Driftless Terroir: Seizing a Historic Opportunity to Save Seeds

Eric Friedericks

by Eric Friedericks

Poring over seed catalogs is a part of every gardener’s winter — deciding what to grow and how much, imagining the bounty that will come — but have you ever considered where these seeds come from? Seeds are our collective history. Saving seed is an ongoing conversation with past gardeners, stretching back potentially hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Those that came before you saved the fruits they thought were beautiful and delicious, and wanted to pass these on to their children. Immigrants came to this country, hiding seeds in the hems of their skirts and in secret compartments, because of the desire to continue to enjoy their favorite vegetables from home. It blows my mind to think of the countless stories each seed holds, and it has led me to think that saving seed is one of the most important things a gardener can do.

After allowing beans to dry on the vine, such as the scarlet runners and white beans pictured, split open the pod and pop the beans out. For tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, allow seeds to ferment for a few days before washing and drying.

I have been an organic vegetable farmer for over eight years now, and while I have saved seeds in the past, I really began in earnest last year. A friend of mine is starting a seed company, and he needed someone who was interested and had garden space. Another requirement was the garden had to be far enough away from other gardeners to avoid cross pollination. The Driftless Area of Wisconsin and Iowa, with its hills and valleys, lends itself to this perfectly. Seeds Savers in Decorah has built an amazing business off this idea. After some initial conversations, my friend and I decided that I would grow some cucumbers, peppers, squash, tomatoes and beans for him. Easy, right?

Well, it was relatively easy to grow these crops. I have enough experience with mulching and weeding and trellising that raising the fruits to maturity took very little work on my end. The real work came when the seed collection started. It is a time-consuming process with several steps. First of all, I selected the fruits that looked and tasted the best to me. I also considered other variables, such as plant strength and the time in the season — earlier fruits make plants that produce earlier. After I gathered the harvest, and let the fruits ripen completely, I cut them open to expose the seeds. The next steps vary according to the type of plant.

Beans: Let them grow until the pods are brown. You can leave them on the vine until after the first frost when the leaves are all gone. (They are easier to find that way.) Split open the pods and pop the beans out. A faster way of doing this is to crush the pods and then winnow the beans. I used a box fan, and poured the beans between two buckets, allowing the fan to blow the crushed pods, or chaff, away.

Peppers: Wait until the peppers are fully red before you pick them. Split them open lengthwise, and pick the seeds out, separating any that are off-colored. I usually do this above a shallow cardboard box, because the seeds tend to fly all over the place. Let them dry for a day or so, and sort them again before storing them.

Growing cucumbers, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and beans was relatively easy, but the real work came when the seed collection started. After harvesting, I cut the ripe fruit open to expose the seeds. The next steps vary according to the type of plant.

Tomatoes, cucumbers and squash: I’ll lump these all together because it’s essentially the same, messy process. Split open the fruits and scoop the seeds and pulp out into a bowl or cup. Add a little water to the pulp, cover the container with a cloth, and let it sit for a few days. Mold will form on the top and it will get a little stinky. (I left these on the porch.) The reason for this step is that there is a gelatinous shell around each seed, and fermentation breaks this down, allowing it to be rinsed off. With the kitchen sink sprayer, spray into the cup of seeds and pulp, let it settle, and pour off anything that floats. This will get rid of the pulp, mold and the immature seeds. Repeat this several times until the water runs clear, pour the seeds into a strainer and shake off the excess water, then spread the seeds onto cardboard or brown paper (nothing with ink). After a day or so the seeds will be dry enough to store.

Storage: It’s important to keep your seeds in a cool and dark place, with the humidity around 50 to 60 percent. These are living things, and need to be treated with care. Make sure you label the envelopes or paper bags with the year and variety.

If you choose to do this for yourself, save enough for your own garden, and give some away! I enjoy imagining the descendants of my tomatoes being grown across the country. Maybe these gardeners will save the seed from those plants, and select for their own tastes. I’m sure seeds saved in Georgia or Alaska would take on different qualities than seeds saved by me, but there will always be a bit of the Driftless in those tomatoes.

Eric Friedericks is an organic farmer and potter. He lives with his wife, Hanna, near Governor Dodge State Park, and will be building a community kiln in Hollandale. Eric can be reached at eric@elementalpottery.com