Gardeners love to save stuff. We save vegetable scraps for the compost, dried leaves for mulching, buckets for toting, rocks for edging, small containers for seed-starting and rainwater for irrigation. And we save seed.
Seed saving is a natural extension of vegetable gardening. It allows you to replenish your seed supply and share seed with other gardeners. In addition, seeds saved year after year from plants grown in a particular region or microclimate gradually acclimate to that location; each time you plant your saved seed the plants that develop produce seeds that are better adapted to your soil, climate and cultural conditions. Win-win!
Several years ago, a gardener friend gave me a few seeds of ‘Crawford’ lettuce, a reseeding romaine variety that has been grown and shared in the San Antonio area since the 1980s. I love vegetable seed that has a person’s name attached to it because it also comes with a mix of horticultural knowledge, persistence, pride, faith and history. You don’t get to attach your name to a plant or a seed until you have a worthy specimen that has proved its merits again and again. And if you can trace it back far enough you can even discover a little bit about where it originated. ‘Crawford’ lettuce got its name from Marshall Crawford, a Life Member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. Marshall got the seed from his father-in-law, John Wesley Van Houtan, a long-time gardener in Tulsa, OK. John was born in 1900 and his daughter, Irene (Marshall’s wife), remembers her dad always planting this lettuce in their backyard garden, saving seed from the best plants year after year. And today, thanks to Irene and Marshall Crawford, we can grow that same seed, enjoy the same lettuce and appreciate its history. And we can save the seed and pass it on.
Lettuce seed is easy to save because it is a self-pollinating annual, meaning the flowers that are produced at the end of the season have both male and female parts and pollinate themselves – no need to worry about isolating plants to prevent cross-pollination by wind or insects. However, seed-saving guidelines do recommend a distance of 10-12 feet between different varieties of lettuce to avoid chance crosses and maintain the true genetic traits of each distinct variety.
Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable and as mild days of spring give way to summer heat, plants signal the end of their life cycle by sending up a flower stalk. The leaves become progressively smaller as they spiral up the stalk, and soon the top of the plant explodes in tiny, yellow flowers that give way to feathery tufts of seed. Like dandelions, these billowy tufts allow the seed to disperse by floating through the air. To collect the seeds before they all fly away, cut or tap the seed heads into a bag or other container and allow them to dry for a couple of weeks. Then shake the seed heads and/or rub them between your hands to loosen all the seeds (there will be many seeds!). To separate the seed from the chaff, press it through a screen or colander a few times. You can also use the wind or a small fan to blow the dried chaff into the air. Be careful because it doesn’t take much to blow the seed into the air as well. Once the seed is clean store it in a glass jar or paper envelope with a label and the date.
My lettuce plants held on longer than normal this summer so I have been collecting seed for various projects and for fall planting. If you would like to try ‘Crawford’ lettuce in your own garden seed can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com).
Saving seed from your own vegetable plants has many advantages: it is a frugal way to increase your seed stock, it contributes to the diversity of our seed supply and each generation of collected seed will be more acclimated to your unique growing environment. Plus observing and participating in the rhythm of nature is enlightening and downright satisfying!
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