Imagine yourself in the garden. Spring has passed, summer’s twilight hours elongate the shadows, the slight chill of fall approaches. Plants you have grown selected are now mature. Tomatoes are bursting with ripeness, chiles are bright red, cilantro is fully dry and rattles in the wind. Your patience has been rewarded, it is time to gather seeds. Take a moment, make sure your crop is fully mature. Break some seeds open and look for the “germ”. A general rule of thumb is if the inside has a strong white color, the germplasm, they are ready to harvest.
Processing Seeds. Wet or dry?
Depending on what you grew your crop will be wet or dry seeded. Wet seeded crops are found inside fruiting bodies like tomatoes, peppers, and cucurbits. Usually the fruits will contain moisture when you harvest them. While most peppers are wet seeded, some (for example a dried chile like ancho, guarillo, cayenne, ect.) will want to dry down. Use your best judgment and intuition to decide how to process your seeds. Try asking the plant how to help it continue its journey (you will probably get an answer).
Tomatoes are very easy and rewarding wet seeds to process. Pick your ripe fruit into a watertight bucket. Squeeze the fruits to release the seeds. Add water to your sauce (I like to cover the mixture by a couple inches) and leave to ferment in a warm place for a week. A white film should form on the surface. Fermenting the mixture releases the seeds and they drop to the bottom of the bucket. This technique can be used for many wet crops including peppers, squash, tomatillos, and melons.
Once your ferment finishes, mix and add water. Our goal is to pour off the lighter material by repeatedly adding water, mixing, letting the seeds settle, and pouring again. As the water cleans your seeds will appear at the bottom. The heaviest seeds, those with the highest likelihood of germinating, will remain towards the bottom of the bucket. There are usually some seeds obviously more inclined to float in the water and they should be poured away. Dump the heaviest seeds on a window screen to dry in a ventilated and protected place. Let dry thoroughly before putting in a container for storage.
Many seed crops are dry seeded with many nuances that cannot be entirely covered here. I will lay out some guidelines to aid in your processing but know there is a wide array of diversity in processing dry seeds.
Keep dry seeds dry. As the plant develops they direct energy into the offspring leaving the plant brown and desiccated. When the seeds are still attached but easily shaken off is the opportune time to harvest. Mornings are good because the small amount of dew keeps the seeds from shattering, breaking off the stem, as you touch the plant. I use a pair of hand snips to remove the stems with seeds, collecting the seed heads into a clean garbage can.
Sometimes I will remove the entire plant with snips, careful to not bring in dirt, and place the crop on tarps to dry. After drying I will dance on the plant matter up to free the seeds. This human powered threshing machine is best combined with groovy music. The seeds will drop to the tarp floor and you can remove the bulk of the material from the top.
Seed saving is all about timing. Waiting for that perfect moment when the seed is fully ripe, but still attached to the mother plant. It is tempting to harvest seed too early, and easy to wait too long and loose seeds to dropping. I often harvest in succession, shaking seeds heads instead of breaking them completely. Mature seeds will fall off the plant, while the younger seeds will hold to mature further.
Each crop requires its own steps and I am in no way a master. Trial and error are going to be your best friend. Do not fear losing seeds, it is all a part of the process.
Winnowing and Screening
After you have broken the material down it is time to screen. Screens of many sizes are available online. I use an ¼” hardware cloth screen and window screens as my main tools. Top screening allows your seeds to fall through, and bottom screens keep the seeds up. Screens are important in removing larger items that would otherwise not blow away in the winnowing process.
On Folks Farm, winnowing consists of a couple clean rectangular totes and a box fan. Use a bucket to blow the seeds into the breeze created by the box fan. Heavier material, usually the seeds, falls closer to the fan while the lighter material flows away. You can usually see the seeds separating from the chaff. In this process I often cut away 25% of the seeds as lighter material. While this might seem wasteful those seeds are lighter and thus have less overall vigor and longevity. This would qualify as grading the seed. Heavier seed falls into the first bin and lighter seed in the second. It is sometimes worth saving and cleaning the lighter seed in case the germination is still acceptable.
The processing of seed requires cleanliness and organization especially when you are processing multiple varieties. I work through one variety at a time and my screens and totes thoroughly before moving onto the next seed lot. Labelling is crucial as you will not be able to tell one variety of tomato, for example, from another. Keep your seeds labelled twice in case something gets misplaced.
Keep seeds cool, dark, dry, and limit temperature fluctuations. You can expect germination to decline over the years, some crops faster than others. I generally store my seeds in resealable plastic bags but any air tight receptacle will work.
Germination tests are essential to understanding the viability of your seed crops. By germinating a sample of your seed in a moist paper towel, inside a labelled baggie, and placed in a warm area you can physically see your crop spout. We germinate every single seed we sell and many we plan on growing. There are few things worse than poor germination during the growing season when everyday counts.
There is something so uncanny in the human mind that craves the rare, unique, outliers in crop production. Our gathering eyes seem to pick up on the weirdos in the field, drawn to them for one reason or another. Seed varieties hold a similar mystique. The more rare the seed, the more we want it. Historically, these seeds have been taken from indigenous growers who freely give them because that is what you do. The seeds are usually not returned as expected, or repaid in any way, and the cultural stewards of food are left forsaken from the seed. Many culturally significant varieties have been lost in the process of taking, especially as crop diversity has dropped 75% in the last century.Displacement and migration of people has played a role in limiting access to heritage crops. These cycles of extraction and extinction must end.
Rematriation breaks this cycle. Helping those with privilege to grow have unique offerings, and those offering the seed a return on their investment. Rematriation can help heal those hurt by colonialism and offer deeper nourishment of the soul by reconnecting people with their ancestral food crops. We all have ancestral crops. For many indigenous ties have been robbed so long ago they have been forgotten completely.
I see the process of rematiration in two paths of internal and external healing. Look into yourself, at your history. Where are you from? Who are your ancestors? What are the food crops that sustained your great great grandparents? Grow these crops, learn heirloom recipes, and begin to understand the history of your people from the heart.
Centers of Origin, a term coined by Russian botanist Nickolay Ivanovich Vavilov, are thought to be ancestral homes of our modern day food crops. These areas represent centers of diversity in food crops, indicating high likelihood of wild relatives. Seven distinct centers of origin are believed to have originated food crops. These are understood to be the birthplaces of the wild relatives of our food crops domesticated by our ancestors.
Externally, rematirating seeds is returning a portion of the harvest to the indigenous keepers of the varieties. Groups and advocates are helping to grow and return seeds back to their homelands. Rowen White and Sierra Seeds, True Love Seeds, and Native Seed Search are tremendous resources to get involved in the rematirating of seeds. Whether you are interested in diving deeper into the culture of seeds, simply want to purchase heritage seeds from companies that offer fair compensation to growers, or want to grow a variety to be distributed through indigenous networks, these are great places to get started.
Harvesting your own seed for replanting connects you to the entire life cycle of a plant. You join the lineage of growers that have continued to bring the seeds home and successfully grow food. It is important to know where our food comes from, not only where it was grown but who was growing it thousands of years ago.
Imagine the flow of agriculture. For thousands of years that cultivated crops spread from their headwaters saturating communities with plant diversity and sustaining life. In the past 100 years people have consolidated this process, driving a corporate engine geared towards the extraction of the seed and human resources. Agriculture has become funneled, tributaries have dried up leaving cultural landscapes dry. Seed has been funneled in a powerful, direct stream, pulling resources away from growers and filling the pockets of corporate agriculture.
When we grow an heirloom plant, share the seeds, feed ourselves and our community, we crack the banks of this machine allowing seed back into the dried tributaries. Our world has been sold, or stolen, but it is not too late. I see these seed holders diverting flow from mega-business, risking their lives to return lost diversity and beauty. With time, collaboration, and thoughtful consideration backyard gardens and farms will flourish offering us the chance to heal.
People have fought for, hidden away, stolen, traded, shared, and sold seed since the dawn of agriculture (it is thought grain was the reason people in the Old World invented currency). It is important to connect ourselves with the history of our beloved crops to move forward in a better light. When you have seed, you have everything. It is our job now to consciously decide what to do with everything and steward the future in the direction our hearts yearn us to.