How heirloom seed saving can be fun and save you money

Leave the controversy to GMO seeds--the reasons to save heirloom vegetable seeds in metro Atlanta are not controversial at all.

"Gardeners who save seeds can save money and share with friends," said Amanda Tedrow, a cooperative extension agent with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Studies. "They can also keep seeds from heirloom vegetable plants that were good producers and adapted to local conditions."

A six-pack of tomato plants might cost $4 or more and a retail packet of 25 tomato seeds $2-$4 or more, for example. In comparison, saving 50 tomato seeds can cost as little as letting one large tomato from an heirloom plant become a little overripe.

When you save seeds, you contribute to genetic diversity in food plants. Individual gardeners are able to collect seeds from plants that performed the best over the summer and fall in a way far-off commercial producers can't, says Tedrow. Over a few growing seasons you can save seeds with genetic characteristics, like disease-resistant traits, that make them well suited for your area's growing conditions, soil and dietary tastes.

The endeavor—hobby, sustainable habit, whatever you want to call seed saving—is also just plain fun.

"There are hundreds of vegetable varieties you can grow from seed that are not available for sale as transplants in plant nurseries," says Tedrow.

With some decent seed swaps and by ordering seeds from heirloom savers organizations like the national Seed Savers Exchange, you too can start growing and saving varieties with a history. Georgia collards or Thelma Sanders Acorn Squash or Hickory King Yellow Corn for roasting or grits are just a few to consider. The possibilities are endless.

That said, though, beginners in particular will want to follow this expert advice for saving seeds:

  • Forget about hybrids. As noted in the epic seed-saving manual from the Organic Seed Alliance: "Hybrid varieties result from the controlled crossing of genetically distinct parents. They produce offspring very different from their parents. For example, if a gardener grows the hybrid tomato variety Early Girl and saves seed, she will find that when she grows out her seed next season, there will be very few plants that closely resemble Early Girl."
  • Only collect seeds from healthy plants. "If a plant appears diseased in any way, it will not be a good choice," Tedrow said. "Some diseases are seedborne and could cause problems in the future."
  • Start with seeds from an annual crop. They're easier to track because they require only one growing season to produce seed and complete a life cycle, says the OSA. Examples of annual seed crops include corn, beans, squash, tomatoes and broccoli. Examples of biennial crops, which take two growing seasons to produce seeds, include carrots, beets, chard, rutabaga and cabbage.
  • Try beans, tomatoes and peppers. Tedrow recommends those heirlooms for seed savers in the metro Atlanta area because they self-pollinate and are least likely to pick up traits from neighboring plants. She particularly likes Cherokee yellow wax beans, Arkansas Traveler tomatoes or Anaheim peppers.

For the hands-on work of saving seeds, you'll just need to follow a few simple steps. John Coykendall, a longtime champion of seed saving with 500 varieties to his credit, uses a tried and true process. Coykendall is a master gardener at the Walland, Tenn.-based Blackberry Farm luxury hotel and restaurant. He sums up his method as part of the resort's cookbook The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm by Sam Beall:

"For cowpeas, English peas, beans, and okra, simply allow a few of each pod to dry on the vine. Collect the dried pods in the fall and release the seeds from the pods. Store the seeds in a tightly sealed, dry jar away from light until next season.

"For 'wet' seeds from eggplants, peppers, squash, pumpkin, watermelon and cucumber, cut or squeeze open a ripe fruit and remove the seeds. Place them in a fine sieve and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Spread the rinsed seeds out on waxed paper and place in a cool area away from direct sunlight to dry completely, about 1 week. Store the seeds in a paper envelope placed inside a tightly sealed jar.

"Heirloom tomato seeds must first be fermented to remove their gelatinous membrane. Once the seeds have been removed from the fruits, place them in a bowl and let stand at room temperature for three to four days. Rinse them thoroughly in a fine sieve to remove all the goo, and then follow the directions for drying and storing wet seeds."