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GARDENING : Customize Those Back-Yard Vegetable Crops by Saving the Seeds


Are your tomatoes really tasty this year? Do you wish you could grow them again next summer? Good news. Just save the seeds, and you can reproduce that same plant next year.

Now is the time to save seeds from your favorite vegetables. Such seeds usually fit your needs better than packaged ones.

"Packeted seeds are really developed with the commercial grower in mind--crops come all at once and are uniform in size and taste," said Eunice Messner of Anaheim, a member of several Orange County gardening clubs who regularly saves seeds.

"Saving seeds allows you to create your own crops which have a greater harvest span and a little variety," she said.

Seed-saving isn't new.

"Years ago, they didn't have seed packets," Messner said. "They saved seeds and passed them on from generation to generation."

Today Seed Savers Exchange continues the tradition. The Iowa-based organization has thousands of "heirloom" seeds.

"In the right conditions, it's possible to store seed for centuries," said Harold Koopowitz, director of the UC Irvine Arboretum. He oversees a gene/seed bank, which contains hundreds of seeds, mainly from wild and endangered species of Africa and Central and South America, as well as native California plants. The arboretum is storing these rare species in special freezers.

Before you start, though, it's important to recognize that not all seeds are worth saving.

For example, "Don't attempt to save seed from hybrid vegetables," said gardener Bill Sidnam of Santa Ana.

When scientists create hybrids, they cross-pollinate two plants that have desirable qualities to create one superior plant.

What you want is vegetable varieties that pollinate themselves or are pollinated by wind or insects.

"To identify man-made hybrids, look for the F-1 label on seed packets or plant tags," Koopowitz said. If the packet or tag doesn't indicate F-1, the seed is usually worth saving. F-2 second-generation seeds are also OK to use.

Most corn and broccoli is F-1, but tomatoes and radishes tend not be, and their second-generation seeds often do very well.

Other good choices include beans, which Messner said are mostly self-pollinating, and peppers, which are self- or insect-pollinated.

If you're worried about purity of seed with peppers, she suggested caging them or covering them with spun polyester when they are flowering so that they will self-pollinate.

"Cucumbers, melons and squash all accept pollen from other members of the same species," Messner said. To get pure seed with these plants, look for a male and female flower that are just about to bloom. (The female will have a bulbous part at the base, which is the ovary.) Tape the flowers shut in the evening; the next morning undo the tape, pull the male flower off and shake it onto the female.

Make sure to mark the flowers that you've covered or self-pollinated. That way when the vegetables mature, you know which ones contain pure seed.

Lettuce seed also saves very well. Bees do some cross-pollinating, but a little variety doesn't hurt.

It's important to collect seed at the proper time. Immature seeds will not germinate.

"Seeds from fleshy-fruited vegetables, such as tomatoes and melons, are mature enough to save when the fruit is ripe and ready for eating," Sidnam said.

Other fruits and vegetables must be overripe, such as squash, which should be very large (about 20 days past maturity). Let peppers turn red and cucumbers yellow. The longer you wait, the better.

Edible seeds, such as peas and beans, must also stay on the vine longer than usual. "If you pick beans or peas when they're still in their pods, place them in a brown paper bag and wait until the pods open up," Koopowitz said.

With vegetables in which you eat the roots, leafs or flowers, you must wait far beyond the eating stage until they've flowered and gone to seed.

"Once a plant flowers, it's a good idea to get a pair of pantyhose or similar material and tie it over the flower stem," Koopowitz said. "Then once the flower gets brown and dry, shake seed into the bottom of the stocking." This method is especially helpful with small seeds such as lettuce.

Once you've collected your seed, it's important to properly preserve it. Keep in mind that two factors will determine how long the seeds keep.

"Moisture and heat age seed," Koopowitz said. "The drier and cooler the seed, the longer period of time it will remain viable."

To separate seed from vegetables such as tomatoes, squash and melon, Messner suggests letting them sit in their own pulp. Heavy seeds, which are the best, will fall to the bottom.

Then flush them with cold water and place them on a paper towel out of direct sunlight.

Let them dry at room temperature for three days. Other seed types should dry for the same amount of time.

Once dry, you can check viability by placing a seed between a moist paper towel and putting it in a plastic bag atop the refrigerator.

In one to three days it should sprout. If it doesn't, the seeds are probably not fertile.

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