For the lucky few, Sunday afternoons are spent untangling the week that just flew by. If luck holds, there’s time for a brief recharge to prepare for the scrambling week ahead.
On Sunday, June 26, one group was very lucky. About 50 gardeners gathered for a presentation at Westminster Presbyterian Church sponsored by Residential In-season Produce Exchange, or RIPE Altadena.
To me, this moniker looks like “R.I.P. Altadena.” I wish my brain didn’t process it that way, but it does. I always get a little sad when I think of the mountains atop Lake Avenue as a tombstone abutting Altadena. In the split second that follows, though, I’m reviewing the R.I.P.E. Altadena roster of events and cheer up right away.
Instructor Christina Wenger gave reason to cheer. One of her slides even elicited an audible gasp from the crowd, that of Thomas Jefferson’s vivid crimson and raspberry bi-colored poppy.
An English teacher, Wenger is a self-professed vegetable seed enthusiast. She reads The Seed Savers Exchange Catalogue like it’s the lost manuscript by Steig Larsson. She also writes a lovely and comprehensive blog (www.athinkingstomach.com) about her adventures in cooking, eating, and tending plants to cook and eat.
Wenger gave a zippy, comprehensive lecture on aspects of proper seed saving. Beginning with the Whys: to control cross-pollination, to choose climate specific plants, because its free and takes us out of the consumer cycle, to help preserve history. Insert Thomas Jefferson poppy here for big wow.
Wenger seasoned her lesson with bite-sized biology, gorgeous photos, and engaged questions from the room as she covered the material. Embracing the junior high school student in all, she gave rewards of seed packets and seedlings of a tangy, Peruvian herb, Quillquina (Kill-keena) Porophyllum ruderale, which one participant donated. She didn’t have to bribe the crowd. Everyone wanted to be there. But it sure was thoughtful, and fun.
Wenger introduced in-breeding depression and how to avoid it, why it’s important to destroy rogue plants, the importance of selecting seeds from the largest or healthiest plant, and which vegetables produce “perfect flowers,” those with both male and female parts. One is the bean. Another is the tomato, actually a fruit though, in 1893, the Supreme Court decided it is a vegetable.
Since the healthiest propagation material comes from young plants, it’s important to collect seeds from the earliest fruits. This seemed to be an “aha!” moment from several in the audience, who agreed that they usually collect seeds at the end of the season when they just can’t eat one more tomato. Wenger demonstrated several methods for isolating flowers from cross-pollination, including using mesh bags and screen cages.
“It’s not that cross-pollination is bad, not at all,” Wenger explained. “But for seed-saving purposes, we prevent it so the fruit produces seed from the parent variety.” Cross-pollinated plants will contain hybrid seeds, which make plants with unexpected characteristics, some good, some not so good.
If possible, provide lots of distance between plants from the Brassicaceae family. Brocolli, kale, cauliflower, radishes, mustard greens, cabbages, even arugula are in the this family. Kale and arugula are easiest to save seeds from. But all varieties of radish, including daikon, will cross-pollinate. To collect seeds from Brassica family, wait until the bottom pod on the seed stalk has turned tan. Cut stalk and save in a paper bag in a dark, dry location. When one pod shatters by a hammer blow, all are ready to be separated. Shake and crush pods to dislodge tiny seeds.
From the Goosefoot or Chenopod family, beets and chard will cross-pollinate, and spinach will wind-pollinate with other spinach planted closer than 500 feet. This usually isn’t a problem, though, since this family are bi-ennials, taking two years to set seed. Most growers don’t keep the plants around for that long.
Lettuces must be planted 12 feet away from each other or will cross-pollinate. Lettuces and chicory develop “feathers” on the seed pods as seeds dry out. Wait until these appear before collecting seeds.
To collect seeds from cucurbits, such as cucumbers, squashes, melons and gourds, wait until the plant is overripe. Cucumbers should be yellow, zuccinnis should oversized and dry, with their interiors separating. Tomatoes, too, should be overripe. Their seeds will scoop out easily from the interior chambers inside the fruit. To germinate tomato seeds next year, the gel coating must be removed. This can be flaked off when the seeds are well rinsed and completely dried on a cookie sheet or wax paper. Or the seeds can be fermented for three days or so in a jar of water. The fermentation will break down the gel. Added bonus: the non-viable seeds will float, making these easy to eliminate.
RIPE Altadena founder Gail Murphy was taking notes along with the rest. RIPE Altadena plans to offer a self-sustaining class each quarter. Other events, such as produce and crop swaps, are listed on their website. For more information visit www.ripealtadena.com.