We all know by now that having stockpiles of food and water for an emergency is a great idea. The combination of food shortages and rising food prices is a deadly one-two punch that nobody wants to take on the chin; and at any time, a weather disaster could provide the knockout blow.
But people who are serious about preparedness and self-reliance are interested in more than a three-month or even a one-year supply of food and water. They want food independence in the form of heirloom seeds that they can both plant and store.
The food that they grow in their gardens from those seeds will be less expensive, more nutritious and better tasting than the food they’re getting from grocery stores — not to mention the convenience of having it a few steps away in their own backyard.
If you think about it, seeds are amazing things. In addition to containing the DNA that a plant requires to grow, they possess a store of food that helps the plant when it’s ready to grow. The fact that a 3-foot tall tomato plant weighed down by large, juicy tomatoes developed from small seedlings helps us appreciate the power and potential of seeds.
The key to saving seeds is open-pollination. When a plant reproduces through its own natural means, without artificial interference from humans, it will adapt to local conditions and evolve to survive and thrive in that location. Open-pollinated plants are free from pesticides, chemicals and other forms of genetic modification by humans.
When you’re gathering seeds from the plants in your garden, make sure you do it properly. Time your harvest based on the individual plant’s method of seed dispersal, cleaning the seeds and spreading them out to dry, storing them in packets or in glass jars or other containers, labeling the packets and containers by variety and date, and storing them in a cool or cold, dark and dry place.
Some vegetables are easier than others when it comes to collecting their seeds. The larger seeds, such as those from beans, corn, peas and squash, are easier to handle than the tiny ones that come from some other vegetables. Here’s some advice to note about the seeds of 13 annual vegetable plants:
- The seeds of different types of beans should be planted well away from each other to avoid any chance of cross-pollination.
- If you live in a colder climate, broccoli growth should be started indoors in the spring because the outdoor growing season might not last long enough.
- When selecting the seeds of corn, closely examine both the plant and the ears of corn. Choose the best ears from the earliest-bearing plants.
- When you’re preparing cucumber seeds for storage, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scrape out the seedy pulp. Put the pulp and the seeds in a bowl of water to ferment. The heavy seeds will sink to the bottom, making it easy to drain and rinse them.
- With eggplant, when the fruit turns from firm and glossy to dull and somewhat puckered, the seed is ready to harvest.
- A cool-weather crop, lettuce can be eaten early but has a long season for seed saving. Lettuce seeds don’t all ripen at once.
- Melon seeds are ripe enough to collect and store when melons are ripe enough to eat.
- Don’t harvest the strongest pea plants for food. Instead, allow pods to hang on the plants until the seeds are ripe and then harvest them.
- Let peppers ripen beyond the eating stage before collecting their seeds, which will be ready when the fruit is no longer green.
- The pods of radishes won’t split open when they mature. When the pods turn brown, remove the seeds, which can be sown as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring.
- When spinach leaves begin to turn yellow, the seeds are nearly mature. The leafiest plants should be chosen for seed saving.
- Squash seed is usually collected around the same time of the first fall frost. Allow the good seeds to dry for two weeks.
- Harvest tomato seeds when the fruits are fully ripe. Save the seeds from the fruits of several plants.
Following are notes about the seeds of nine biennial and perennial vegetable plants:
- When berries turn red and ferny top leaves flop over in the fall, asparagus seeds are ready to harvest.
- You’ll get plenty of seeds from beets. In fact, what may look like a single seed is probably several seeds in a ball. When they turn brown, you’ll know they are mature.
- Cabbage produces a tall stalk with yellow flowers in the second year. Seeds will be ready to harvest when the seedpods turn from brown to yellow.
- The seeds of carrots should be harvested when they turn brown in the early fall. Seeds in the top branches will ripen before those of the lower branches.
- Cauliflower seeds should be planted in the late spring or early summer. In the second year, seeds in pods will be produced on tall stalks, and they should be harvested when the pods turn brown.
- When tiny black seeds appear, chives are ripe to harvest. Those seeds will ripen only gradually.
- You’ll know that the seeds from leeks are ready to harvest when you can see them. Those seeds form inside the capsules of a ball of flowers.
- The black seeds from onion plants are harvested by cutting off seed heads and then drying for several weeks.
- Parsley plants produce an abundance of seeds. You can harvest them as you observe them maturing in the fall.
For seeds that you don’t plan to touch for a while, freezing might be a good option because their DNA will stay intact for a long time. It’s important that seeds are dried first, however, so that they don’t expand and crack. Just think, by harvesting and storing seeds from your garden, you’re insuring access to hundreds of pounds of fresh food every year.