Fiann Ó Nualláin on why you should allow your crops to bear fruit and keep next year’s lunch in a lunchbox.
Growing you own food is a great reward and a pleasing pastime that culminates in the joy of harvest — be that the potatoes you will lift today for this evening’s dinner or the blackberry jam you made last month to sustain you across winter with a summery tingle on a cold dark morning.
Nothing beats growing your own — only eating your own.
I grow for the enjoyment of it, but also for the taste of it, so while I experiment now and then, I generally only grow what I want on my plate.
What will make me clear the plate? Usually, this is the weekend I start to think about what I want to grow again and what might need to change up.
My thoughts are on seeds, so I thought it might be nice (and also timely) to look at seed saving.
I am a fan of Irish horticulture so I do pick up vegetable seeds each year from the Irish seed savers or brown envelope seeds and the odd community grower seed swap.
However, there is also great delight in saving your own. It’s not as tricky at you might think.
Really, all you need is a bit of patience, a little enthusiasm, some paper bags to collect, a pen to note what you’ve got and as to storing, a few envelopes are perfect.
My personal preference is a few wage packet envelopes.
They are just the right size to fill and will fit neatly into a metal lunch box on a shed shelf.
The lunch box keeps any visiting mice or spiders out and it amuses me to keep next year’s lunch in a lunch box.
I’ll let you guess as to whether it’s a Hulk one or a Mister Men one.
There has been a bit of bolting this year which might make you think, grand, at least I’ll harvest the seed but the apple never falls far from the tree, so if the parent bolted because it rained to much in June, or you forgot to ask a friend to water while on holiday, then the progeny might just do the same next year.
Seed saving is the selection of best stock, not just accumulation of free seed.
So think about your best performers and your favourite tasters — that’s what you want to save for more of the same next year.
However, not all seed comes true and there is often cross-pollination in the garden, so there is a gamble sometimes and glorious outcomes at others. It’s all a part of the fun of GIYing.
They key to seed-saving success is knowing when seed is ripe. All seed go through three stages: formation, maturation and ripening.
In the case of crops like peas and beans we harvest to eat at the tender and juicy stage too — before it fully ripens into a hard seed.
In terms of lettuce and spinach we want to harvest before seed formation, and sometimes we actively discourage seed formation so the crop stays juvenile and sweet, not bitter.
Once you have your favourites picked out you need to let them go to seed and on to stage three. This is the patience bit. Let seed pods and fruits become large enough to mature up some viable seed.
Viability (its ability to store and germinate later), is generally attained when the seed pod dries or changes colour from green to beige or brown.
The seeds inside have become in many instances hard-cased and will also change colour from green, white or yellowy to a definite brown, black or steely grey (as with poppy seeds).
These seeds are now ready to be collected.
In terms of fruit — ready seed is available when the fruit reaches its full colour — the red pepper is fully red, the orange tomato is fully orange.
In general, the maturation time is about four to five weeks later than harvest stage. So you leave a few pods on for an extra month and you get a load of bean seeds to swap for a cow or all the beans you can eat next year.
So with the majority of veg seed you can collect at the end of the season, some such as carrots or beets are really biennials and while we harvest as annuals to eat, they will need two growing seasons to set seed.
It won’t mess too much with crop rotation if you leave two or three in place for an extra year.
The ideal seed-harvesting condition
is dry weather. Damp seed can rot or start germination in storage. Morning or evening is of no consequence — just dry.
Simply snip into a paper bag, write the variety on the side and bring inside. You will then need to let it dry out a bit more so an airing cupboard is good for a few days — still inside the bag.
Some people like to shell pods and decant seed heads straight away onto tissue paper and space out before storing in a dry location for several days — then fill their envelopes.
All this fuss is just to take off as much moisture as possible so the seeds won’t germinate or degrade in storage. Some seeds dry really quickly inside, others need a bit of attention.
I find kitchen roll in the dry warm back room works for me. I have heard of hair dryers and oven-heated tea towels but you don’t want to cook your seed either.
You can also do the rice trick. Pour some rice into a baking tray and cook dry in a hot oven for five minutes. Let fully cool.
You can now place any seed (inside a piece of muslin or spread on tissue) onto this super dry layer and it will pull any excess moisture out instantly.
The dried seed can be decanted into an envelope to store, the envelope will keep dry and you can write the variety on it so no confusion next year.
You can keep the envelopes in a drawer, in a shoe box, lunch box or tupperware container. Some gardening pundits advocate adding some silica-gel desiccant into each container to absorb any ambient moisture that might enter.
There are only so many pairs of shoes you can buy a year and not every garden centre or florist sells such. However, in terms of some nifty thrifty gardening you can use powdered milk — it is also a desiccant.
A tablespoon into some folded tissue will absorb any excess moisture from inside your storage container for up to six months and powdered milk is great in soil mixes to grow tomatoes. The calcium levels help prevent blossom end rot.
Saving tomatoes seed is fun to do, you can save the seed from supermarket varieties as well as garden-grown, and the process is entertaining to kids.
My favourite technique, and one I use with school groups, is to scoop out the centre glump of gel and seeds.
Drop the glump (my own technical term) into a glass of water and swirl about. Then we let the mix ferment for a few days — swirling twice a day.
A layer of fungus will form around the glump and top skim of the water. This fungus eats/ disintegrates the gel and frees the seed.
The good seed will, over the next three to five days, sink to the bottom; the immature or non-viable seed will float to the top.
What’s amazing about this process is that fungus is rather like penicillin — a potent antibiotic for the seed and also for sickly plants in the garden.
It attacks seed-borne diseases like bacterial spot and canker — so a skim and smear of it can do wonders in the garden to address such problems and it helps prep your seed for storage without disease.
Finally skim out the floaters, Drain the sunken ones into a sieve or tea strainer, rinse under tap and dry on some kitchen roll.
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