So you want to produce and save your own vegetable seeds? Me too.
Welcome to Fruition Seeds, a little farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The farmer-owners are Matthew Goldfarb and Petra Page-Mann. They are in the business of producing seeds.
Organically grown, regionally adapted seeds.
Sound like a marketing gimmick?
“It is not marketing,” says Matthew. “If you are an organic gardener you will taste, see and experience the difference.”
For Matthew and Petra, producing and selling their seeds is more than just a business. They’re on a mission to help solve the “seed crisis” that affects how seeds are typically selected, bred, owned and distributed.
“Do you believe life can be patented? Hybrid seeds and GMOs have patented genetics. Sowing open-pollinated varieties is one of the best ways you can ensure diversity and resilience in the food supply for you and your grandchildren’s grandchildren. Adapted to regional soil, disease, pests and climate, these varieties have the most potential for optimum flavor, production and overall resilience.”
But Matthew and Petra don’t just want you to buy their seeds. They want you, me and every other gardener and backyard farmer to collect and save our own seeds. They want us to have real ownership of the seeds that feed us.
“There’s so much to learn when letting plants go to seed and following their complete life cycle,” says Matthew. “Over several generations of saving and selecting for specific traits you will quickly see the results.”
Matthew and Petra are happy to share their knowledge, experience and thoughts with anyone who is interested. Which is exactly how I ended up on their farm for a day in July, with a group of other interested folks, learning the basics.
To save seeds, you first have to grow a vegetable or two. How you choose to grow your vegetables is completely up to you. Just do it with the seeds and future yields in mind.
At Fruition Seeds, the focus is on gathering seed from organically grown vegetables that are regionally adapted and genetically pure. That is: a pumpkin seed is always going to give you a pure pumpkin variety that is suited to the Northeast and has been grown with completely earth-friendly practices. Which brings up some unique and interesting considerations for growing and managing crops.
In their first year, Matthew and Petra realized they would need to work closely with their neighbors around the farm to ensure genetic purity. Cucumber varieties can easily crossbreed; so can certain varieties of pumpkin and summer squash. With winds and pollinating insects, even a mile away is too risky. Matthew and Petra reached out their neighbors. They provided seed or transplants to ensure everyone was growing the same varieties. “This year we are all growing the same summer squash. Next year it is going to be the same pumpkin all through the valley bottom.”
Think hoop houses or row tunnels might have been a good solution? Consider this: hoop houses create microclimates that are different than the regional climate outside of them. Which is why so many gardeners use them.
But the vegetables you grow in hoop houses will be adapted to the microclimate, not regional conditions. Which is why Matthew and Petra don’t use them until very late in the growing process.
Using your tried-and-true methods of growing vegetables is sure to give you seed and a great way to get started collecting. But if you’re interested in producing more regionally adapted or genetically pure varieties in your own backyard, be sure to keep your mind wide open to all the domino-like considerations involved. Be creative in your solutions.
“Identifying and choosing the characteristics and traits we want in a variety is the most important part of our work,” says Matthew. “We make selections for taste, productivity, disease resistance and vigor for the Northeast. It means making selections to improve a variety, not just maintain the status quo.”
This means Matthew and Petra walk their fields everyday. Multiple times a day. Observing each and every one of their plants. Noting which ones are producing the characteristics they want.
And which plants are headed for trouble.
Their crop of New Red Fire lettuce got hit with a nasty fungal disease this year. They caught the infection early but were still forced to pull numerous plants to limit the damage. While this might seem like a setback, it actually helped further their production goals: the surviving plants bolted and produced seed that will have greater resistance to this particular fungal disease.
Selecting characteristics in your own vegetables isn’t just about getting what you want. It’s also about selecting from what you get.
The time to start collecting seed is when your vegetables are most mature or when they have dried appropriately. This varies by vegetable. But once you get to that point, it’s time to gather seed.
Collection methods also vary by vegetable. Matthew and Petra showed us how they collect seeds from kale.
They gather kale for threshing after letting it dry in the field and once the lowest pods on the plant begin splitting and dropping their seeds. The stalks are laid out on a regular blue tarp to catch the seeds.
Threshing is as simple as whacking the stalks with a stick. Not too hard, just enough to get the seeds to drop on the tarp. Here’s a video of Petra and her threshing skills.
For larger quantities, Matthew has driven over the kale stalks with his truck. Watch a video of this threshing-by-truck.
However you thresh, you’ll be left with a mix of good seed, questionable seed, and chaff. Now you need to separate the good seed from the rest.
Matthew and Petra use a simple set-up: two box fans – one right in front of the other on a table, pointed in the same direction – with two large bins on the floor in front of the fans. With the fans turned on, they pour buckets-full of the threshed mix through the airflow.
The seeds separate out by weight. The good seeds (the heaviest) fall into the bin nearest the fans, the questionable seeds fall into the second bin, and the chaff (the lightest) blows away. By using two fans you can create a smoother flow of air and you can more effectively vary the strength of airflow for different types of seeds. Watch a video of Matthew separating seed.
To ensure they collect only the most viable seed, Matthew and Petra will repeat the fan process. Or they will use a clever contraption called an air column. They built the air column from plans found on the internet and it works amazingly well. You can find instructions to build your own and a video demonstration here.
How you gather seed will depend on the vegetables you have and the method that makes the most sense for your own situation. But always be sure to collect the healthiest, most mature seeds for storage.
Test for Germination
An important step in the process at Fruition Seeds is to test for germination. Matthew and Petra do this with every harvest because they want to be sure the seeds they sell will produce. This can also be an important step for backyard farmers like you and me.
After all: what’s the point of doing all of this hard work if the seeds you save aren’t going to grow for you in future gardens?
Fruition Seeds works with the New York State Seed Testing Lab at Cornell University to test some of their crops. But they also use a simple, low-tech method.
“We take 100 seeds and place them on wet blotter paper. We fold the blotter and put it in a ziplock. We do this 2 - 3 times per variety of vegetable. Then after 5 - 10 days (depending on seed) we calculate the percentage of seeds that germinated and get the average percentage for a variety between the number of repetitions.”
The backyard farmer can use this same method. Matthew says 20 – 30 seeds are a good quantity for most varieties. But it’s all a matter of how rigorous you want to be. Testing with ten seeds could work just fine.
Once you have your best seeds in hand, it’s time to store them for future gardens. The trick is to effectively take away the three things they need to germinate: moisture, light and warmth.
Matthew and Petra air-dry their seeds and store them in a walk-in cooler that is kept at 44 degrees F and below 35 percent humidity. Backyard farmers can store seeds in a cool dry place like the freezer. Just make sure your seeds have been totally dried down first.
“Desiccant packs help ensure they stay dry if you put them in glass mason jars for storage.”
Once your seeds are stored away, then the final step in the process begins: waiting for the next planting season to take them out and get them started in the earth.
If you want to know more about seed saving and Fruition Seeds, Matthew and Petra will be presenting at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA, September 20 – 22. You can also visit their web site, www.fruitionseeds.com. They’re always happy to talk.