Yarb Tales - Seeds
February 8, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Flowering plants produce seeds. This is the purpose of the flowers. Open-pollinated food crops, including beans and peas, grains, corn, squash, cucumbers, melons, greens, tomatoes, onions and okra are grown from seeds. These plants produce seeds that can be saved and planted the next season with the expectation that most, if not all of the characteristics of the parents will be present in the new generation. Open-pollinated seeds are called heirlooms; this means that they are not hybridized or genetically engineered and have been grown to produce food and new seed crops for a very long time. Heirlooms, by definition are valuables that are passed down through generations. In North America this term has evolved to include traditional animal and vegetable varieties that are not associated with large-scale, commercial agricultural.

Lettuce, spinach and cilantro are cold season varieties. When hot weather sets in these plants will bolt. That means they stop actively growing the tender, flavorful leaves that we love to eat and begin producing flowers instead. If left in the garden, the flowers are pollinated and set seeds. When the seed pods are dry and have turned tan or brown, they are ripe and ready for harvest. On a dry, sunny day cut the flower stalks into a paper bag. The pods can then be broken by rubbing between the fingers or be bashed against the side of the bag until the seeds are released. Store the seeds at room temperature in a closed, labeled container. Be sure to include the date, especially the year, on seed labels.

Heirloom beans, peas and okra can be saved for planting the following season by simply allowing some of the pods to ripen on the plant. Harvest them when they are completely dry. Break open the pods, cull out deformed and cracked seeds, and store the dry seeds in labeled, closed containers at room temperature.

Grains and onion seeds are threshed to release the seeds and then winnowed to separate the chaff from the seeds. Squash, cucumbers and melon seeds should be harvested from the flesh of the ripe fruit and washed in cold water with a bit of dish soap added. Spread the washed seeds in a single layer on a towel and allow them to dry completely. Then store them in labeled, sealed containers at room temperature.

Tomato seeds are a bit more interesting to clean. Choose the most perfect, ripe tomato from each variety you wish to save. The seeds, with the pulp, are scraped into a bowl. If you are saving more than one variety, be sure to label each bowl. The open bowl is set in a warm place to ferment from three to five days. The mash will develop stinky foam on top. Skim off the foam and discard into the compost. Dump the seeds into a strainer and rinse well with cold water until the seeds are completely washed clean. Spread the seeds, in a single layer, on absorbent paper such as paper towels or paper plates. Set the seeds to dry in a warm place with good air circulation, out of direct sun. Allow to dry completely. This can take from five to seven days. Place the dry seeds in a labeled, sealed container and store in a dark place at room temperature.

Dry storage conditions are necessary to keep seeds from molding or sprouting before being planted. It is good to put silica gel or powdered milk in the containers. I utilize the packets of desiccant that are packed with vitamin or herb supplements.

Most food crop seeds store very well at 70° F though I know folks who prefer to save seeds in the refrigerator or freezer. Dr. Norman Deno conducted germination experiments on thousands of species of seed. He concluded that room temperature, 70° F, is the optimum temperature for storage and germination of the temperate zone food crops we are most likely to grow. High Mowing Organic Seeds store their inventory in a cooler set at 45°F at less than 40% humidity. The length of viability of seeds depends upon storage conditions and the type of plant. Alliums, including onion and chive last only a year in storage, corn will keep for two years, most greens and lettuce will germinate after being stored from two to four years in a dry, cool place.

The Eighth Annual Ozark Seed Swap will take place at the Ozark Folk Center’s Bois D’arc Conference Center on March 5 from 1 P.M. until 3 P.M. Please share this date with farmers and gardeners. The Ozark Seed Swap is co-sponsored by ROOST (Revitalizing Ozark-Ouachita Seed Traditions). More information about these fine folks may be found on Facebook.com. Together, we hope to spread the practice of seed sowing and saving all over Arkansas. If I don’t see you in the future--I’ll see you in the pasture!