Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Saving Lettuce Seed

It was a breezy afternoon - just right for gathering lettuce seeds. Lettuce seeded in the Spring was harvested first as thinnings, then outer leaves here and there, and finally by cutting whole heads. When warmer weather finally arrived and the lettuce started to bolt, I pulled most of the plants incrementally to give to the chickens. But I also left a 3-5 plants of each variety to set seed.

So I've been watching those plants, waiting for just the right time to gather seeds. I knew it needed to be soon.  I need to make sure they've had enough time to mature viable seeds. The seeds of Black-seeded Simpson, aptly named, are easy to see when mature - nestled at the base of the fluffy little flower pods. But if I wait too long, the birds will beat me to them. High winds can blow the seeds away; rain can pound them off the plants.

The easiest way to get the most seeds, reasonably clean, is to just bend the plant tops over a tub and rub the seed pods between my hands. Old lettuce stalks produce a white sticky sap that irritates my skin, so I wear gloves. Each variety is in a separate space, carefully noted at planting time, so I harvest and process one variety at a time, but you could also create your own greens seed mix by just harvesting everything together.

After gathering, next comes the threshing. I rub the gathered seeds and chaff between my hands to break up any clumps. A coarse sieve filters out bigger immature buds and stems, and I pick out anything moving (no chemicals, so there is an occasional bug or worm).

Then, winnowing. I pour the seeds and chaff back and forth between two tubs. If it's really breezy, only a foot of pour space is enough; with less breeze I might go three feet high to pour. It's a bit scary to see how much stuff blows away at first, thinking you're losing all your seeds, but have faith.

The relatively high sides of the tubs keep bouncing out to a minimum. I sometimes blow directly on the chaff, hand-picking out of the far side of the tub. Before long, I have relatively clean seeds that can then be poured into envelopes (recycled, of course), labeled, and tucked away until next Spring. I pulled all the lettuce stalks and gave them to the chickens, and eventually they'll end up in this fall's compost pile.

Clockwise from top left: Ruby, Black-Seeded Simpson, Bibb, Buttercrunch, and Romaine. I also harvested dill and arugula seeds (not shown).

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