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SEED SAVING, PROCESSING AND STORAGE PRACTICES Frances Michaels

Growing Seed Crops on a Farm Scale   Seed Cleaning and Processing   Seed Treatments   Seed Storage   Seed Quality  


Seed is an embryo, a tiny package carrying the whole future size, shape and smell of the plant within itself. Open-pollinated seed is a resource belonging to all people, not a product to be exploited by a few.
Open-pollinated vegetable seeds are genetically diverse treasures that have been passed on from generation to generation. When you buy and plant open-pollinated seeds you are helping to protect this valuable resource for the future. The loss of genetic seed diversity facing us today could easily lead to a catastrophe far beyond our imagining. The Irish potato famine, which led to the death or displacement of two and a half million people in the 1840s, is an example of what can happen when farmers rely on only a few plant varieties. "The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 75% of genetic diversity in food crops was lost in the past century." From Fatal Harvest, Andrew Kimbrell, Editor.

Why Save Open-Pollinated Seeds?
Open-pollinated seeds can be grown again from seed you save yourself. Saving locally grown seed offers improved adaptation to local conditions. Local seed can provide food security without dependence on foreign multinationals using monocultures, pesticides and fungicides to create hybrid seed. It protects the environment from contamination by agribusiness. It is free of highly toxic chemicals used to store seed commercially. It builds community growth and communication about the value of seed saving and locally grown food. It can improve links between farmers, market gardeners and their communities.

What is Hybrid Seed?
Hybrid seed is the result of cross-pollinating two or more different types of a variety to produce another variety. If seed is saved and planted from this hybrid plant, the germinated seed will generally not grow 'true to type'.

Growing Seed Crops on a Farm Scale
  • This is only possible with open-pollinated seed
  • Careful attention needs to be paid before sowing on whether the type of vegetable seed e.g. corn, squash or pumpkins will cross-pollinate with another variety. If cross-pollination is likely this can determine either the timing or the spacing of the seed crop. A book such as the The Seed Savers Handbook by Michel and Jude Fanton is a valuable resource.
  • Seed saving can add another income stream to small farm production as seed is valuable. It saves the cost of buying seed and may be better adapted to local conditions. Seed saving can also be used to 'value add' to a crop as over-mature or damaged vegetables can be excellent for seed saving.

Controlling Cross-Pollination
Most vegetables are capable of cross-pollinating with another variety of the same type. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it can lead to a new or improved variety but is undesirable if the seed is expected to be 'true to type'.
There are several ways to isolate plants that cross-pollinate to keep the variety pure:
  • plant the varieties far enough apart so that their pollen can't reach each other; most vegetables have a specific distance that two varieties need to be grown apart to prevent cross-pollination occurring
  • cover individual flowers with bags after hand pollination
  • grow each variety in separate, screened cages
  • time plantings so that different varieties are not flowering at the same time so cannot pollinate each other
  • harvest a seed such as corn from the centre of a large planting

Healthy Plants Produce Healthy Seed
Only save seed from healthy, strong growing plants. It is important to maintain plant care with weeding, watering and fertilising for the entire life of the plant. Remove any plants that do not appear 'true to type', this is called 'rogueing'. Do not save seed from any plants that have a suspected virus disease. As seed heads are forming, the plants need for watering will be reduced. It is usually necessary to support plants so that seed heads do not fall over in a strong wind. It helps with the seed cleaning and to keep seed free of diseases if the seed does not contact the soil.

When is Seed Ready to Harvest?
For seed to store well and retain a high viability and an ability to grow healthy, vigorous plants, it needs to be harvested at the correct time. Seeds should be large and fully mature. Larger seeds have more stored food to nourish the seeds once they are sown and will produce strong, vigorous seedlings. It is best to harvest dry seed; always try to avoid getting mature or nearly mature seed wet as this reduces its quality. If rain is expected try to get the seeds inside quickly for the final drying. Spread the harvested seedheads out on a large sheet or tarpaulin undercover to continue the drying process. Turn the seedheads over regularly to help the drying process. Air movement is also helpful. Make sure the seed is clearly labelled as it changes in appearance as it dries and mistakes could be made.

Seed Cleaning and Processing
Once the seed is sufficiently dry it needs to be cleaned. This should happen as soon after harvest as possible.
Seed cleaning:
  • removes unviable seed
  • removes places for pests to hide
  • reduces the risk of disease on the seed
The way seed is cleaned very much depends on the type of seed it is. There are 2 main methods; wet and dry.
Dry Method
This is used for peas, beans, lettuce, corn, radish, carrot, beetroot, silver beet (chard), okra and a wide range of other herbs and flowers. Bean seedpods, once dry, will often easily break open to release the seeds. Let seeds mature and dry on the plant as much as possible.
1. Cleaning is done to remove dried capsules, pods and husks by either:
  • winnowing - after crushing pods or husks first
  • using seed cleaning sieves
  • using machinery if available
Wet Method
This is used for tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash and other soft fruit.
1. Seed is scooped out, rubbed vigorously and placed in a sieve then washed to remove pulp
2. Seed is then dried for approximately 10 days
3. Further cleaning may be done by winnowing or using sieves
Useful Equipment: large sieves, an electric fan, large paper bags or sacks.

Seed Treatments
There are several methods of treating seed: fermentation, heat treatment and freezing.
These first two treatments are done after the initial cleaning, but before seed is dried. Fermentation can also be used instead of the Wet Method. Freezing can only be done to seed that is fully dried.

Fermentation
This is used to reduce soil-borne diseases; more easily remove gelatinous pulp; and to reduce the germination inhibitors in the seed coats of vegetables such as tomatoes.
Scoop out the seeds with the pulp that surrounds them, place in a jar and cover with about half as much water as pulp, place a lid loosely on the jar.
1. Leave to sit at room temperature for a short period depending on type.
2. Usually 24 hours is sufficient for tomatoes.
3. Watch carefully as seeds, particularly of pumpkin and squash, if left fermenting too long will start to swell and will not be able to be stored successfully.
4. Clean by washing vigorously in a sieve under running water, dry thoroughly.
5. Further cleaning may be done by winnowing or using sieves.

Heat Treatment
Seeds can transmit diseases from parent plants to the next generation, lowering their productivity. A hot water seed treatment can control persistent disease problems, particularly with brassica and tomatoes. Treatment times and temperatures are specific to each vegetable type so care must be taken for the treatment to be effective without killing the seeds.
The seed needs to be immersed in a large water bath with the temperature maintained evenly for the whole treatment time. An esky can be used for the water bath as it is insulated. Seed can be tied into muslin bags, pieces of panty hose or stapled coffee filters. Use waterproof markers to label the seed. Use a thermometer to check the temperature and then add hot water as needed. Stir regularly. After treatment dry seed as soon as possible.
Recommendations:
Broccoli 50°C for 20 minutes to control black rot, bacterial leaf spot, black leg, damping-off, ring spot
Cabbage 52°C for 30 minutes to control black rot, bacterial leaf spot, black leg, damping-off, ring spot
Carrot 50°C for 20 minutes to control Alternaria, bacterial blight
Pumpkin 55°C for 15 minutes to control Fusarium
Tomato 56°C for 30 minutes to control damping-off, bacterial canker, speck and spot

Freezing Seed
Freezing seeds if done properly does not harm them and can greatly extend their lifespan. All seed banks freeze their seeds intended for long-term storage. Seed must be fully dried, then seal the seed inside a tightly sealed container, removing as much air as possible. Freezing can also be used to kill pests that might be present on or in the seeds. Bean seeds often hide weevil eggs under the skin, freezing them for two days before storing will control most pests. The most important part of the process is to not open the package or container until you are sure the seeds have reached room temperature.

Seed Drying for Storage
Dry seed out of direct sunlight in an area with good ventilation. All seed must be sufficiently dry, between 5% and 7% moisture content (by weight) before storing. As an indicator, when sufficiently dry, corn and beans will shatter when hit with a hammer, squash seeds will break instead of bending, small seeds such as tomato or eggplant will snap when bent. A simple test to check if seed is dry enough, is to place a small quantity in a glass jar with a lid or in a plastic bag. Seal it up, place it in a warm place and keep an eye on it for the next few hours. If any moisture appears on the glass or inside of the plastic bag, the seed is not dry enough and will go mouldy if it is not dried more thoroughly. In humid areas it can be hard to get seed dry enough, using seed drying beads or silica gel can help the process.
Seed drying beads are modified ceramic materials (aluminium silicates) that absorb water molecules and hold them very tightly in their microscopic pores. These beads remove water from the air, creating very low humidity inside of closed containers. Storing seeds inside containers with the drying beads will remove water from the seeds and dry them without heating. The beads can be reused. Beads and silica gel are used in a similar way by placing them inside the tightly sealed jars of seed. For silica gel an equal weight in a perforated fabric bag is put with the seed into a well-sealed jar for 7 to 8 days. After this process remove the silica gel and transfer the seeds quickly into their final storage container.

Understanding Seed
In essence, understanding seed quality is understanding that seeds are living, breathing entities. Seeds are in dormant state and consist of an embryo and a food source. Maintaining seeds at a stable temperature and moisture level will keep them dormant. If the seed absorbs moisture them hormonal processes kick in to activate life. If it is the wrong time for this seed to start growing because it is not being planted, some of the seed's stored energy is wasted. If this happens to the seed repeatedly then seed becomes non-viable.

Seed Storage
Most seed has a storage life of approximately 3 to 5 years - some have less than 1 year, such as parsley and onions. Generally, the thinner the seed coat, the shorter the storage life.
Choose a seed storage container to:
  • Keep out rodents and insect pests such as cockroaches and weevils.
  • Seal tightly to avoid humidity (moisture) affecting the seed.
  • Keep the seeds in the dark

Storage Containers
Seed can be stored in a heat-sealed laminated foil bag, a non-permeable plastic bag, a tightly sealed plastic container, a vacuum sealed bag or a glass jar.
  • Avoid using common plastic bags for seed storage by themselves as they are simply too thin and allow too much air exchange. Inside another tightly sealed container is better.
  • Plastic bags that are not gas permeable are available. The best ones are 175 - 250 microns thick; these can also be heat sealed.
  • Fill containers completely with seeds to reduce air space; the less air inside the better.
  • If using a container with a screw-top lid use grease or silicon to seal the opening, this will both prevent insects and air from entering the container.
An ideal temperature for seed storage is 5°C. The best place to store seed containers is a temperature and humidity-controlled room. The next best choice is a cold room or fridge but the seed needs to be tightly sealed to prevent moisture-laden air reaching it. The third best choice is a cool, dark cupboard. A combination of vacuum sealing and refrigeration is excellent but vacuum sealing alone is very effective.
Useful Equipment: Diatomaceous earth, silica, Pantry Moth traps, vacuum sealer

Seed Quality
Seed quality is about two main criteria, viability and purity.
Viability
This is a measure of the seed's ability to germinate.
Viability can be impacted by:
  • Age
  • Seed handling
  • Exposure to heat and moisture
  • Damage by insects or rodents
Purity
Varietal purity is a measure of the seed's ability to grow true to type = cultivar (cultivated variety) or variety type.
Physical purity means the seed is properly processed, cleaned and graded. It must be free of contamination with other vegetable seeds or weed seeds; debris or soil. Any insect-damaged, discoloured or broken seed must be removed.

Accurate Labelling
Labels should include the following information:
  • Vegetable name including variety
  • Scientific name if known
  • Source of seed
  • Date of harvest
  • Seed batch

Seed germination Trials
This allows you to test the viability of seeds before sowing. Usually 100 seeds are used to give an easy result as a %. Place the seeds between moist paper towel. Keep the tray at the correct temperature for optimal germination of that particular seed type. Do not allow the paper towel to dry out. After a few days check for germination.
Useful Equipment: plastic bags, labels, scales, measuring spoons, funnels.

Further Information

Saving your own seed is very worthwhile; a good book on the subject is:
The Seed Savers' Handbook









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