Seed savers reap satisfying harvests

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- In an era of speed gardening, when shortcuts vie for attention, some vegetable gardeners still cherish the old, slow ways. Instead of saving time, they save seeds.

The seed subculture, aside from commercial seed packets, features wide-ranging networks of seed-swapping among gardeners and, at the most demanding level, saving seeds from your own plants.

The last requires attention, patience and devotion, but mastering the skills takes one back to ancestral days of agriculture when humans first selected seeds for replanting. Because of the historical associations and the acquired know-how, a tomato or other vegetables grown from your own seed gives you a sense of satisfaction not felt in easier ways of raising plants.

Also, you may have an heirloom vegetable long cultivated in your family or community or one that has disappeared from the commercial market. You keep it on-going by saving the seed. Not to mention that should you ever need a survival tool, knowing seeds could be a life-saver.

A cardinal rule of seed-saving is to avoid doing it from hybrid plants. That's because hybrids are crosses, and the seed from them may not reproduce the original plants that you liked. The best way is to work with nonhybrids, or heirlooms.

Gathering seeds differs according to the kind of plant. Some seeds are left to dry on the plant, like beans or peas, and then separated from their pods by various forms of threshing. But seeds of soft fruit, like tomatoes, which are embedded inside the plant, are harder to extricate.

Saving tomato seeds involves several steps. After washing a fully ripe fruit, you slice it across the middle to expose the seed cavity, then you squeeze the seeds with their gel into a bowl or other container and let them ferment for several days, stirring the mixture occasionally.

When the bowl, which has become smelly, gets covered with a layer of mold, you add enough water to double the size of the mixture. You stir this until the good seeds sink to the bottom. Then you pour off the hollow seeds and waste, leaving only the good seeds. These you rinse until clean, put them in a strainer on a cloth to rid them of moisture, then drop them onto a dish to dry. This takes a while and an electric fan may help, but don't dry them in the sun or an oven.

When dried, the seeds are best stored in an airtight container. Depending on the tomato variety, they should be good for 4-10 years.

That sounds like a lot of work, especially in a day when even commercial seed providers acknowledge a drop in seed demand and an increase in customers who want ready-to-go plants. But like any other activity, how far you want to take gardening depends on the level of your interest and commitment.

Anyone new to seed-saving can find excellent directions for as many as 160 vegetables in Suzanne Ashworth's 222-page manual, ''Seed to Seed,'' available for $20 from the Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa, 52101; phone 319-382-5990; Web site

The volume is a treasure-house of information, starting with historical profiles of the plants and going on to botanical classification, flower structure and pollination method, isolation distances, caging and hand pollination techniques, and ways of harvesting, drying, cleaning and storing seeds. Ashworth, a master gardener from Sacramento, Calif., personally grew seed crops of all the vegetables mentioned.

The Seed Savers Exchange, incidentally, is the best place to go in search of heirloom or nonhybrid vegetable seeds. Its latest Garden Seed Inventory ($26) lists more than 7,300 nonhybrid vegetables offered by more than 250 mail order providers throughout North America. After you grow such plants, you can save the seeds for a self-perpetuating garden.

Another place to go is a seed-swapping facility like that offered free online by the National Gardening Association. Go to and click on the Seed Swap link. Here you'll find scores of people offering or wanting to swap seeds of both vegetables and ornamentals. Interested parties contact each other by mail, phone or e-mail to make the swap.


EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, Jan. 25

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