Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Survival Garden - Heirloom Seeds

There is a lot of talk these days about genetically modified seeds. Most of the talk, or argument if you will, centers around whether genetically modified seeds produce plants that are safe for you to eat. One side argues that genetically modified crops produce higher yields, are more disease resistant, and take less time to mature. The other side argues that we don't know what the long term effect on humans might be. Well let me tell you about a very sinister gene modification that has prompted me to only plant open pollinated, heirloom seeds in my garden. Some of the big agri-business seed producers have started inserting what is known as a "terminator gene" into their seeds. If you plant a seed with a terminator gene you will get a lovely plant that produces lovely fruit, but the seeds from that plant will be sterile. The time honored tradition of saving seeds from one crop to plant next year's crop will no longer work. So where does the seed for next years crop come from? Well naturally you have to go back to your favorite agri-biz seed supplier and buy more seed. Sure works good for them; not so good for you. When it comes to the point where just a few companies can control the food supply like that, well it's scary. So there's been this whole movement develop that is seeking to preserve the old heirloom seed varieties that can be planted for generations without having to buy new seed. Most of the people involved in seed saving are like you and me. They are independent type folks that don't what to hand their lives and their freedom over to multi-national corporations. If you are interested in planting heirloom seeds you can join a group like Seed Savers Exchange or you can order seed directly from a number of different companies. I have obtained some of my heirloom seeds from individuals, and I have bought some from seed companies. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a nice variety and their shipping is reasonable. I have ordered several things from them on-line at I have also run into seeds from some unexpected sources. I bought a bag a Anasazi Beans at a grocery store in New Mexico that grew just fine in my garden and produced a good crop. I have also discovered that some of the seeds that I used to buy at the local feed store were apparently non-hybrid and non-modified, because I have planted several generations of seed from them without ill consequence. The problem with this is that it takes a couple of years of experimenting to find out if you have good seed, whereas you can go online and buy seed that you know for sure is open pollinated, non-modified. By the way, one big advantage of heirloom seeds is the flavor of these old time varieties. Modern agri-biz is interested in producing crops that will all mature at the same time, that can be mechanically harvested, and that will hold up well to shipping. The old homesteaders were interested in growing stuff that tasted good. If you want to learn more about heirloom seeds just do a Google search. You will come up with about 300,000 hits.

Saving Bean and Field Pea Seeds
Probably the easiest seeds to save are beans and field peas (purple hull peas, black-eyed peas, cream peas, etc). Just leave some pods on the plants when you are picking beans or peas. In a couple of weeks these will be thoroughly dried on the vine and you can pick them to save for seed. I usually shell out the dried beans/peas and put them in pint Mason jars. I place the jars of beans/peas in the freezer for 2 or 3 days to kill any bugs that might be on them, and then I label and date the jars and transfer them to my storage closet. You need to keep your seed dry and relatively cool to make sure that it is viable for planting the next season. If you skip a season of planting some of the seeds will fail to germinate, so it is best to plant your seed every year even if you only plant enough to make another crop of seed for the following year.

Saving Tomato and Cucumber Seeds
Tomato and cucumber seeds require a little bit different handling due to their slimy nature. Be sure to use only the seeds from fully ripened fruits. Cut open the fruits and remove the seeds. Place about a quarter cup of seeds in a pint canning jar. Fill the jar half full with clean water and stretch a clean piece of plastic over the top (I use half of a plastic sandwich bag. Screw a jar ring on to hold the plastic in place. Take a knife and poke about a 3/4 inch long slit into the center of the plastic. Set the jar aside at room temperature for two to three days. Shake the jar gently each day to help break up the slime. By the end of the third day the slime around the seeds should have fermented and disintegrated. Remove the ring and plastic and carefully pour off most of the water including any seeds that are floating at the top. Pour the remaining seeds into a tea strainer. Run cool water over the seeds and manipulate them gently to remove any remaining slime. Turn the seeds out onto a dish towel and place in the sun to dry. Turn the seeds daily and allow them to dry thoroughly. When seeds are dry break up any clumps, place the seeds in paper packets, label, and store.

Saving Squash Seeds
Squash seeds are fairly easy to save. Just remove the seeds from fully ripe, mature fruits and let them dry completely. Place in paper packets, label, and store.

Saving Pepper Seeds
Saving seeds from bell peppers, jalapenos, and chilies is not hard, but you must make sure that the fruits are fully ripe (this means red). Yes, even bell peppers and jalapenos will turn red if left on the vine long enough. Just split open the ripened fruit, remove the seeds, and dry thoroughly. Place the seeds in paper packets, label and store.

These are the main seeds that I save. Of course, you can save the seeds from greens, onions, carrots, and many other crops; but I won’t comment on these because I have not personally saved any of them. There is, as usual, a ton of information about saving seeds on the Internet. One good site on seed saving is the International Seed Saving Institute home page at Give it a look.