Boring red tomatoes led Henry Bruski to save his first seeds.
"Just seeing the usual red tomatoes in the stores and then discovering there were many other tomato colors, shapes and sizes got me started. One year I grew over 70 varieties of tomatoes," says Bruski, a 33-year-old Sunnyvale, Calif., organic gardener who has turned his interest into a mail-order business.
Saving seeds may sound like the ultimate in frugality. But as Bruski and other dedicated seed savers have found, gathering seeds adds excitement to gardening and protects the genetic seed bank, so old varieties are not lost forever.
Besides, Bruski says, "It's fun."
Although it is easy to do, there are a few rules to follow. Not every seed is worth saving, because some do not "come true." According to Nancy Bubel in "52 Weekend Garden Projects" (Rodale, $22.95), if your flower or vegetable is an heirloom cultivar or nonhybrid variety, save the seeds. However, if you started with "hybrid" or "F1" seed or transplants, don't bother saving them. They will produce inferior flowers or fruit. Beyond those, however, there are thousands of nonhybrids that "come true," meaning they produce strong plants just like the parent plant -- everything from corn and beans to sunflowers and poppies.
Bruski says he saves "every kind of seed -- any flower, any vegetable that appeals to me. I tend to stick mainly with unusual vegetable varieties that I like to grow and preserve, since those are the rare varieties."
His favorites are unusual beans, tomatoes and corns. This year he grew a corn called Skyscraper, which reached 16 feet and produced huge ears of sweet corn. Among his favorite tomatoes is a small cherry known as Snow White. "It's quite rare," he says.
His current favorite is Crimson Flower fava bean. "It's a variety that grows over winter and has beautiful crimson flowers, as opposed to the usual white, so it has ornamental value as well as food value."
If you've never saved seeds before, start with easy ones -- then experiment beyond those. Sunflowers and cosmos are quite easy. Pumpkins, beans and onions provide a wealth of seed.
Beans, Bruski says, are the easiest of all vegetables. "You wait until they have dried on the plant and then harvest them. They should be placed in the freezer for a week to kill any weevils, which are a common bean problem and could destroy the seed."
Begin your seed-saving with what's left in your garden. Here are tips from Bubel:
Collect seeds of squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe and other melons when the fruit is ripe.
Save seed from red, ripe bell peppers, not green ones.
Let tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants ripen beyond their prime; they should be too ripe for eating but not rotted.
Harvest zucchini and other summer squash after they've formed a hard shell with tough flesh and well-developed seeds.
Seeds of lettuce, carrot, cabbage and onion fall soon after they are ripe and dry. Gather the seeds promptly before they scatter.
To save flower seeds, pick flower heads before they drop their seed. A dry, wilted flower has "gone to seed." Ease the seed head into a paper bag and give it a few good shakes to catch the seed.
Both flower and vegetable seeds need to dry -- even those that look dry when picked. Put the seeds on trays or several layers of newspaper for a week or two in a dark, well-ventilated place.
Sometimes it is hard to separate the seed from the flower or seedpod. This is particularly true of flowers. The trick, Bubel says, is "to open the seedpods, or rub the seed heads, to free the seeds." Seeds scooped from pulp -- cantaloupes, tomatoes and squash, for instance -- should be washed and left to dry on paper towels.
"Once the seeds are dry, seal them in small bottles, cans or film containers, or in sealed envelopes kept inside a large can with a lid," Bubel says.
Label each container as it is filled, and then store the bottles or cans in a cool, dry place.
Not all seeds are equally good keepers. Pumpkin and gourd seeds, for instance, can keep for many years, but onion seeds have a very short shelf life. Seeds for flowering sweet peas will sprout five years down the line. The best bet, however, is to plant fall-gathered seeds in the spring garden.
Bruski, for one, has been captured by the diversity of old varieties. "With food seeds I look for flavor first, because that's most important. However, if a variety combines excellent flavor along with unusual characteristics, such as red celery, those are the ones I find most intriguing."
Henry Bruski sells heirloom seeds through his mail-order company. For a seed listing, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Spiral Seeds, P.O. Box 2104, Cupertino, Calif. 95015; or call (800) 253-8710.
Pub Date: 10/27/96