The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles. –Walt Whitman
It’s the end of summer and my garden is overachieving. We eat tomatoes for breakfast, tomatoes for lunch and tomatoes for supper. I’m even tempted to hide them in dessert. We’re overwhelmed by corn, cucumbers, beans and squash and, as much as I love fresh veggies, I begin looking forward to days not defined by plucking, cleaning and canning.
Before the garden shuts down completely, however, I will harvest our inheritance. When I married Farmer Joe, he came with bean seeds. The seeds were given to his great-grandmother by a family physician. They were passed through the generations to his grandmother, his mother, and then to my husband. We call them “Dr. Stover Beans.” The bushy plants produce flat pods that remain tender all the way through the big bean stage, and they don’t have any strings.
Every year, I plant an extra few feet of Dr. Stovers just so we will have seed for next year. My husband’s brother does the same and, if by chance my harvest is slim, then I can call him for seed.
I brought seeds to my marriage, as well. I plant zinnias around the edges of my garden. They make great cut flowers and they remind me of my Nana who always had an arrangement on the breakfast table. She saved her seeds from year to year and I often helped her separate them from the flower heads in the spring so they could go back into the ground for another summer of glory.
Now I am the one passing down the heirlooms. Each summer, as the sturdy sprouts of Dr. Stover Beans or the delicate shoots of riotous zinnias poke their heads above ground, a bit of the past lives again in the present. I hope my children will cherish these seeds as I do.
Tips for saving your own seeds:
• Not all plants are equal when it comes to choosing seeds for saving, because hybrids won’t grow true from saved seeds and some plants cross-pollinate, leaving you with a seed of mixed parentage. The seeds I’ve had the best luck with include open-pollinated tomatoes, green beans, zinnias, sunflowers and marigolds. These varieties will yield something identical to the parent. Winter squash seeds such as Butternut can be saved easily as well if no other varieties of winter squash were grown close by.
• To save zinnia, sunflower and marigold seeds, harvest the flowers at the end of the growing season when the petals are dry and brown. Cut them with enough stem to rubber band a bunch together and hang upside down in a paper bag until next year. When you’re ready to plant, the seeds will have fallen to the bottom of the bag or be easy to separate from the flower heads.
• Winter squash seeds are even easier. To save them, scoop seeds out as you clean the squash and spread them out to dry on a paper towel.
• Green beans dry themselves in the garden. When the husks are brown and rattle in the wind, pick them and shuck out the beans.
• Tomato seeds require the most labor. They are encased in jelly and it must be removed by fermentation. Scoop the seeds into a jar and cover them with water. Add a vented top and leave it to ferment. The mixture will foam and bubble and grow a gray skin. After about three days, add more water to the jar and stir. The seeds will sink to the bottom, where they can be retrieved and laid out to dry.
Be sure to dry all seeds thoroughly and then save them in envelopes or lidded jars in a cool, dry place. Then, like me, you can spend the winter dreaming of warm summer days when your family’s heirlooms will bloom and bear again.