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Save Our Seeds! (And How Home Gardeners Can Do It)

Dr. James Ulager of Hinesburg is the author of the new book, "Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener."
New Society Publishers, Courtesy
Dr. James Ulager of Hinesburg is the author of the new book, "Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener."

The nights are getting cooler and our Vermont summer is quickly coming to an end. So as you’re reaping the rich harvest of a plentiful vegetable garden right now, and preparing and canning for the long winter, it's also a great time to think about saving seeds. We'll learn how the home gardener can harvest seeds from their current crop of veggies.
Dr. Jim Ulager of Hinesburg, a family physician by trade who is passionate about preserving seeds, is the author of the new book, Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener. He explains how to get started with seed-saving for the average home-gardener. 

Keep The Seeds!

Dr. Jim Ulager encourages anyone and everyone to save their seeds, against seemingly conventional wisdom.

“You would meet people who were such good gardeners — my heroes in the garden world — they were the first people to say it, ‘You want to know you’re getting the right thing, just buy your seeds,’” he said.

At a more formal presentation on seed saving, Ulager heard similar advice: if you’re not doing it on a commercial scale, don’t do it.

“It just broke my heart, because it’s something I had done so successfully for several years, [and] something we have done as a human race for millenia,” he said. “The seed company is a relatively new concept.”

Ulager sees several benefits of saving one’s own seeds. First of all, the material is readily available.

“If you have ever grown green beans, I am positive you have not eaten every bean off the plant,” he said. “I’m thinking right now about a row of green beans that I have at home that are dry and brown on the stock. Saving those seeds is as simple as, gosh, if it doesn’t rain this afternoon, I’ll go pick them off the plant and make sure they’re dry, and there’s my seed for next year. That’s honestly less work than ordering them.”

Ulager said there are also more seed options when people save their own: while there are about 8,000 different seeds available in stores, the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue offers something closer to 14,000 varieties.

And, except for the cost of postage, the latter seeds are free.

“[It] is really, truly, an exchange,” he said. “It’s people offering them from their gardens.”

How To Save A Seed?

Ulager recommended beginning with green beans and peas, which are “perfect flowers” and have both the male and female reproductive parts on the same plant. He provided these general steps for saving seeds:

  1. Cut the plant stem just above the soil line before the first frost.
  2. Dry the plant hanging in an airy place.
  3. Harvest the seeds by shelling (or use a wiffle ball bat to whack them out on a tarp).
  4. Store in a cool, dry place (root cellar, closet in an unheated guest room), or in the freezer for longer life.
The Worst Mistake To Make

While there are certainly mistakes to be made in seed saving — eating the good veggies and saving seeds from the sad ones, over-drying seeds, ice crystals in frozen seeds, your partner throwing away your fermenting seeds — Ulager said there’s one mistake bigger than the rest.

“The biggest mistake that most people have is they don’t try,” he said. “They just let it become too mysterious a thing, and it’s not. Just go for it.”

Broadcast live on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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