Saturday, August 14, 2010

Seeds Seeds Seeds!

I don't remember exactly when I started saving seeds.  It was probably back when I was taking horticulture classes and working in the garden at a local historic site about a dozen years ago or more.  I remember one year where I saved over 95 varieties of seed which even today blows my mind.  That is a lot of seed!  All I know is there is not a year goes by that I don't save the seeds from something.  This year was no different.
(Clockwise starting top left) Lychnis coronaria 'Angel's Blush', 'Bijou' lettuce, can't remember but its a nice perennial for shade, Blood Sorrel and Poppy.

This afternoon I spent some time going through the garden, cutting ripe seed heads so I could save the seed.  The cutting of the seed heads is always nice quiet work and brings back the memory of the flowers in all their glory. It stirs gratitude in my heart for this gift of seeds for future plants too as the seeds spill from the heads into the buckets and bags I am gathered in. The extracting of the seeds from the head is not quite as cathartic work and takes a bit more patience, but the end result is worth the effort.  Seeds to sow and seeds to share.  It is a good thing to know how to do and so I decided I would give you a look into what it takes to harvest, clean and store lettuce seed.
Lettuces rarely cross pollinate making them great to save seed from.

Lettuce is one of those plants that rarely if ever cross pollinates so if you have a lettuce growing in your garden that you enjoy you can let it go to seed you will be able to grow that same variety from your collected seed.  The variety I saved seed from this year was one that actually wintered over very nicely in my garden and grew well even with our excess spring rains.  It also holds well in the heat and doesn't get bitter as easily as some and one more thing...its a knock out beauty with amazing wine colored leaves that don't fade ever!  Now that is a lettuce worth keeping.  Finally it is no longer available in U.S. seed catalogs so I would have to order it from across the pond in the U.K. making me even more thankful I have saved seed for the past few years.

As a plant lettuce comes in basically two forms...loose leaf, which is a mound of leaves called a rosette or a head like Romaine and the old standby Iceberg lettuce many of us grew up on.  When the plant begins to bolt, or run to flower as some call it, the flower stem in the center of the plant emerges instead of leaves making the plant appear to be stretching upward.  This is what you want to see as a seed saver.  This process can take a while so don't expect to see flowers for a few weeks once the plant begins to stretch.
Bijou in flower early July
Lettuce beginning to bolt
Next the flowers open...soft yellow flowers which in the case of my Bijou lettuce looked quite nice against the burgundy leaf color.  The flowers don't open all at once so you have some time before you have to start thinking about harvesting.  After the flowers fade you will see these cute little puffs of fuzz, somewhat reminiscent of dandelion which is in the same family as lettuce.  Once you start to see the puffs form you can sit back and watch and wait as the plant continues to flower. Lettuces have a lot of flower heads on one plant and not all of them open at once.  The reward, if you are patient, will be a bounty of seed.

Bijou Lettuce with seed heads and flowers in late July
You can harvest the flowers as they form the puffs but here's the deal...lettuce, like dandelion, has this white sap that is sticky and gets all over your fingers and the puffy stuff and seeds making harvesting in this fashion a real pain so I don't recommend it.  What I found was that the slightest bump of the flower stems made that sap flow out in little dots all over the stem and flower was a nightmare.  The sap needs to be tried up before you attempt harvesting the seed and as long as that stem is connected to the plant it's gonna will flow.

Because of the annoyance of the sap during my early seed harvesting attempt, I decided to it was best wait until the plant was pretty full of puffs and nearly done flowering before trying again.  When it was finally time I cut the whole head off the plant, placed it in a paper grocery bag and set it on our back porch for about a week to dry up the sap before again I attempted to harvest the seed.  I suppose I could have waited a bit longer to cut the flower heads off but I get paranoid about the seed falling to the ground as we get some pretty stiff winds in our area this time of year so I erred on the side of safety.

Once the sap was dried up I was able to cut the branches off the main stem so I could work with them much easier.  I think at this point I would recommend laying the branches out on a cloth of some kind to dry a bit more...a step I did not do and I think made it harder to get the seed out because some of the heads were still damp making it harder to get the seed out.  You could probably use an old cotton pillow case if you wanted to for this and hang it up in a drafty location where it wouldn't get wet to completely dry.

Oh yeah...I almost forgot.  While I was cutting the stems I found these little guys feasting on the leaves.  They weren't bothering the seed heads so I left them alone until I was ready to cut the side branches off the main stem.
The only ick factor in this whole process for me really was accidentally smashing one or two during this process.  Some were really tiny so keep your eyes peeled for them during the seed cleaning process too.
The birds love these larvae so if you have a feeder that gets good traffic just put the in it and stand back.

Once the stems were dry I took them a couple at a time and rubbed them between my hands, rolling them back and forth and rubbing the flowerheads with my fingers to dislodge the seed if it was being stubborn.  Like I takes a bit of patience...and a bit persistence sometimes too.  The seeds sometimes do not release readily so the rubbing and pinching of the heads helps in this process.  There  are a small amount that fall off naturally so if you only wanted a few seeds you could just shake the heads over a sheet or pan.  I'm greedy when it comes to seeds as I like to have seed to share.  That is in part why I like to take the time and I also enjoy the process.  Peaceable work with profitable rewards is always a good thing.

The stuff you don't want in your seeds.
The end result of all the rubbing is a pile of part seeds and part plant material which then need to be separated out.  My favorite tools for this process are those wire kitchen strainers and a baking pan or small jelly roll pan. 
Kitchen strainers are a great tool for separating seed from plant material.  Hold your free hand at one side of the strainer and tap the strainer gently against your palm like you would a tambourine.

For the lettuce seed I used my larger colander sized wire strainer and then a smaller, finer meshed one with a handle on it.  Be sure to start with the larger holed strainer first and go down to the finer after.  You want the seed to be able to fall through the screen mesh so be sure you don't use too fine of a strainer.  If plant material falls through (which it almost always does) don't get excited, there are a couple more steps before we're done here.

Plant material that made it through the strainer.
Here is what you will have after you have strained the seed.  (Note: Not all lettuce seed is white, some is black)  This Bijou lettuce made it easier to distinguish the plant material from the seed as it was purple when dried.  Notice that there is also a bit of that fuzz left in the mix too.  To remove this you need to winnow the seed which will remove some of this unwanted material

Winnowing is basically letting the breeze carry the lighter plant material away from the seed.  You take the seed and slowly dribble it into the container letting the breeze do all the work. In order to not lose some of your seed during this process make sure to have a large enough container to catch the seed in and be sure the breeze is not too strong.  For a catch container I recommend using one of the larger plastic tote storage containers or you could do if over a large piece of cloth like a table cloth or sheet.  If you only need a few seeds saved you can use a 9x13 pan like I did here and it works pretty well. If you don't have a breeze make one yourself by using a fan or blow across the seeds instead.  Take care to see that your seed is not being blown away in this process.

After the winnowing there was some heavier material still mixed with the seed.  To separate it out I just held the pan at an angle and tapped it or shook it gently while stirring the seeds to release the unwanted material from the crowd of seeds.  The seeds will stick (because they are flat) and not roll while the other material will be rolling downhill and collecting along the side of the pan making it easy to remove.  This is probably the most time consuming part of the whole process.  Now I have to confess I get a little ODC here and want to save "all" the seed possible and will spend way too much time and effort at times to be sure I don't lose any seed.  Thankfully I didn't do that this year and the winnowings went into the compost heap.

Once the seed is clean (relative term here as we don't have those fancy mechanical cleaning machines that really get it clean) set them out on a coffee filter to dry them further which will help them to not mold in storage.
Sunflower seed gift envelopes I created

You can store them in paper envelopes (try making your own) or in jars.  I don't recommend ziploc bags as the seed sticks to the side of the bags, foil pouches work too.  Those little envelopes they use for stamp collecting work really well too.  Personally I have found coin envelopes to be really handy to use.  You can get them at local office supply stores like Office Depot or Staples.  Whatever you store them in be sure there are no places the seed can escape from like those unglued corners of envelopes.

Next I store the seed in a cool, dark, dry place to ensure they stay viable (alive).  In my propagation class at college we were taught that 13% humidity and below 40 F is good.  I just store my seeds in a box and tuck it on the floor in our office where it is cooler.  That works nicely since I don't have room in my refrigerator or freezer where some folks store there seed.  TIP:  You can place a couple of those desiccant pouches that come inside shoe boxes into your seed box to help keep them dry while in storage. 

So have fun gathering.  I'll post some seed packet ideas soon.

Copyright © 2010 by Patty Hicks

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review. All reviews must include author's name and a link back to this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a lot of work girl friend... I really enjoyed reading and seeing your garden photos and learning about plant seed! Love your seed packets too!