Enjoy Those Vegetables, but Don’t Forget to Save Some Seeds


In gardening, what looks like a mishap may be an epiphany in disguise.

“If you remembered to harvest your lettuce, great,” Ken Greene reminded me recently. “If you forgot to harvest the lettuce, great!”

Missing a harvest window means you could be on your way to growing a crop of that plant’s seed, which is what Mr. Greene, a founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Company, would like each of us to learn to do.

He and I were catching up about how last spring — with customers’ unprecedented demand for seed — had gone in their gardens and at his company. Seed sellers everywhere heard from worried gardeners who were rattled to see “sold out” beside desired varieties and, worse still, “taking a pause” notices when companies halted shipping.

There will be seed for sale the next growing season, Mr. Greene is quick to offer reassurance — but you can also supply some of your own.

In the process, you could become part of that seed’s life story.

Some seeds-to-be are in that row of lettuce that suddenly stretched way up in the heat, looking very un-lettuce-like and making tiny yellow flowers. Or inside a couple of your juicy tomatoes, and the pods of peas and beans.

“Some of the other answers for gardeners are in your drawer, in those half-used packets,” Mr. Greene said. “But you need to care for them till then. Seeds are small and powerful, and we can be small and powerful, too, just by learning how to save and share them.”

He shared how-to’s for the saving the easiest seed varieties — and the story of the seed that got him hooked.

When gardeners faced long waits or unavailable items last spring, they thought that meant there was a seed shortage. But while some of the year’s most sought-after varieties may be scarce, there will be seed next year.

“Small seed companies like ours met extra demand by dipping into their second- or third-year supply early,” Mr. Greene said. Not every variety is grown out every year — and because seeds are a living thing, restocking can take a year or even two, in the case of biennials like onion, carrots, beets or kale.

“If we grew enough seed for two years of a particular kale, and sold twice as much as usual, that variety won’t be back right away,” he said. “But there will be other kales. Selling out doesn’t mean a variety disappears, just that it isn’t for sale now.”

It’s a good time to start saving seed yourself — and then collaborating with others to share it.

Mr. Greene believes that we need not just the commercial seed system but also a community-based one. “Diversity is the insurance for seed access,” he said. “And the more different ways we have for accessing seed, the better.”

It was the variety now called Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean that propelled him into serious seed saving, and then organic seed farming. It was 2004, and Mr. Greene was a librarian at the Gardiner Library in Ulster County, N.Y., where he began the first seed library in a public library in the United States.

“Seed libraries find ways to share seeds through the foundation of the public library system,” Mr. Greene said. “Models range from a swap box, where people leave leftover commercial seeds and take what they want, to formalized community seed grow-outs among gardeners who are seeking some form of local seed sovereignty.”

The Gardiner effort aimed to find delicious varieties with local history and adaptation to regional growing conditions, and then to cooperatively grow them to make sure the seeds, and their genetic and cultural stories, didn’t disappear from the community.

The public library’s director told him about an exceptional baking bean her father had grown. A dust-covered jar forgotten for many years was found in the cellar of the house he had lived in; some seeds were miraculously still viable.

The short version: Stock was built up, and the variety named for Hank lives on, to the delight of local chefs.

All because of neighbors sharing, and caring for, a seed.

A web search, or an inquiry to a local garden club or cooperative extension office, may yield a nearby seed library contact. Or try this: Plan a less-formal seed swap. It can be as simple as starting an email chain to see what others are growing and whether they are interested in saving and eventually sharing.

How to tell they’re done? Whack one seed with a hammer. If it cracks, it’s ready. If it mashes, it’s not.

Likewise with dill and cilantro: Collect the nearly dry heads before they scatter their seeds and put them in a paper bag to finish drying.

Lettuce isn’t much harder, although the seeds have a chaff attached until they’re thoroughly dry. When the flowers start to puff out like tiny dandelions, snip them off into a paper bag. Or if you are saving a lot, cut down the seed-laden stalks and tip them upside-down into a bag or bucket.

Tomato seed benefits from an extra step: fermentation.

Tomato seed is saved when the fruits are at the edible stage, and all the leftover parts besides the seed can be made into sauce, salsa, gazpacho — or just eaten fresh. (By comparison, a cucumber or zucchini must go long past ripeness, until soft and turning orange, for the seeds inside to be mature.)

If you have a favorite heirloom tomato and it’s a popular one, Mr. Greene advised, save its seed, in case supply is short. And again: Be sure to save from open-pollinated varieties, not hybrids, whose offspring don’t reliably resemble their parents.

You could simply squeeze the seeds out, smearing the fruit’s innards onto a paper plate or paper towel. But the natural act of fermentation helps break down germination-inhibiting compounds like the gel sac around tomato seeds, and can reduce some seed-specific diseases.


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