My little experience with seed saving comes from my mother, whose gardens are abundant in the summer and overflow with colors and textures that grow more beautiful every passing year. As kids, we would stick to the flowers only, and go around, squeezing the impatiens’ seed pods into cups, hearing them pop and watching them curl into their shells, jumping between our fingers. We would find the Chinese money, and slowly-but-gingerly rub the crisp remnants of the translucent flowers to free the inner seeds. These—and the many other seeds we released from their safe houses—were put into envelopes and stored in the refrigerator and planted again the next year.
Each year, however, we would make the trek to the local plant seller and purchase our vegetables, either as seeds or as small plants. As a home gardener as an adult in my own home, I have been able to, over the years, cultivate our vegetable garden and have developed an even greater appreciation for the process and satisfaction that home gardening can deliver. I want to continue my quest for one that delivers our summer vegetable needs. One way is the repeated use of the varieties of plants that grow the best and turnout the best product. Seed saving is a simple way, not only to save money, but to offer an even greater self-fulfilling investment in, quite literally, the fruits of our labor.
I return, once again, to Homecoming Farm in Amityville to speak with Don Cimato, head gardener and seed saver extraordinaire. His commitment to his work and love of each seed and plant that passes through his hands inspires my own quest for knowledge. I come on a day when the summer has long since left us, and I am given only traces of the bountiful gardens that I witnessed just a few short months ago. With the slow death of these lavish gardens, I am comforted in the knowledge that new life will begin anew in the spring, by the careful hands of these special few who make their home here.
Cimato’s experience began when he lived, for many years, in New Hampshire. His own vast gardens there allowed him the base for the foundation of seed saving that he developed an interest in early on from his mother. It was further explored as he began volunteering at Homecoming Garden six years ago, and then, just a year later, signed on to be head gardener. His quest for the best, most organic and sustainable way to work the land has enabled him to develop the knowledge of how the seeds are best saved to replant year after year. What started out as a hobby has really set the framework for the development of this wonderful place to be a successfully run farm.
Over the years, careful attention has been given to what vegetables have worked well and what, quite frankly, haven’t. For the home gardener, it is a constant learning curve that cannot be learned all at once. Factors such as the viability of the fruit itself, the ripeness of fruit for seed harvesting, the weather, and soil are just a few things that are major factors in seed saving and the possibilities for a great crop year after year.
Cimato’s own success has developed from constant research and trial and error throughout the years. A home gardener may wish to grow garlic, which can be grown using the inner cloves. Garlic should be procured from a farmer’s market or organic shop in order to yield the best results. Sunflowers can be left on their stems and allowed to dry. Their heads droop under the weight and can be snipped and hung to dry in a cool, dark place, such as a shed. The seeds can be removed from their pods and planted. One giant sunflower head can be produce seeds to fill an entire field with the beautiful yellow blooms.
Different flowers and vegetables tend to produce different results, and Cimato is of the mindset that attention and time should be placed on saving seeds that have generated the best results. If a seed doesn’t re-grow and regenerate year after year with the same level of success, less focus should be placed on these flowers and vegetables. Vegetables such as cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, pumpkin, squash and zucchini among others are perfect candidates to start seed saving. They are relatively easy to save and have proven to generate successful results.
Since seeds are a result of the parent plant, the best option is to choose the healthiest and most viable one. Care must be taken to harvest the plant in its later stages on the vine. A plant such as cucumber should be taken for seed harvesting when it has passed its prime and has started to turn yellow.
Once seeds have been harvested the best place to keep them is in a cool and dry place. Some schools of thought prefer the seeds to be kept at a constant temperature and can be kept in plastic bags or envelopes. Take care to keep the seeds away from possible pests such as rodents that may find the seeds in the winter months.
Cimato gave me a lesson on the intricate working of saving a tomato seed. The act is a process, but one that will reap some of the best rewards. Cimato has been saving the seeds of the over 100 varieties of tomatoes that the garden grows. He has spent countless hours painstakingly saving the seeds from each variety. One single fruit can produce up to 100 seeds and can be the foundation for a vast tomato crop for next spring.
How to Save a Tomato Seed:
- Cut open a ripe tomato and squeeze out the juices into a glass jar, pulling out the seeds from the flesh inside.
- Fill the jar with 2 inches of water.
- Cover jar with a paper towel, secured with a rubber band. (The towel prevents flies laying their eggs on the surface).
- Label with jar with the varietal name and date.
- Leave for 3-5 days until a layer of mold has formed. As the mold forms, the gel surrounding each seed break down, mimicking the action that occurs in the stomach of an animal with the capability of spreading seeds in nature.
- Pour off the mold and as much liquid as possible. Add water and repeat 2-3 times, pour off the top layer of mold and seeds that have risen to the top. The viable seeds sink to the bottom and are to be distinquished and saved.
- Swirl in a bleach and water solution (this solution may vary by seed saver) measuring 10 parts water to one part bleach. Swirl seeds around for 2-3 minutes to rinse them.
- Strain seeds onto a paper towel.
- Pick seeds off individually and place on parchment paper to dry fully.
- Save seeds in envelope or ziplock bag.
One thing to remember when saving seeds is that there are currently some new initiatives that companies have placed on the rights of their seeds. For example, a company may produce a hybrid and patent it to retain the right for future use. Once the seeds are purchased, the buyer agrees never to sell the seeds saved from the plants as a buyer stipulation.
If buying seeds is more your cup of tea, Cimato recommends seed companies, large and small, to help set the foundation for a home garden. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., Adaptive Seeds, Sustainable Seed Company and Hudson Valley Seed Library are all smaller companies whose commitment to sustainability is evident. Larger companies such as Fedco, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and High Mowing Seeds are options for procuring great seeds at fair prices. Whatever route a home gardener chooses to take, having an active role in the growth and regrowth of a home garden can be a satisfying and pleasing way to create a haven in one’s own backyard.