By Janisse Ray
The following excerpt is from Janisse Ray’s book The Seed Underground (Chelsea Green Publishing, July 2012) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Some vegetables produce seed in one season and by reason of their botanical structure generally do not cross with others of their kind. This reproduction, called self-pollination, is easiest for the seed saver, since the seeds remain reasonably pure genetically without added protection from bagging or separating plants a great distance. Lettuce, tomatoes, peas, beans, and eggplant contain both male and female parts on the same flower (called a perfect flower). Their ovules are fertilized by their own pollen.
Peas and Beans
In peas and beans, fertilization occurs before the flower opens. The anthers are snug against the stigma, ensuring pollination when the anthers release. These vegetables may be planted freely in the garden, although hard-core purists recommend separating beans by 150 feet or by another crop that will be flowering at the same time.
To Harvest Seeds: Let bean or pea pods dry on the plant until brown, then pick and shell. If cold weather looms, you can pull the entire plant and hang it upside down in a dry shelter. Label and store.
Lettuce flowers occur like fireworks, in a bunch of little sprays which open over three to four weeks. Each tiny flower generates one lettuce seed. In regards to purity, to not tempt fate you should separate varieties of lettuces that will flower at the same time by 20 feet.
To Harvest Seeds: Seed heads will ripen in stages parallel to the timeline of the flowers, the first about eleven to thirteen days after the first bloom. The rule of thumb with lettuces is to harvest when about half the flowers on each plant have gone to seed. Cut the stalks of the flowers and make a bouquet, which you cram headfirst in a paper bag and hang upside down until it is fully dry. Then the seed can be shaken or rubbed from the chaff. Label and store.
Eggplants are mostly self-pollinated. To ensure purity, varieties must be separated by 50 feet or by caging—covering the entire plant with tight-woven cloth or screen in order to prevent entry by insects.
To Harvest Seeds: Eggplant should get very ripe, about to fall off the stalk. Let the fruit stay on the bush beyond the stage where it’s edible. (Isn’t it true that this phrase is a little vague? I’ve seen Dumpster-divers eat plenty of things that seemed beyond edible.) The color will turn dull and the eggplant will look sickly. I harvest the seeds by blending chunks of the almost rotten eggplant in a blender with water. Pour this mess into a bowl and viable seeds sink to the bottom. Eggplant seeds may be fermented like tomatoes to increase germination rates and kill seed-borne diseases, although it’s not necessary. Strain, dry, label, and store.
Peppers and Okra
Although they have perfect flowers, these beauties are easily cross-pollinated by insects and should be kept 500 feet away from other varieties (a mile for okra) or, optionally, beneath screened cages—one variety to a cage. Okra flowers may easily be bagged.
To Harvest Seeds: Peppers turn red when they’re ripe. Scrape the seed from the pepper core and dry out of the sun. The seeds are dry when a folded seed breaks in your fingers. For okra, pick fully mature pods and let them dry until they split open like a banana peel. Knock out the seeds. Label and store.
About the Author
Janisse Ray is an award-winning and beloved American writer of nonfiction and poetry. Her book Wild Spectacle was chosen by Pam Houston for the Donald L. Jordan Prize in Literary Excellence, which carries a 10K award. Ray won a Pushcart Prize in 2020 for her essay “The Lonely Ruralist,” published in GEORGIA REVIEW. Ray has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Georgia Writer’s Association.