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Garden in the City: The Cheater's Guide to Seed Saving

By Patty Wetli | October 21, 2013 11:08am
 DNAinfo.com's resident urban gardener studies an essential component of gardening — seeds.
Garden in the City: Seed Saving
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LINCOLN SQUARE — A few months ago, I thought I was pretty tough, growing a handful of vegetables from seeds.

You know what's really hardcore?

Growing the seeds.

On Sunday, I went to a seed saving class at Peterson Garden Project's Learning Center because even though I'm still making rookie mistakes as a gardener, I thought why not ratchet up the degree of difficulty even more.

Our instructor, Breanne Heath, teaches at Growing Home farm on the South Side and is a certified horticulturalist. She comes from the kind of family where her dad developed his own flower hybrids, so yeah, she's got some skills.

That being said, she had the common sense to start her presentation by answering the question that I know you're all asking yourselves: "Why the heck would anyone go to the trouble of saving seeds when you can just buy them?"

The obvious answer is that using your own seeds saves money. We had close to 20 different plants in our small raised bed this summer, which would have cost $50-$60 if we'd grown everything from seed. So there's that.

It's also a way to select the plants that grow best in your environment. If you had a particularly productive zucchini plant or variety of bean, saving seeds from their fruit is one way of increasing your chances of success the following year. The opposite holds true as well: Don't save seeds from a diseased or unhealthy plant.

Here's where things get tricky. If that totally awesome plant happened to be a hybrid — an Internet search of the specific variety should identify that for you — all bets are off.

Not only is it illegal to save seeds from hybrids, which are considered intellectual propery, but the results are a crapshoot.

Should you decide to risk the wrath of Big Agriculture, Breanne warned that seeds from hybrids might not sprout or they might produce something vastly different from the parent plant.

What you want are seeds from heirloom plants — those passed down from generation to generation — or open-pollinated plants, which, from my notes, refers to anything that isn't a hybrid or genetically modified.

Open pollinating plants that are members of the same family, such as squash and melon, have a habit of cross-pollinating. To harvest true seeds — ie, a squash seed that produces squash, not cantaloupe — you'll have to isolate these plants in your garden. I confess, I tuned out here because it sounded too complicated.

I had a more pressing question that I made sure to preface with, "Not to sound like a total idiot but ...."

Where are the seeds?

To be clear, I wasn't talking about peppers or tomatoes. I'm not that stupid. I meant how do you find the seeds on things like kale and basil and onions?

"Good question," said Breanne. Ha!

Some seeds are enclosed in the fruit: peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, etc. Some, like corn, are naked — they're just kernels sitting on the cob. Others, like seeds for broccoli, arugula and basil, are in pods. (You know the spikes you pinch off basil plants to encourage constant growth — yep, you're a seed killer.) Plants like kale and carrots are biennial seed producers, meaning you need to save a carrot from this year's crop, plant it next year, and then you'll get seeds.

Once you've plucked the seeds from their fruit or pod, they need to be dried completely — and, in the case of tomato seeds, fermented — then stored in either an airtight plastic bag or a sealed envelope. Keep in a dark, dry space at room temperature.

Perhaps the most important, and discouraging, bit of info Breanne imparted: Seeds should be taken from completely ripe, mature fruit. In the case of pods, they should be completely dried out, ideally while still on the plant.

I mentally surveyed my garden. Peppers, still not ripe. Peas and beans, ditto. Broccoli and arugula, long gone and tossed in the trash. Carrots, eaten. Basil, still green.

Chance of seeds, slim to none.

Mercifully, Breanne brought some of her own seeds to the class for us to play with. I cracked open pods of red romaine lettuce and picked off kernels of blue jade corn. Sealed them in tiny envelopes and put them in my purse.

Turns out, seed saving is not so hard after all.

Fade to black: A quick update on my peppers, for those of you lying awake at night wondering if they've turned red yet. No, they haven't. They've gone black. Not totally black but streaky black. After a pretty exhaustive search of gardening resources on the Internet, I learned this is either a) a sign of blossom rot, whatever that is, b) some sort of mold, rendering all my peppers inedible or c) totally normal and nothing to worry about.

I'm placing my bet on "c," because when in doubt, go with the answer you want.