Groundwork: Not your usual antique dealer
You might think the gardening season is winding down, but for Lisa Von Saunder, featured this week in my Local Living column, early to mid fall marks one of the most frenzied periods in a life governed by the growth cycles of her three vegetable gardens in Lancaster County, Pa. September to November is the time of harvesting vegetables, yes, but also of collecting seed. The two are quite different enterprises, and the latter an art unfamiliar to most folks these days. And for Lisa, the owner of Amishland Heirloom Seeds, seed collecting is more than just a hobby, it's a livelihood.
Seed must be ripe to be viable. A lima bean taken when it is green and soft may be great for the table, but is useless for the garden. For sowing next year, you need a germ that is dark, dry and stone hard.
How do you know when to harvest seed? The dried, withered pea pod will signal a ripe bean seed, but for other vegetables, skillful and painstaking techniques are in order. Take the tomato. It turns red once the seeds are mature, so that it can be eaten by an animal. But seeds that can endure the rigors of a pig's digestive tract require some processing by the gardener before they can be readied for spring germination. They must be fermented in water to break down the invisible coating that inhibits germination.
Lisa achieves this by scooping out the gelatinous seeds, placing the goop in a little plastic tub and pouring in tap water. The fermenting process is foul. The liquid gets stinky and must be stirred at least once a day. Lisa uses chopsticks, and covers the tub with filter fabric to stop flies from showing up. It's that bad. After three to six days, she rinses it out by placing the mess in a series of sieves. The mesh must be small enough to retain the seeds. The seeds then must be dried meticulously. After blotting them, she places them on disposable plates that have a plastic coating, so the seeds can dry and won't stick. Seeds that are not completely dry run the risk of germinating in storage, rendering them useless. This takes three to six days, depending on ambient temperature. How do you know if the seeds are dry enough? "It has to be crispy," she says. "You don't want them to feel damp or stick together in any way."
As bad as tomato seeds are to prepare, cucumbers' are worse. The vile soup is even ranker, she says. We'll take her word for it.
Last week, well after frost, she was still harvesting eggplants for seed collection. The pale skin must yellow and soften before the seeds are ripe enough to be processed. That other member of the nightshade family, chili pepper, can irritate the skin of the seed saver, and for that reason, Lisa tends to stick to sweet peppers.
Seed saving is intuitive in vegetables that fruit, like tomatoes or melons, but for other common veggies, the process is a bit weird. Carrots and the related parsnip need a good winter to trigger the growth of flower stalks and their Queen Anne's lace-type flower umbels. The seeds aren't ready until the following summer, by which time the roots are totally spent and inedible. Lettuce will grow merrily in the spring but then start to bolt in July and August. The late summer seed is full of dandelion like down, tough to separate from seed (and unnecessary if you're sticking them back in your garden). Brassicas will produce the most beautiful starry blooms before setting seed pods containing their shotlike seeds. Kale, cabbage, and mustard greens have delightful yellow astral blooms. Those of the radish are white, lavender and pink, and are highly decorative. Again, the flowering degrades the flavor of root or leaf. In other words, the canny gardener sets aside one row for seed production.
This system works for open pollinated vegetable varieties, not modern hybrids. Lisa specializes in saving rare antique strains from the Pennsylvania German farming communities. Look at her website, and you'll get the picture. As for beans, there's another less obvious step for saving the seed. The beans (and peas) should spend at least two weeks in the freezer to kill the eggs of a weevil; otherwise, you might lose half your legumes in winter storage. Just so you know.
-- Adrian Higgins
| November 15, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Groundwork | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork
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