indeterminate varieties, though I usually do grow a couple of time proven cherry and grape varieties supported overhead. I became much enamored with the world wide effort, The Dwarf Tomato Project. This breeding and seed sharing venture, I think, began in the 90’s. It now includes many “small stature” varieties that grow true. By small, I mean short, but they are anything but delicate! They’re burly and broad, like LOTR dwarves. Like stout little trees; I “contain” them with sturdy 4’ cages. I’ve no doubt that some of these relative newcomers will make it into the ranks of heirloom, which much of their parentage comes from. ‘Rosella Purple’ is becoming a classic, it even appears in 2 of my tomato books. It’s fruit is very like ‘Cherokee Purple’ in appearance and flavor profile. I’ve grown it for years. Last year I tried ‘Fred’s Tie Die’, this year, ‘Sweet Charlotte’. These are available in some seed catalogues, but I’m saving my seeds this year. Just sayin’ these short stout tomatoes are great and should be grown more often. I never see the starter plants for sale locally. I believe they’d solve limited space considerations for many who want fresh, luscious tomatoes.
Thank you for encouraging folks to save seeds! In my gardens, most vegetables, herbs and flowers have been grown by saved seeds for decades (with occasional introductions for strength of diversity). The exceptions are the crucifers and carrots. Our season is too short for viable broccoli seeds, winters too harsh for cauli or cabbage survival and there are too many wild carrots in the area for a pure carrot strain (I’ve even tried covering the domestic carrot flowers with nylon stockings).
Saving seeds saves dollars, helps veggies become acclimated to one’s own microclimate/soil and, makes a bit of a mess in the house for a few weeks every autumn.