by Julia Frisbie, with Sequoia Ferrel
posted July 27, 2022
Ahhh, July! Finally we’re getting the heat that our corn, beans, and squash crave. They’re shooting up towards the sun. Other plants, like peas and many biennials, have quit putting on new growth and are instead focused on making seeds.
Home gardeners have a unique capacity to breed resilient vegetables. I’ve written before about why saving seed is important, and how to start. If it’s a project that appeals to you, this is a good time to keep an eye out for seeds that are ready to collect. Here are some that Sequoia Ferrel and I are noticing and saving this month.
The photo above shows Schweitzer Riesen snow peas. Sequoia writes: “I had plenty to harvest and am now letting them make seed as the plants are dying back. The peas have filled out in the pods and will be ready to pick when they start drying up. Peas are self pollinating so I’m not worried about cross pollination with my snap peas. The seed for these came from seed saved on my farm a few years back so this is the second time they have been selected for my growing conditions.”
As Sequoia noted, peas are mostly self-fertile, which makes them a great beginner seed saving crop. Suzanne Ainsworth, in her book Seed to Seed, recommends isolating different pea varieties from each other by 10 feet in order to maintain varietal purity. I laid my garden out with this in mind so that I could save three different pea varieties this year. As I noticed any off-type plants (a snow pea making fat pods, or a snap pea making flat ones, for example) I pulled them out to remove their genes from the gene pool. Here’s a look at a seed crop of peas called Waverex:
You can see that the plants are drying up, which is on purpose! I’ve quit watering them so that they can dry out before I try to store them. The pea pods’ texture needs to change from green and crunchy… to leathery… to brown and brittle before the seed harvest. Dry peas are hard as rocks. You can test if they’re dry enough by hitting them with a hammer; they should shatter rather than squish. In this variety, dried seed also gets wrinkly:
Shelling dried peas is a fun activity for kiddos. If you’re growing peas this year, and you can stand to watch them get dry and withered, try saving the seed!
If there are any green, leafy plants left in your garden from last year, check to see if they’re making seeds. My Red Russian kale has already done the deed, feeding songbirds and no doubt sowing its next generation all over my yard.
Beware of saving seed from broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, European kales, and any other plant in the Brassica oleracea species. They are insect pollinated and readily cross with each other, producing offspring that may be edible, but probably won’t be recognizable.
Sequoia writes: “Here is a Swiss chard plant going to seed. I decided to save this because it was a strong productive plant I was able to harvest throughout fall and winter and it survived without problems through our cold snap. It is a biennial so this is its second growing season. You can see in the closeup that the seeds aren’t developed yet.”
Sequoia continues: “This one [swiss chard] plant will make tons of seed! While it’s been flowering I made sure there weren’t other types of chard or any beets (which are the same species and will cross pollinate) flowering at the same time. I also have good isolation from other gardens in the larger area.”
Sequoia writes: “This is some mizuna that I have let make seed. I love mizuna in salads and it is sometimes hard to find the seeds. However these plants weren’t super vigorous and went to seed way too soon so it may not actually be a good idea to collect and plant these out. I have some new starts coming up so I will evaluate how those plants perform and maybe collect their seed if they do better. I can always spread undesirable seeds in any bare spots in the pasture because my sheep love plants in the brassica family.”
Sequoia writes: “These two lettuce plants would be good candidates for seed saving because they are both vigorous and flavorful plants that have held well as the weather warms without developing a seed stalk.” The varieties pictured are Merlot and Red Sails. Lettuce is mainly self-fertile, but because these two are planted so closely together, the resulting seed would likely be a cross. But it would probably be a good cross, so why not try it?!
Here is some of Sequoia’s fall lettuce that survived through the winter:
The capacity to survive through winter is “something I definitely want to select for,” writes Sequoia. “The flowers aren’t open yet so I will have to wait a while to collect the seed.”
Both of us are noticing lamb’s quarters going to seed in our gardens right now:
This spring/summer weed is in the spinach family, and Sequoia and I both agree that it’s delicious raw or cooked. In fact, it’s Sequoia’s favorite green. Neither of us actually collect the seeds; rather, we let this plant drop its seeds right where it stands, and trust that it will come up next spring without any interference from us.
Many plants in this family, with their characteristic umbrella-shaped seed clusters, are biennials. What you planted last year may be going to seed now.
Sequoia writes: “This is some red celery that was hardy and performed well although I have never been able to grow juicy celery. It will produce a lot of seed.”
If you planted parsley last year, check it for seed heads that look like this now:
But leave carrot seed alone; it readily crosses with wild Queen Anne’s Lace, and will not reproduce true to type.
I’m noticing seed clusters on my lovage plants, which I could save if I wanted more lovage, but I don’t:
Below is a row of cilantro that’s bolted, flowered, and is now going to seed. (It doesn’t cope well with warm weather.) But if your cilantro looks like this, don’t pull it out. Wait and observe, and when the delicate flowers turn into seeds, collect them so that you won’t have to buy seed next year.
Here are some dried-out chive blossoms. Look carefully and you will see little black seeds tucked inside them:
It’s a great time to cut these blossoms, tuck them into a brown paper bag, and put them someplace dark and dry until they’re completely crunchy. When they’re ready, shake and crush the bag vigorously to loosen the seeds, and then remove the fluffy flower remnants. The heavy black seed will fall to the bottom of the bag and be easy to collect.
If you’re interested in saving seed but not sure what you’ll do with it all, email email@example.com. We’ve got some big dreams of a local seed bank, and we’d love for you to be part of it!
PS: For those who are keeping track, I’ve been quiet on the blog lately. Two months ago I went into labor in my garden while squatting down to transplant some oregano and chives. We welcomed a furry, redheaded baby boy into the world six hours later. It’s too early to tell what his favorite plants are, but he smiles when the corn leaves tickle his feet, and he turns his head to catch the scent of tomato vines as we brush past them. We buried the placenta under the apple tree to say thank you to the soil. All is well.
Julia & Sequoia, as always, so grateful for your seed wisdom and perceptive garden observations. A couple of qsts:
PEAS: I want to save the last of the English pea crop for 2023 seeds. Should I keep watering until all are filled out?
CILANTRO: Aren’t the seeds of cilantro what’s called coriander and used as a spice (think, pickles) as well as planted for next years cilantro? I’ve read it’s important to collect these seeds right away as they’re quick to fall to the ground.
Finally, slightly off subject, my eggplants and some peppers are planted (separately) in raised beds under netting row covers for insect protection. Will this keep bees, etc, from pollinating them? Their respective beds include several varieties of eggplants or pepper’s; does this complicate seed saving?
Thank you SO much for making me a better, more competent, and more confident gardener!
PEAS: if it’s convenient with your irrigation setup, I’d keep watering only until the pods seem full, and then I’d quit watering and let the plants and pods turn dry and brown before harvesting the seeds.
CILANTRO: yep, same as corriander! I snip off whole seedheads into a paper bag when the plants start to turn brown, and let them finish drying in the paper bag. If I miss the timing on some, then I just have volunteer cilantro, which is no big deal.
PEPPERS AND EGGPLANTS: row covers should reduce the possibility of cross-pollination by insects, but unless your row covers are perfect (and mine never are) they’re not going to totally eliminate it. Peppers and eggplant flowers are like tomato flowers in that they contain both the male and female parts, so are mainly self-fertile… but there’s always a possibility of insect pollination, too. And different varieties within a specie have different probabilities of insect pollination based on the shape of their flowers! So I guess this is up to your personal preference. If you just want to save seed for your own garden, and you don’t mind unpredictable results, you could give it a try. You might end up with a sort of landrace; it could be a fun experiment. But if you wanted to save seed of specific varieties to share with other people, then I wouldn’t do it unless each specific variety is isolated by time, barriers, or the minimum isolation distance recommended by Seed Savers Exchange. Row covers would be a great barrier if all the plants inside were one variety (or if you had, say, one type of pepper and one type of eggplant sharing a tunnel, since they’re different species). But I wouldn’t save seed from plants of different varieties within the same specie under a single a row cover. Does this make sense? There’s also the issue of saving from a big enough population— viable seed can come from a single plant, but for variety maintenance or genetic preservation you need to save seeds from multiple plants. The number depends on the species; Seed Savers Exchsnge has good recommendations. The point is, if you’ve got just one of this and one of that and one of another, and they’re all sharing a row cover, that’s not ideal for seed saving. Better to grow a whole row of one variety, and either keep it far enough away from any other plant in the same species, or let it have its own dedicated row cover, before saving seed from it.