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Plant seeds from the best plants in your garden

“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

 — Henry David Thoreau, "Faith in a Seed," 1993

Although Thoreau is most famous for his essays about Walden Pond, he spent the last years of his life studying seeds in the woods of his hometown, Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s was a scientific faith in the symbiotic order of nature, a balance he keenly observed and meticulously recorded in thousands of pages of notes that were finally published more than a century after his death.

I, too, am fascinated by seeds. So tiny — perhaps no bigger than a pinhead — yet they contain all the genetic material necessary to become a thriving, mature plant. Every year at about this time, I relish the hours spent pouring over seed catalogs (my favorite is the "Whole Seed Catalog" from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds), and I experience a gardener’s special thrill when my seed packets arrive in the mail.

Only recently, however, have I considered saving my own seeds from vegetables and flowers I grow in my garden. I suppose I thought collecting seeds from my plants would be too difficult, or that, surely, the seeds I purchase are higher quality than those I grow myself.

Not so, says my gardener friend Mary Kelly, who recently shared her enthusiasm for saving seeds and inspired me to try it. Like Thoreau demonstrated, the key to successful seed saving is careful observation, taking note of particularly robust, productive or otherwise outstanding plants in our garden. When we collect seeds from these exceptional specimens, we can be confident their offspring are also likely to flourish in the unique growing conditions our garden provides. As we continue to save seeds from the best plants, our reward is improved produce, whether that’s vegetables, herbs or flowers.

Such individualized selectivity is simply not possible with seeds purchased from a handful of commercial growers who probably produced the seeds in vastly different environments than our own. Not only are the seeds we save from proven winners in our own gardens, they are also apt to be fresher than purchased seeds. This means the germination rate will be higher.

Tomatoes are a good crop for beginning seed savers. Slice a vine-ripe tomato in half around its middle and squeeze the best-looking seeds into a jar along with the gooey substance around the seeds and some of the juice (or add a bit of water). Allow the seeds to ferment for 2-5 days until a scummy film develops on top. Then pour the fermented seed mixture into a strainer and rinse the film away. Spread the seeds on a paper plate and dry them until they break in half when pressed with a fingernail.

Store completely dry seeds in a paper envelope labeled with the plant name and date saved, place the envelope inside a plastic bag with silica gel or powdered milk, and keep the seeds in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to use them.

A class about saving seeds will be offered at the Jackson County Master Gardener Association's Winter Dreams/Summer Gardens Symposium, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, at the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in Medford. Cost is $50 until Nov. 6, $60 for walk-in registration, and half price for full-time students. For more information, see www.jacksoncountymga.org.

New this year is a seed exchange and display area, where gardeners can bring in their saved seeds and swap them for other seeds, thus contributing to biodiversity. Bring seeds in labeled envelopes to the exchange room before classes begin, and be sure to visit in between classes or at lunchtime to browse through the seeds and select new plant varieties to try. Like Thoreau, let’s have faith in seeds, and in ourselves as seed savers.

Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.