SOW WHAT YOU REAP
I envision the natural succession of the food grower to consist of four progressive steps:
1. Plant plants and grow them successfully.
2. Plant seeds and grow them successfully.
3. Collect seeds from your plants and grow them successfully.
4. Breed seeds from your plants and create new plant varieties successfully.
As with most plant-tending life, the hardest part of collecting seed is exercising patience. Plants, especially leafy green sorts of plants, often don’t produce seed until well after they have finished producing viable human food. Once a plant has collected all the energy it needs to reproduce over a period of months vis-a-vis its large, delectable, and highly nutritious leaves, it stops producing said leaves and what’s left of them turns bitter and largely inedible. The plant will proceed to bolt, shooting stalks super high up, then producing flowers. In some cases, these flowers are edible and beautiful (for example, mustard greens and arugula); but in other cases, as with lettuce and radicchio, the flowers are really disgusting to the mouth and unexceptional to the eye.
Mostly because with every generation of seed you collect, you are making a stronger strain that is infinitely more adapted to our unique climate, ecosystem, and palate.
At this point your plants are no longer viable food sources. Still, you will have to wait another month or two before you have viable seeds to collect, and this can be a problem for many growers. The typical garden-making routine for many of us is to put everything in the ground once a season and then take everything out of it at the beginning of the next season to start with a fresh palate and renewed hopes, dreams, and garden layouts. If you are trying to collect seed, you will have to graduate from this method of gardening to a more nuanced and interspecies space-sharing sort of approach.
The good news about leafy green seed collection is that once seeds have been produced, they are super easy to collect in droves and store for future planting. To that end, here is a functional “what’s what” and “how-to” of a select few greens:
Once lettuce has bolted, it takes an extra long time to create viable seed. Post-flower, you will see tons of teeny tiny artichoke-looking things at the tops of your plant, with little hairy tufts poking out of the tops. Those hairy tufts are connected to seed, and each of those artichokes have a hunk of seeds in them. Depending on the variety of lettuce, the seeds may be white or black when they are ready to harvest, so you can’t depend on color necessarily to determine their maturity. I gauge the seed’s preparedness with the relative squishiness of the tiny artichoke. If it feels squishy and alive, the seeds are probably immature. If it’s somewhat dry and you can feel the individual seeds grinding against one another when you pinch, you’re good to go. It’s tricky, because if you wait too long the seed pods will release the seeds into the ground and you’ve lost your chance. Don’t do that.
BRASSICAE / ARUGULA
Mustard, kale, collards, arugula, broccoli, cauliflower, and so on are all pretty easy to harvest seed from. After they have sent out flowers, green seed pods that look like tiny snow peas will form along the plant’s stalks, and these will have seed inside them. The seed is ready when it has turned black, or when the tiny snow peas have turned brown. In terms of patience, if you are trying to collect kale seed, you must exercise your patience muscles with extra fortitude, as most varieties take two years to produce seed.
Once you’ve collected these seeds, just keep them dry and cold in a fridge or freezer and they’ll be good to plant for at least a year, and really more like three.
As for fruits, which are literally defined as: “The sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food,” seed collection can vary greatly from plant to plant, so I’m not going to break it down so much here. To clarify for those of you who refuse to accept that most vegetables are actually fruits, most vegetables are fruits. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini—they’re all fruits. If they have seeds in them, they are fruits and your food pyramid seven serving fake news propaganda can heck itself right off.
The main things you need to consider when collecting seeds from fruit are the fruits’ maturity and the dryness of the seed. You want your fruits to be as mature as possible before harvesting their seed, like nearly to the point of rotting if you can help it, so that you can get the most developed and ready-to-plant seed out of them. You also want your seed to be dry before you store it, so in the case of tomatoes or mangoes for example, you’ll need to wash off all the weird goopy membrane stuff off the seeds and then let them dry off before storing them. Otherwise you’ll end up with moldy and unviable seed when you are ready to plant.
HERBS & ROOTS
Herbs and root vegetables vary a lot in terms of timing, seed size, and frequency of production or reproduction. As a general rule, when they produce flowers, seeds will follow. Many herbs only produce flowers every few years, and only when they decide conditions are right, usually when they are stressed out and thinking they might be about to die. Most root vegetables act similarly to greens in terms of bolting; they also become inedible, first producing flowers, then producing obvious and easily collectible seed.
One thing you need to look out for is hybrid seed varieties. A hybrid seed will say F1 on the packet next to the variety name. Without going deep into the differences between heirlooms, hybrids, GMOs, and plain old varieties of plants, the short version is hybrid plants are not crazy genetic monsters, but their babies will come out looking nothing like their mamas. Also, don’t worry about buying GMO seeds, they are not readily available to you, the small scale gardener (if that is your real name).
Collecting seed from your plants so that you can replant new plants your darn self from scratch can seem pointlessly artisanal and exceptionally not worth the work or the wait. Seed packets are pretty cheap and easy to find, so why do the work? Mostly because with every generation of seed you collect, you are making a stronger strain that is infinitely more adapted to our unique climate, ecosystem, and palate. Seed collected from plants that have survived drought, flood, insects, disease, heat, repeat harvests, and whatever other hells we have thrust upon them will make plants that are better adapted to all this calamity. And if they survive, their children will be even stronger. This is literally how all of the vegetables that you’ve ever eaten have come to exist.
Agriculture is a powerful weapon. As long as we’ve had a history, we’ve been collecting seeds from our favorite plants and planting them to make better versions of said plants. I don’t want to get overly mired in the muddy banks of humanity’s historic relationship to nature, but in collecting seed from your plants and planting them again, you are very actively participating in the process that has brought human civilization to its present vertigo-inducing, maybe not-so-great height.
Agriculture is a powerful tool. Here in New Orleans specifically, if you are collecting seed for a few generations, you may actually be saving the world. Given the present and inevitable climatic shifts we are facing now (largely because many thousands of years ago we began breeding plants by collecting seed), the plants that are presently adapted specifically to our exceptionally humid sub-tropical climate might be the plants that grow best around the world before too long, because a lot of presently temperate zones will probably look a lot more like ours in the not-very-distant-at-all future. You can be a hero. Save the seeds, save the world.
illustration MELISSA GUION