As the warm-season vegetable garden season draws to a close in Central Florida, there’s still much work to be done in preparation for the next planting season. This is a great time to collect heirloom seeds, which can save money and provide an easily renewable source of your favorite plant varieties.
An heirloom variety is an older cultivar maintained in relatively isolated regions, even one’s own backyard.
Heirlooms aren’t used for wide-scale agriculture production any longer, but they are often quite resistant to pests and weather extremes.
Heirloom plants harbor lots of genetic diversity, which means they are unlikely to yield consistent colors, size and even flavor, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be flavorful, pretty and highly prized in the home garden. More importantly, heirloom varieties can be nurtured, selected, preserved and handed down from one family member to the next for many generations leaving a link to past heritages.
The goal with heirloom preservation is to ensure all of the cultivar’s genes are transmitted from each generation to the next leaving us with a large gene pool – and lots of variation.
The basics of saving heirloom seeds starts with nurturing every plant into maturity, except for any diseased plants or ones yielding fruit or veggies we don’t like.
We then harvest the fruit, clean the seeds of flesh, dry the seeds, then store the seeds in the hope of germinating those same cultivars the next season or years down the road.
Beans, cowpeas, even tomatoes and peppers make excellent plants for seed preservation. A few considerations: Hybrid plants will not provide seeds bearing the same qualities as the plant from which they came – seedlings from these plants will have some, but not all, of the qualities of the parent plant.
If you are interested in saving seeds, be sure to grow enough plants to get a large seed batch and avoid inbreeding. For corn, you need 100 ears, and for tomatoes, a dozen plants to get enough quality seed to store.
Also, be sure to allow the fruit to mature on the plant before harvesting; be selective when you harvest. Choose only the best of the fruits from the plants which you favor for specific traits. Seeds that collapse when they’ve been dried are not viable. Throw them away. For example, squash, cucumber and melon seeds should be hard and plump when dry, not shriveled.
When you have harvested the seeds, be sure to immediately clean and dry them. For tomatoes, rinse the seeds and wipe them with a rough towel to remove the gel-like fleshy coat which prevents germination. For most any other plant, remove the flesh from the seeds as best you can, then lay them out on newspaper to dry. Any moldy seeds should be discarded. Even a food dehydrator can be useful in drying seeds. But, a warm, sunny spot for a few days will do just fine.
Once the seeds are dry (usually hard, but not brittle), place them in well-marked envelopes (cultivar, date, traits), wrap the envelope in aluminum foil, place them in a sealed plastic storage bag and store them in a refrigerator.
Place small amount of seeds in each envelope just to ensure a bad batch doesn’t ruin the whole bunch.
Before planting stored seeds for the next season, bring them up to room temperature in a closed container on the counter for two days. This will help prevent thermal shock.
Planting seeds in the garden can be great fun and provide quality time with family. Preserving seeds for the next season and years to come can serve as a time capsule of generations past. Consider saving your heirloom seeds — and, at the same time, save a piece of your heritage.
Published June 22, 2016