I’ve been reading so many posts about saving seeds, and so many of them have mis-information that must be confusing to new gardeners especially. Admittedly, I don’t save many seeds now, but back in my homesteading days I did. It was much easier because I could put different crops in different fields, with little worry about cross-pollination of related plants. Now that there is only my little potager, the options are fewer and a bit more difficult. One crop I choose to save each year is the “Red Deer Tongue Lettuce,” given to me by a customer during my Farm Market Days (so we’re talking over 30 years ago.) That’s it in the photo above. Even the seed pods are a dark, dark purple. It’s a fast-growing, reliable lettuce and I love the color contrast it provides in the decorative early spring beds of the potager, and also in early salads as well.
In order to keep the seed “true” I must be sure that NO other lettuce is flowering at the same time as the “Red Deer Tongue. ” If other varieties begin to bolt, they are harvested immediately (before they flower!) so there can be no cross-pollination by the bees or other pollinators.
If you look carefully at the photo, between the lowest two flowers down an inch or so, you will see a tiny white “puff” like a miniature dandelion flower ready to be wished upon. Once you spot that one, you will likely see others. Those seed pods are ready to be harvested. I pick a dry, sunny day and simply pinch the pod off and drop it in an envelope, rubbing the pod a bit between my fingers as I go to open them so the seeds can spread apart in the envelope. That’s it! Of course, a label stating the variety and year harvested is essential.
I don’t need all the seed produced, so I pick some off and sprinkle them here and there in the potager’s interior border, or sometimes I package some in small coin envelopes over the winter for our garden club seed exchange. And since lettuce seed is a favorite food of the goldfinches, I let them help themselves, too.
As soon as the “Red Deer Tongue” is safely harvested, the bolted plants can be pulled, or left for the birds and the “Black Seeded Simpson” can be allowed to flower, so the same procedure can be followed again.
Because I grow so many varieties of vegetables, I don’t even try to save seed for anything else. The timing to prevent cross-pollination would make my eyes cross. I don’t have the 1,000 yards between types of peppers, squash, or tomatoes, etc. to prevent it (and that sometimes isn’t enough!) from happening. Luckily, I have no neighbors who garden much because insects will travel from yard to yard. In a more crowded environment, like apartments or suburbs, even if one grew only 1 type of tomato, the possibility that a neighbor is growing a different type is very likely. And because I’m trying to produce as much as possible, removing flowers to prevent cross-pollination would also reduce harvests. .
I am making a few changes in the way I garden. I’ve been through the “Golly, I want to grow everything!” stage. I’m moving toward fewer varieties of some things, choosing the ones that produce most and grow best in my location. Next year, I’m only growing “Green Arrow” peas as a spring/summer crop, so I can save seed from those, and only “Wando” peas as an autumn crop, so that will work, too. Only “French Breakfast” radishes will be planted, so those seeds can be saved, too, and they are both easily done.
But, I love growing squashes (both winter & summer), little pumpkins, many kinds of melons, and cucumbers and those all flower at the same time and can cross so there’s no chance of saving those seeds and getting the crop I want. Same with peppers and tomatoes, because I like different kinds for different uses. My space and effort is too precious for me to plant seeds only to get a lot of “mystery” squash that may or may not taste good or store well, or baskets of peppers that are too hot for me to use as I want. Some crops like carrots, beets, and chard must stay in the ground for two growing seasons to produce a crop of seeds and that messes with my crop rotation plan.
All in all, I’ll happily pay the professional seed companies to do it for me in most cases. I think in the long run, (because if properly stored a packet of seed can provide a crop for two, three, or sometimes even four years at the rate I plant…think eggplant, for instance, or the fact that I only plant 4-6 of each type of tomato, squash, or pepper, etc.) purchasing quality seeds actually saves money!