Most gardeners will keep some vegetable garden seed, but learning from a permaculture expert hugely enriched my practical knowledge about harvesting techniques and storage of seed. Karen Parkin, the permaculture gardener, and long term vegetable grower, gave a fascinating talk at the TUFCO gathering about seed collection, production and use. It started with a description of the sex life of plants using a metaphorical comparison with humans, to illustrate the eerie similarities, and encourage people to do their own research and find out how a particular plant is pollinated. Knowing whether it is self pollinated, or needs another plant, wind pollinated, or insect pollinated and by what insect can help the farmer to achieve adequate fruit and seed setting in all varieties, especially the difficult ones.
Producing organic vegetable garden seed is the basis of organic food production. To prevent using seed treated with insecticides, hormones, or with genetically modified DNA, it is necessary to know how to harvest and store organic seed, of a known reliable source. Knowing how to harvest seed and not relying on commercial seed companies is the basis of a truly organic vegetable garden. We need to know how to collect seed that will produce good true to type plants, for a reliable result, and they must be insect and drought resistant, to ensure we do not ever resort to chemical assistance, or over irrigation, and of course, they must have a good flavour, and any other properties we like in our vegetables and herbs.
According to Karen Parkin, some plants such as root crops are better sown from seed sowed direct into the soil. Even for a private urban garden its inadvisable to buy seedlings of root-crops, like carrots and radishes, and one should rather sow them direct.
Root crops like potatoes can be grown from seed potatoes, or small potatoes that develop underground on the root system. These can be dug up once the leaves have died back.
Karen recommended these books on collecting vegetable garden seed, that she obviously knows very well: Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, and Yvette van Wyk’s book Sowing Seed and So-on.
When collecting vegetable garden seed, Karen recommends taking only from the healthiest plants and from more than one plant, to ensure genetic diversity.
When harvesting, wait until the seed pod has dried on the bush but harvest before it splits.
It may help for certain seeds to get a winnowing basket. A large flat basket that you can use to flip up your gathered plant material in the air, so that the husks and stalks blow away and the heavier seeds drop back into the basket.
Pack the dry seeds in an envelope of folded paper. Re-use old paper of course, and fold the seeds in so that they cannot escape. Write the name, date, and origin on the seeds, because growing conditions are different even within Cape Town, and note the characteristics for which you chose the seed, like excellent flavor. Put the envelopes in a container and bury them in wood ash to stop insects getting to them. Wilde Als is particularly good for this. You can also put them in the fridge.
Try and sow every season to keep up the fertility of your seed stock. However, always keep some seed aside in case of crop failure.
You can exchange seed with other collectors via the facebook page Seed Library.
An edible fruit must be ripe, over ripe even to harvest fruit seeds. For large soft fruit with a stone, like a peach, remove the seed from the fruit and rinse it well and leave it in a tray to dry, not in the sun, but indoors. Pumpkin, tomato, cucumber, brinjals can be done as follows: put the fruit in a pot of water. Rub the seed out of the flesh in the water, and let it ferment for 2 days. This helps remove disease. The viable seed will sink and the other will rise to the surface and can be easily poured off. Rinse and dry the seeds, and when they are dry, fold them into a paper envelope. This seed storage technique accords with the permaculture philosophy and indigenous knowledge.
Karen Parkin does consultation and training in Permaculture, organic food gardens and medicine gardening.
She can be contacted at 082 0815137, or email@example.com
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