Beginners' Foray into Seed Saving
As our spring vegetable crops begin to wane, i.e. your lettuce tastes bitter, and your peas are starchy and dry…Instead of ripping all the plants out and tossing them in the compost, think about saving seeds from these crops for next year! Turns out lettuce and pea seeds are one of the easiest seeds to save because they produce seeds the same season as they are planted and are self-pollinating, which minimizes the need or concern for cross-pollination. I am personally not a seed saving expert, but slowly learning the craft - experimenting with flower seeds and these low hanging fruits (pun intended).
But First, Why Save Seeds?
Keep your favorite varieties year to year
Save a little money
Keep it local
Teach your kids, friends, or dog about the plant life cycle
Teach yourself to be more self-sufficient
Donate seeds from successful crops to Missoula’s own seed library - Five Valleys Seed Library
Pea seeds are ready for harvest when they are hard and their pods dry out and start to turn brown on the vine and shrink against the seeds. You can test the hardness of the seed by pushing your finger nail into one of the pea seeds. If your nail cuts into the pea, they aren’t dry enough.
If the pea pods don’t dry enough before our first frost or you have overhead watering that is causing the seeds to rot, pull the plants out of the ground by their roots and hang them in a cool dry place until ready.
Once dry, break the pods to release the seeds. These seeds will need another 6 weeks of drying in a cool dry place before they can be stored in an airtight container.
Pea seeds can be stored and viable for up to 4 years! Wow!
Gardeners often refer to vegetables bolting…What does that mean? Bolting is when a vegetable sends up a flower stalk and begins to go to seed. This is very common with lettuce and other greens, especially once it turns too hot for the plant. Crops such as beets, carrots, onions, and chard can bolt too. Usually when a crop bolts it isn’t a good thing as it is no longer palatable. The taste and texture of the part you eat (leaf or root) changes as all the energy goes into producing flowers and seeds.
According to Seed Savers Exchange, lettuce seeds become viable when:
“Seeds develop on each branch and turn viable over an extended period of time. When the light gray pappuses emerge from a mature lettuce head—a stage sometimes referred to as feathering—the seeds inside are fully developed and ready to be harvested.”
Here’s a picture of our bolted lettuce beginning to flower. Lettuces are in the same family as dandelions, and pappuses are unique to the Asteracea family. When a lettuce plant goes to seed it reminds me a lot of a dandelion going to seed. So like a dandelion, when they turn fluffy and feathery, the seeds are viable.
To harvest these seeds, I’d recommend bending the bolted lettuce flower into a paper bag and shaking it to release the feathery seeds into the bag. You can also hand pick individual seed heads if you’d prefer. To separate the seeds from the pappuses, lightly rub the feathery seeds together between one’s hands or against a screen.
Lettuce seeds can be stored and viable for up to six years! Wow!
Tomato season is just beginning in Missoula. If you’re interested in saving your favorite tomato seeds, one seed crop I have experience with, read this blog.
Join us for a Seed Saving Workshop in September at the Meadow Hill Community Garden. In addition to talking more about seed saving, we’ll share some other fall gardening and season extension tips!
Also, check out the Seed Savers Exchange’s website for tons of information from seed saving to growing to harvest and storage guidelines.
Finally, here are some of our favorite books on seed saving: