Seed Sharing

Seed Sharing

Each year, Better Farm experiments with saving some seeds for the following season—but as our operation grows, we've also been contacted by outside grow operations about expanding other heirloom plant genetics. We LOVE seed-sharing at Better Farm, so it was such a treat to be contacted by Miranda Thomas in Adams, N.Y., who came into large quantities of beautiful, heirloom seeds and decided to share them with us.

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Seed-Saving 101

Organic cantaloupe from Better Farm's garden, chock-full of seeds ready for saving.
Saving seeds has multiple benefits including continuing a plant's genetic line, increasing biodiversity, and keeping you out of the supermarket while saving you money! Here are a few simple ways to save your own seeds from your best-producing fruits and veggies.

An important note before we start: Most supermarkets carry hybrid fruits like cantaloupes (cucumis meo var. cantalupensis) and the seeds are often sterile. Open-pollinated seeds, however, have no problem reproducing. For this same reason, you want to be careful not to plant many different kinds of the same plant as they are likely to fertilize each other! In order to know which seeds are worth saving, consider the following information we gleaned from Mother Earth Living:
GM seeds, or genetically modified seeds, are seeds that have been created under artificial conditions to meet a specific list of criteria, usually resistance to a package of pesticides and herbicides sold with them. The home gardener is not likely to come across this type of seed because at the moment GM seed is mostly confined to large-scale commercial agriculture. GM seeds are also patented, which means you cannot legally reproduce it unless you pay the maker a royalty. Without belaboring the arguments pro or con about GM seeds, you should avoid buying any seeds that are patented. Most seed packets will state very clearly whether they contain patented material. 
Another type of patented seeds are the F1 hybrids, crosses between different plant species. You cannot save seeds from hybrids because they will not grow true to type. Hybrids are common in seed catalogs everywhere and must be listed as such. After World War II, a few seed companies got the lucrative idea that F1 hybrids were better than traditional seeds and thus began to market them based on perceived benefits, primarily that the cross would have some special trait, such as wilt resistance. More importantly (to the companies marketing them), because you cannot save seeds from F1 hybrids, you have to keep buying new seed. F1 hybrids eventually lose their special traits, and companies must create new ones every few years to adjust for this decline. The seedless watermelon is a good example. It is a patented food because the seeds have been bred out, which is not natural, and the cross is not stable. Indeed, it will produce no viable seed. 
A third type of seed—and the only one you can save—is old-fashioned open-pollinated seed. This means that nature did the pollinating: bees, wind, birds, dew or rain. These seeds are the most “natural,” with no intervention by humans, and can be further divided into heirlooms and nonheirlooms. Heirloom varieties have been around for several generations and have thus proven their worth; they are true hand-me-downs like the tasty and attractive ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon developed in the 1920s. Nonheirlooms are more recent open-pollinated plants, such as the ‘Green Zebra’ tomato developed in the 1980s, that are heading toward the heirloom category.
Garden seeds have three camps: annuals produce seeds and die at end of season; biennials (such as beets, carrots and cabbages) bloom and produce seed the following spring as long as you protect them during winter in a frost-free environment; and perennials (i.e. asparagus, horseradish, strawberries and rhubarb) return on their own. We're going to focus on annuals today: specifically, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

  • Leave at least one melon (watermelon, caneteloupe, etc.) on the vine until it reaches maturity, as fully ripe meolons will have fully developed seeds.
  • Cut the melon in half and scoop the seeds from the center with a spoon.
  • Rinse the seeds in warm water to separate the juice and pulp from the seeds. Rub the seeds in your hands to help separate the seeds and fruit.
  • Place the seeds in a clean pot or bowl, then cover the seeds with water; the good seeds will stay on the bottom of the pot, while bad seeds and fruit debris will float to the surface.
  • Pour out the water, debris and bad seeds from the top of the pan. Hold your hand over the pan to catch any good seeds that might slip out as you drain the water.
  • Move the seeds to a wire mesh strainer. Run cold water over the seeds, using a sink sprayer hose, to remove any remaining sugar. Turn the seeds frequently to spray all sides.
  • Place the seeds on a clean paper towel and blot with a second paper towel to absorb excess moisture or surface moisture from the seeds.
  • Spread the seeds out to dry on a flat surface, such as a plate or shallow baking pan.
  • Store the seeds in a cool, dry place, such as a basement or refrigerator until ready to plant the following year. Keep the seeds in an air-tight container lined with a paper towel to prevent moisture from getting to the seeds.
  • Choose your biggest, most lovely, tastiest tomato and save her seeds. Scoop out the seeds and their gelatinous "goo" into a container. 
  • Add a few tablespoons of water to the seeds and cover the container with a piece of plastic-wrap.
  • Poke holes in the plastic wrap to allow air to enter (this will help foster fermentation).
  • Put the container in a warm location such as a sunny windowsill or on top of your fridge for two to three days.
  • During this time, remove the plastic wrap each night and stir the mixture before replacing the lid. Fermentation will make the liquid look scummy as the seeds separate, while also killing potential tomato diseases. 
  • After two or three days, take off the lid and carefully scrape off the scummy surface with a spoon. Pour the remaining contents through a fine sieve and rince very well.
  • Spread seeds out on a coffee filter or waxed paper and leave the seeds for several days to dry. You will know they are dry when they do not stick to anything.
  • Store your seeds in paper packets or vacuum seal. Make sure your seeds are completely dry before storing to prevent them from harboring mildew and rot!
  • Harvest the fruits, then cut them in half lengthwise. 
  • Scoop out the seeds from the center of each half. 
  • Add about as much water to the bowl as the amount of seeds, and set aside in a warm, sheltered spot to ferment, much as you would if you were saving tomato seeds. Fermentation of cucumber seeds can occur in as little as one to three days; once most of the seeds have sunk to the bottom of the container, they are finished fermenting. 
  • Add more water to the bowl at this point to clean your seeds. Debris and bad seeds will float to the top, where you can discard them easily. The good seeds will be at the bottom. 
  • Rinse them a few more times
  • Strain them out and place them on paper towels or uncoated paper plates to dry. 
  • Once they are completely dry, label your seeds and store them in a cool, dry place.
  • Harvest the squash, cut in half lengthwise, and scoop out seeds.
  • Wash the seeds to remove any flesh and strings. 
  • Lay the seeds out in a single layer on a paper towel to dry. Store them this way in a place that is dry and out of direct sunlight. 
  • Once thoroughly dried, in 3 to 7 days, store them in an envelope in a cool dry place with the rest of your seed supply. Dried squash seeds will store up to 6 years if kept in cool, dry conditions.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Spotlight On: Grassroots Seed Network

Whether you're looking to get seeds or share seeds you saved from your garden last year, a new start-up called the Grassroots Seed Network is a great resource for the radicals among you with a vested interest in spreading the open-pollinated love.

Many fruits and vegetables sold today in supermarkets are hybrid varieties that will either not reproduce from seed, or will revert back to an earlier variety of that plant. Open pollination refers to plants that are pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms—in other words, the opposite of controlled hybrids, self-pollinators, or chemically treated plants that can not reproduce at all. Open pollination is great because it increases biodiversity and produces new generations of plants—however, open pollination may produce offspring that varies greatly in size, quality, and coloration breeding is uncontrolled.

As you can probably already guess, the crew at Better Farm is in serious favor of open pollination. Who needs generic peppers or tomatoes that all look the same? We'd rather have an eclectic assortment that promotes diversity among plants. That diversity is what allows you to not lose all your plants to one pest or disease; and what allows for a greater variety of plants in the future. Good all-around for the environment, animals, and plants. For information on how to save your own seeds, be sure to visit the Vegetable Seed-Saving Handbook.

The mission of the Grassroots Seed Network is to provide a participatory, member-governed, democratic network through which those who preserve and maintain the treasured heritage of open-pollinated vegetable seeds can share those seeds with each other and can encourage and help educate the next generation of seed savers.

Here's the skinny on how the Grassroots Seed Network functions:

Grassroots Seed Network is a member-governed organization, and its vitality will grow from the participation of all those dedicated to the preservation of open-pollinated seeds. Here are several ways you can become involved: 

Lister: Listers offer seeds and may request seeds from other Listers through our Source List. Listers have voting rights in all Board of Directors elections if they have offered seed in two of the preceding three years. Listers are also eligible to run for a seat on the Board of Directors. Annual dues for Listers are $15. 

Sustainer: Many of you will not yet have seed to offer, but will want to support the organization by making a contribution toward our daily operating expenses. As a Sustainer you will have access to and be able to request seed from the Source List, but you will not have voting rights. Annual dues for Sustainers are $25. 

Donations: Like any new organization, we have start-up costs, therefore we welcome and are very grateful for donations in any amount that will help us with a
smooth launch and with meeting our financial obligations right from the beginning. 

Hardship Exemption: We want to encourage participation in the Grassroots Seed Network, especially among young gardeners or anyone dedicated to
seed saving, but who may be on a fixed or limited income and for whom the membership dues present a challenge. To those we are offering a hardship exemption. You are, of course, welcome to make any small contribution commensurate with your ability. 

To join, please send a check, made out to Grassroots Seed Network, to 

Yaicha Cowell-Sarofeen 
 2470 Industry Road 
 Starks, ME 04911 

Be sure to indicate your level of membership, and include your full address, phone number, and email address if you have one. Please let us know if you have no internet access at home. As soon as it is feasible, we plan to generate a printed version of the Source List. In future years a printed version of the Source List will be published annually. If you are joining as a Lister or Sustainer you will be given a member number and be assigned/choose a password for access to Lister contact information and guidelines for requesting seed. If you are joining as a Lister, you will find guidelines for submitting seed listings on the How to List and Request Seed page. 
Grassroots Seed Network will be applying for nonprofit 501(c)(3) status as soon as they have an elected Board of Directors. The group's preliminary draft by-laws can be read here. These will be voted on for approval by the Board and the Membership. In order for donations to be tax-deductible, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has agreed to act as financial umbrella organization.

Visit the Source List page to view the seed listings. The Source List is available to the general public for reading. If you are a Lister or a Sustainer you will need your password to access the Lister Profile page or to see guidelines for offering or requesting seed.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.