Seed Saving for Beginners (Tomatoes, Peas, Beans, Lettuce)


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Easy crops for beginning seed savers (tomatoes, peas, beans and lettuce), including plant pollination, isolation, seed harvest and processing. Video is here:

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  • Welcome to the Seed Savers Exchange webinar series. [click]
  • Seed saving is the process of saving seeds from open-pollinated fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers & herbs. Traditional agriculture relied on seed saving to maintain farms and gardens year after year. Today, many gardeners continue this tradition for a variety of reasons: reconnect with traditional agriculture reduce annual seed purchases maintain genetic diversity in the food system preserve rare or storied varieties As soon as you begin to think about preserving particular varieties, whether they be family heirlooms or commercial varieties that are no longer available, it is important to understand how to maintain that variety’s characteristics. [click] This type of preservation seed saving can be easily conceptualized by its goal: when you save seeds from a particular plant variety, you want those seeds to grow into a plant that is identical to its parent plants. This trait is known as varietal purity. So if I have a large red, ribbed tomato with excellent, sweet flesh, I want to be able to harvest the tomato, save the seeds, store them through the winter, plant them in the spring, and towards the end of the summer I want to be harvesting ribbed red tomatoes with excellent sweet flesh. Maintaining these characteristics is only possible with open-pollinated varieties. [click] An open-pollinated variety exhibits varietal purity and breeds true from seed. Open-pollinated varieties are maintained by allowing a natural flow of pollen between plants of the same variety. However… [click] When pollen flows between different varieties within the same species, this is known as cross-pollination. Cross-pollinated seed is not ideal for seed saving, and is worthless when you want to preserve a variety and its characteristics. If you are less concerned with maintaining the characteristics of a particular variety, cross-pollinated seed can still be saved and planted again in the spring, but you do not necessarily know what that plant will look or taste like. [click]
  • So, back to our red tomato. [click] Lets say that I’ve planted a mild, orange, cherry tomato right next to my large, ribbed red tomato. [click] If a bee were to move pollen from one variety to another, the seed produced could grow into a plant that exhibits traits of both varieties – maybe we’d end up with a medium-sized, orange, lightly-ribbed tomato with a mild flavor. This might be acceptable if you’re only interested in seed saving to cut down on your garden budget, but if you’re interested in perpetuating a variety that maintains its characteristics year after year, you must take steps to prevent cross pollination. [click]
  • Fortunately, tomatoes are not usually very susceptible to cross-pollination. The same is true for beans and lettuce. This makes beans, lettuce, and tomatoes an excellent introduction to first-time seed savers interested in preserving particular varieties. As we continue to talk about varieties and plant types, it is important to discuss how plants are labeled – and it is very important that everyone knows what I mean when I say the word ‘bean’. [click]
  • As gardeners, it is important to have a basic understanding of plant taxonomy. On the screen now is the classification for the common bean. The hierarchical structure probably looks familiar to you – this is the Linnaean classification system. This system categorizes plants into groups with similar characteristics, then breaks those groups into smaller, more specific categories, on and on, until a single species remains. As relatively new seed savers, it isn’t important to understand the whole system – we’ll only talk about the last three classifications: Family, Genus, and Species. [click] Gardeners should know the families of their garden plants for crop rotation and general growing guidelines – beans belong to the Fabaceae family, often referred to as the Legumes, along with peas. Though knowledge of plant families is useful, seed savers can really get by if they only know their plants’ genus and species. Thankfully, this is easy to find out because most seed packets will list the plant’s genus and species. [click] A plant’s genus and species make up that plant’s binomial name, sometimes called the scientific or Latin name. The binomial name for the common bean is Phaseolus vulgaris . Cross-pollination can only happen between plants in the same species. So… [click] The common bean, or Phaseolus vulgaris , will only cross with other beans belonging to the Phaseolus vulgaris species. Runner beans, lima beans, and fava beans, even though they are all referred to as ‘beans’, all represent different species. Pollen from these different species cannot contaminate each other – you could grow runner beans, lima beans, fava beans, and common beans right next to each other without worrying about cross-pollination. It is important to note that there can be a lot of diversity within a plant species. There can be hundreds, even thousands of different varieties within a single species – we have offer 4,300 different tomato varieties in our annual Yearbook, for example. Beans belonging to Phaseolus vulgaris can be bush beans, pole beans, dry, wax, or snap beans – they will all cross with one another. Make sure that you take note of the binomial name when you are planning your garden. Common names can be even more confusing with other plant types, especially related to squash or Brassicas, but we won’t go into that here. If you’re interested in saving seeds from plants other than the three we’ll discuss today, please watch archived version of our presentation Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving . [click]
  • Tomatoes, beans, and lettuce are all self-pollinating annuals (although tomatoes are perennials, they are grown as annuals in much of the United States, particularly here in Iowa). Their flowers are designed in such a way that pollen does not readily flow between plants, and they produce seed within the first year of their life. The photos on the screen use lettuce to illustrate the lifecycle of a self-pollinating annual. Seeds are sown in the spring, the seed germinates and sprouts, and the plant begins to develop. Lettuce is eaten in its early stage of growth. At some point, the plant begins to produce flowers. Beans and tomatoes simply produce flowers along their vines, but lettuce goes through a process called ‘bolting’ – when days get longer and warmer, the lettuce plant sends up a stalk to produce flowers. When visitors tour the farm, sometimes I’ll stop at a bolted lettuce plant and ask my audience if they know what plant is in front of them. Often, visitors have only seen lettuce plants in their immature, edible stages – many of them never guess what the tall, scraggly, multi-flowered plants in front of them are. The flowering phase of a plant’s lifecycle is one of the most crucial for seed savers to know and understand. Fortunately, the varieties we’ve chosen to focus on in this presentation are fairly simple. If you are interested in understanding the biology and ecology of a more diverse group of plants, remember to check out our previous webinars. Self-pollinating plants, like tomatoes, beans, and lettuce, produce ‘perfect’ flowers. This means that each flower contains both male and female parts – the male part of the flower produces pollen, and the female part of the flower accepts that pollen and develops into a seed. This process is known as fertilization. Because there is a source of pollen so close to the pollen receptor, fertilization generally happens before pollen from a different plant has a chance to be transferred. Beans go through the fertilization process even before the flower has opened. Many tomato varieties have flowers which completely enclose the female pollen receptor with a contamination-shielding cone of pollen-producing anthers, which makes cross pollination highly unlikely. With lettuce, the femal pollen receptor actually emerges through the pollen-producing anthers, so pollen is transferred as the flower opens. After fertilization, seeds develop. Seed development can be seen easily in beans as bean pods grow and the seeds inside become more defined. Tomatoes enclose seeds within their fruit. It is important to know when the seeds are mature enough to be harvested, processed, and stored. We’ll discuss seed production and harvest for each of the plant varieties at the end of the presentation, but in annuals, the seed-producing phase ends the life-cycle of that particular plant. A quick note regarding self-pollination: just because a plant is inclined to self-pollinate does not mean that cross-pollination is impossible. Wind and insects can move pollen around and potentially contaminate varieties with stray pollen. Because of this, we recommend that seed-savers do not grow varieties side by side. If you are only growing two varieties of beans, for example, put them at either end of the garden to reduce the chance of cross-pollination. Keep in mind also that the information we’ve been providing is very specific to beans, lettuce, and tomatoes. Brassicas, for instance, have perfect flowers but are actually incapable of self-fertilization. Further, some self-pollinated plants can be easily cross-pollinated by insects and must be grown in isolation – peppers are a great example of this. [click]
  • As we talk about seed production and harvest, it is important to think about the health and diversity of your plants. Seeds should only be saved from healthy plants, and healthy plants require healthy soil. Just because your plants may be grown for seed does not mean that they require any less care than plants you grow for food – in fact, for the health and vigor of your future gardens, it is even more important that the seed you save represent your most robust plants. Maintaining healthy plants could be a whole separate webinar, but there are a few things to remember: keep your soil fertile inhibit the spread of diseases control harmful insects and other pests If your plants are healthy, your seed should be as well. Seed health affects germination rates as well as plant vigor in the next generation. To further ensure the health of future plant generations, you should save seeds from a number of different plants within a particular variety. For self-pollinating plants like tomatoes, beans, and lettuce, a population of 20 individual plants would be ideal. Of course, space restrictions can be a major limiting factor with regard to population size – not every gardener has room to grow 20 tomato plants of the same variety, and if you’d like to save seeds from two or three varieties, very few gardeners have space for 40 to 60 tomato plants in addition to all of the other fruits and vegetables they’d like to grow. A more realistic guideline might be that seed savers should simply grow as many plants as they can in the space they have. Saving seeds from several plants of the same variety ensures a more resilient plant population in the future. If you only save lettuce seeds from a single plant, all of your future plantings will have the exact same strengths and weaknesses of its parent. Perhaps a particular plant bolted extremely early; it is likely that any plants grown from that parent’s seed would also bolt extremely early – a somewhat undesirable characteristic if you want to be able to harvest lettuce for salads into the summer. By saving seeds from many different plants, you keep your population genetically diverse and avoid undesirable ‘bottlenecks’ such as early bolting, susceptibility to diseases, etc. On the other hand, you may find that one of the lettuce plants you’ve grown does not match any of the other plants within that variety. If you are saving seed in order to preserve a particular variety and its characteristics, it is important to rouge out any plants that are off-type, or dissimilar from the other plants in your population. If you have a loose-leafed plant among 20 headed lettuces, remove it from the garden, preferably before it flowers, and do not save seed from that particular plant. [click]
  • We’ll end the presentation by talking briefly about seed storage. The photo on the screen shows one of the freezers here at Heritage Farm used for long-term seed storage. Obviously, home gardeners do not have this type of facility, but neither do home gardeners require the same type of long-term preservation storage that we do. It is helpful to remember that seeds contain embryonic plants that are just waiting for the right conditions to germinate and grow. Most garden plants require moisture, oxygen, and warm temperatures to begin this process. Ideal conditions for storage, then, should deprive seeds of these three things, particularly moisture. Seeds should be dried thoroughly before storage – passing the ‘break’ or ‘shatter’ tests described previously. If your seeds have been sufficiently dried, store them in an air-tight container and place them in a cool, dry location. Cooler temperatures slow the metabolism of the embryonic plants, allowing them to be stored longer. Do not store them in a refrigerator, however, which is generally too moist. Some home gardeners will try to store their seeds in the freezer, but this is not necessary for home gardeners planning to grow out their saved seeds within a couple years. It can also be harmful to seeds, as even a little moisture inside the seed can freeze, expand, and crack the seed. Later this year, we will be presenting a separate webinar on seed storage in order to cover additional plant types and further illustrate the principles we’ve introduced here. [click]
  • Tomato seeds are ready for harvest when the fruits are ripe, but leave the fruits on the vine until they are past their prime. Famed tomato seedsman Ben Quisenberry suggested waiting until the fruits were partly rotten so that the plant could put as much energy as possible into the development of the seed. Harvest over-ripe fruit from the healthiest plants in your garden – don’t just harvest the biggest, brightest fruits, but harvest a range of fruits that all basically exhibit the same characteristics and represent healthy plants. [click] To remove tomato seeds from their fruit, cut the fruit in half across the middle. This exposes a large seed cavity and makes the seeds accessible without mashing the fruit. Scoop or squeeze out the seeds and place them in a tall container. There will be a lot of extra ‘pulp’ or gel from the fruit along with the seeds. [click] Tomato seeds should be left to ferment in the container with the pulp and a bit of added water for a few days. This breaks down a coating that prevents tomato seeds from germinating too early. Be warned that fermenting tomatoes do not have a pleasant scent… [click] When a layer of mold develops on the surface of the seed/pulp/water mixture, you can stop the fermentation process. Add enough water to double the mixture and stir it vigorously. The good seeds will settle to the bottom of the container, allowing the mold and debris and hollow seeds to be poured off. Add more water and repeat the process until only clean seeds remain. [click] Pour the clean seeds into a strainer, then dump the seeds onto a ceramic dish or coffee filter to dry. Spread them out as much as possible to increase air flow and the rate at which they dry. Stir the seeds around once or twice a day as they dry in an airy location out of direct sunlight. [click] Tomato seeds are dry enough for storage when they break rather than bend under stress. Try to bend a couple of your tomato seeds – they should ‘snap’ if they are suffiently dry. If they bend, continue drying them. [click]
  • Bean pods should be left on the vine to dry until they are brown and crisp. The bean seeds should be extremely hard at the time of harvest. If you must remove the plants while they are still green, pull up the entire plant and let the seeds continue to develop and dry while the pods are still on the vine. [click] If you don’t have many plants, you can pick the pods from the plant individually. Alternatively, you can pull up the entire vine and flail/process the whole plant to remove the seeds if you have a very large number of plants. [click] Bean pods that are extremely dry will split open easily and the seeds inside will fall free. You can do this by hand, or fill a feed sack or pillow case with seed pods, tie the opening shut, and jog in place on top of it. This is an activity that we often do with young visitors here at the farm. If you split the seed pods by hand, the seeds should be fairly free from debris and ready for drying and storage. [click] If the seeds need additional cleaning, winnowing can be a simple, effective method. Winnowing uses wind and gravity to separate light chaff from heavier seeds, and can be done with a fan and a few baskets or bowls. Simply pour your basket of seeds and chaff into another basket sitting on the ground. The wind will blow the chaff away while the seeds fall into the basket below. In place of wind, you can also set up a fan to separate the chaff. [click] Bean seeds should be dried on a screen until they pass the ‘shatter’ test. Place several test seeds on a hard surface and hit each one with a hammer. If the seeds shatter, they are dry enough for storage. If they mash instead of shattering, they need further drying. [click]
  • Each lettuce flower produces a single seed which is ready for harvest 2 to 3 weeks after blooming. [click] Lettuce seeds are quite small and incredibly light, and can be harvested easily by shaking the seed heads into a paper bag. Because the seeds of each plant mature at different times, you should leave the plants in the ground and make daily harvesting visits as the seeds develop. If you are not interested in obtaining the maximum amount of seed, you can harvest the whole plant when a majority of the seeds are ripe and leave it head-down inside a paper bag. Once the lettuce seed heads are totally dry, shake the plants vigorously. [click] Because lettuce seeds are so light, winnowing tends to simply blow both seeds and chaff away. Instead, seeds should be cleaned by screening. Use a fine mesh screen that will allow the seeds to pass through but will restrict the white ‘feathers’ and larger chaff. Shake the screen gently while lightly blowing the chaff off the screen. [click] Lettuce seeds will likely be plenty dry for storage, but you can use the same bend/break test for lettuce that you used to measure the dryness of tomato seeds. [click]
  • That covers the basics of seed saving related to tomatoes, beans, and lettuce. Hopefully you’ve learned enough to consider your own small-scale seed saving project in the future. Thank you very much for your attendance, and we will now take some time to answer questions.
  • Seed Saving for Beginners (Tomatoes, Peas, Beans, Lettuce)

    1. 1. Presented by Grant Olson 2012 Seed Savers Exchange Webinar Series Seed Saving for Beginners
    2. 2. Our mission is to save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.
    3. 3. Seed saving is the process of saving seeds from open-pollinated fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers & herbs. Traditional agriculture relied on seed saving to maintain farms and gardens year after year. When you save seeds from a particular plant variety, you want those seeds to grow into a plant that is identical to its parent plants. This trait is known as varietal purity. An open-pollinated variety exhibits varietal purity and breeds true from seed; open-pollinated varieties are maintained by allowing a natural flow of pollen between plants of the same variety. When pollen flows between different varieties within the same species, this is known as cross-pollination. Cross-pollinated seed is not ideal for seed saving, especially when you want to preserve a variety.
    4. 4. seed saving for beginners: beans, lettuce, tomatoes
    5. 5. keel
    6. 6. fused anthers
    7. 7. Is your plant a Hybrid or an OP? Hybrid plants will not reliably produce seeds that will grow up to be like its parent(s). Open-pollinated plants can produce seeds that will grow up to be like its parent(s). Popular Hybrid Tomatoes: Sun Gold, Big Boy, Early Girl, Celebrity Popular Heirloom Tomatoes: Brandywine, Amish Paste, Black Krim
    8. 8. Kingdom: Plantae Division: Magnoliophyta Class: Magnoliopsida Order: Fabales common name: bean binomial name: Phaseolus vulgaris Family: Fabaceae Genus: Phaseolus Species: vulgaris P. vulgaris will only cross with other P. vulgaris beans. It will not cross with runner beans (P. coccineus), lima beans (P. lunatus), or fava beans (Vicia faba). What is your plant’s Species?
    9. 9. Is your plant Mature?
    10. 10. population size and plant health
    11. 11. seed drying
    12. 12. seed storage
    13. 13. Tomatoes – Solanum lycopersicum tomato seeds are ready for harvest when the fruits are ripe scoop or squeeze out the seeds into a tall container add a bit of water to the container, let the water/seed/pulp mixture ferment for one to three days fill container with water after mold develops on the surface, stir the mixture, and pour off floating seeds, pulp, and mold spread seeds out to dry on a screen or coffee filter, stir seeds around every day tomato seeds are dry enough for storage when they break rather than bend under stress
    14. 14. Beans – Phaseolus vulgaris bean pods should be left on the vine to dry until they are brown and crisp pick the pods from the plant when the beans inside are extremely hard split pods by hand or fill a feed sack or pillow case with seed pods, tie the opening shut, and jog in place on top of it to remove seeds winnowing can be used to separate chaff from seeds – pour seeds/chaff from one basket to another, letting the wind blow away the chaff dry bean seeds on a screen until they pass the ‘shatter’ test
    15. 15. Lettuce – Lactuca sativa lettuce seeds are ready for harvest 2-3 weeks after the plant has flowered leave the plants in the ground and harvest seeds over the course of a few days by visiting the plant and shaking the seed heads into a paper bag to clean the seeds, use a fine mesh screen that will allow seeds to pass through but will restrict the white ‘feathers’ and larger chaff seeds are dry enough for storage when they break rather than bend under stress
    16. 16. Thank you! Questions? 2012 Seed Savers Exchange Webinar Series For more information please visit these resources: Seed Savers Exchange website: Forum: Online Yearbook: To learn more about seed saving Read Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed-to-Seed Visit for the free publication, A Seed Saving Guide for Gardners & Farmers