It was dark enough on Aug. 14 that I saw a planet. For all of us that means autumn is on its way and it is time to think about harvest. Saving seed is an important part of the harvest; this column will focus on the reasons for saving seed and how to do so in your garden or farm.
This was another unusual summer. In my 11 summers in Fairbanks, has there been one I could claim was normal? Some of our crops are not doing well and some are amazing. All my peas — sugar snap, shelling and snow peas — are amazing. The vines are way over my head and there are bagfuls to harvest every few days. Other crops are miserable; I am only now contemplating harvesting my first zucchini. Usually I cannot give zucchinis away fast enough. I’m sure you could all testify to how some crops are great and others not.
We should take advantage of this unusual season by looking for the few plants that are doing well when all the others of that crop did not. Sadly for me, all my zucchini plants are equally bad, and that goes for the beans, squash and basil, too. But if you do have one bean plant that has been doing great while all the other bean plants are not, consider saving the seeds from that plant.
There may be some genetic difference in that bean plant that resulted in it thriving in the cool, wet summer that we have had, while all the others lagged behind. That genetic difference would be preserved in the seed the plant produces and you should consider saving those seeds and sharing some with other gardeners for planting next year. You should do this every year, not just the exceptionally hot, wet, cold or dry summers. Looking for those individual plants that do better than the others is the historic foundation for developing improved crop varieties. Indeed, selecting seed from your best plants to grow the following year is something that can be found in the Old Testament.
If you want to save some seed, here are some things you need to know. First, let the seed mature on the plant as long as you can and harvest it after the plant has gone dormant. Second, our autumns are usually wet so the seed will likely be wet and moist on the inside; therefore, you must dry the seed. Each seed has its own perfect percent moisture content for storage, but there is a range. Keep the seed on a dry surface in the house or heated garage where the air is dry and there is some air movement. The seed will dry down nicely by itself. Putting seed that is too moist inside a zip-lock bag will result in rotted seeds. Third, after the seed is dry, put it in a container and store in a place close to freezing until spring planting. If you want to know if the seed is alive, plant a few in a pot in the house and see how many sprout.
In addition to the information above there is a program that can help you with seed saving. Look for information about the Growing Ester’s Biodiversity program at www.esterlibrary.org. There is a farmer, Kurt Wold, who sells Alaska grown seed that might be willing to test it and maybe help outstanding selections become a new variety. And you can always call me for advice at the number below.
Remember, we no longer have university, state or federal plant breeders in Alaska. If we want crops that are adapted to Alaska conditions, we have to find them for ourselves. This year and every year, be on the lookout for those outstanding plants that are doing better than all the rest – be it bigger, earlier maturing, free of some disease or insect, or any of a number of characteristics. By saving the seeds of our best producing plants, we can make some lemonade from some of the crops that did not do so well this summer.
Steven Seefeldt is the Tanana District agriculture and horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at 907-474-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.