Saving Vegetable Seeds

farm, homesteading

With fall just starting to show, now is the perfect time to think about putting some seeds away for next year. While growing your own food invokes essential traditions with family and community each year, seed saving is a worthwhile practice that can carry those important traditions across generations. Here are a couple straight-forward veggies that are a good place to start saving.

When choosing a fruit to collect seeds from consider carefully as seed saving is akin to adopting a new family member. Once you’ve chosen the plants you want to work with, look for the general attributes of the fruit and the plant as they would be the parent of the future generations in your garden. Choose for characteristics you like, perhaps the plant’s performance, fruit size, disease resistance, etc.

Tomatoes

Some genetic crossing with other closeby tomato varieties are possible, so maybe consider spacing different varieties apart in your garden. Collect ripe fruits. Crush them in a container and stir twice daily. There is a pulp that surrounds the seeds that will be reduced by a light fermentation. The seeds should eventually sink to the bottom after about 2-4 days. Caution that over-fermentation can reduce germination.

When the seeds are ready add water, stir, and pour off the water with the tomato solids. Keep repeating until the seeds are left with some pretty clean water. Strain the seeds and lay out on a cloth to dry.

Peppers

Use ripe fruit. Remove the seeds from the flesh. No washing necessary. Allow to air dry. Varieties should be grown with some separation if genetic purity is desired, around 50′.

Eggplant

Use mature fruit whose flesh leaves an indent when pressed. Remove seeds by cutting and crushing the fruits. A knife will likely slice through some seeds so maybe just cut in half then tear the rest with your hands. Place in a bowl and add water and continue to crush, squeeze, or rub free the seeds. Wash out in a way similar to tomatoes but there’s no fermentation required. Lay out to dry. Varieties should be separated by around 50′ if you want genetic purity.

Beans, Grains, & Potatoes

Plants like beans, potatoes, and grains are quite simple as the harvest is the seed itself. Just let the plant reach full maturity, harvest, and store away as you would as if it were food. Beans and grains tend to be left on the plant until it fully dies back, they are further dried indoors for a few weeks just to be sure, then packed away. Potatoes are stored in the root cellar or a cool basement.

Note on Drying Seeds

Let the seeds dry on their own if your ambient temperatures allow them to do so without molding. Try not to use anything to speed up drying however a light fan for air-flow can be okay.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Homemade Hominy – Nixtamalization

farm, Homegrown Grains

If I had to choose only one grain to grow it would be corn. Of the great variety of products corn can become, hominy is essential. Whether dent or flint, these corns are perfectly edible and are eaten as polenta and grits, but their kernel’s hull bind up niacin which causes deficiencies that lead to health conditions like Pellegra. In comes the innovative technique called nixtamalization. It was eventually discovered that corn soaked in an alkaline brine dissolved the hemicellulose walls of the corn and freed the niacin for human to ingest. Additionally the process softened the kernels and in some cases dramatically increased the minerals available and greatly reduced mycotoxins.

So how’s it done? Two ways of creating a proper alkaline brine is through the addition of lime (from stone) and lye (wood ash). Lime, also known as Cal, is limestone baked at a really high temperature (converting the calcium carbonate to calcium oxide), then when treated with water (where it becomes calcium hydroxide), and dehydrated to a fine white powder as lime or Cal. It naturally increases the kernel’s minerals when used in processing as well as influencing the familiar aromas we associate with tortillas. Lye on the other hand, being more widely accessible, was used by people who might not have had access to limestone deposits, as it is produced by soaking wood ash in soft water. There is food grade lye you can buy which works the same as a wood ash solution but lacks the mineral contribution provided by natural wood ash.

How its done

Get yourself some field corn, whether flint or dent, either will do. Your best bet is to grow it yourself if you can. But if you can’t, research the Open-pollinated varieties grown in your area. Popular out our way is Wapsi Valley, which is a dent corn pictured above (note the dents on the tops of the kernels). We found it by researching OP corn for feed for sale locally and learned more about the varieties, such as how they are actually delicious heirlooms. If you tell the farmer you buy the seed from that your eating it they may think your crazy as lots of people think it’s just for livestock anymore.

Either way, when you have some corn, weigh the threshed kernels and put them in a pot and cover with water to about 2-3 extra inches above the kernels. Add Cal at about 1 gram per every 100 grams of corn. If you’re looking for Cal, check out a grocery store from Central and South America. For the lye method see below.

Bring the pot to a simmer and let it go until the kernels are a little tender. It could take around 45 minutes, or more or less. Caution that boiling with Cal can create bitter flavors.

Remove pot from heat and let it sit for 24 hours.

Strain the kernels and give them a rinse while also massaging them. You now should be seeing the hulls wash off like whispy, soggy paper. The job is done. Wash off the husks according to what you intend to make. Retaining the hulls adds some gelatinization which is helpful in making thin products like tortillas.

The hominy can now be stored a couple different ways. They can be frozen as they are, or dehydrated and stored dry, in which you would soak them like any other grain before cooking or grinding them into hominy grits. You can also grind them fresh to make tortillas for dinner tonight!


Lye Method

If you’re using food grade lye use roughly the same ratio as above 1 gram lye for 100 grams of kernels. For information on food grade lye and/ or using wood ash itself you can refer to this post regarding lye and bagels. Sodium hydroxide, which is what pure lye is, in the right quantities can burn you so use care in avoiding skin contact with the lye brine if you’re using this method.

Cover threshed corn with water, add lye granules or lye brine, and bring to a boil.

Simmer for 30 minutes, turn off heat and steep for another 30 minutes.

Drain the lye water and soak in clean water for 30 minutes.

Change the water once again and bring to a boil one more time, and simmer until kernels are tender. Wash hulls as you wish.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Growing Wheat in Your Garden

bread, farm, Homegrown Grains, homesteading

It’s always exciting to add a new personality to your garden and many of us love to bake and eat bread. Growing wheat is one of those things that could seem daunting from afar, but the truth is it’s almost as easy as growing grass. Regardless of if you lack enough extra space, the value of the experience unravels the mystery of how bread and other flour products come to be. It’s an exciting crop with loads to teach, so why not give it a shot?

Not too much space is necessary to get started. Similar to if you have a modest garden plot and only get some of this and that, you’ll probably need something like 20’x 20′ to grow enough for a loaf of bread. But much of the reward is gained through shining a hands-on light onto how grains live and grow, which I believe is worth experiencing no matter the space restrictions. And every year you grow it you’re adapting and building up your seedbank to boot.

Growing wheat is the simpler part however its processing is a bit more involved. There’s a bit of a rhythm and experience that goes into it transitioning from plant to muffin, or cookie, or bread which we’ll get into when the time comes but it’s a good argument for starting your first plot small.

Selecting seed

There are many different types of seed to choose from. Consider your ultimate purpose when choosing. And do make sure get your seeds from a good source so they may be free of annoying disease.

Hard Red Winter – High-protein used from bread and other baked goods, commonly used for all-purpose flour.

Hard Red Spring – Highest protein and thus best grain for bread and other leavened products.

Soft Red – Low-protein and often used for pastry flour to make cakes, pies, and other baked goods.

Soft White – Very low-protein used for pastry flours and unleavened baked goods.

Do some research on the seed before you buy it. Many winter varieties require a vernalization period, meaning they need to experience temperatures below ~40 degrees for up to 45 or so days in order to produce a seedhead that same year. Winter varieties tend to be planted in the fall to grow up a bit before winter halts them into dormancy until spring. Some winter varieties can be facultative, meaning they can be planted in either the fall or spring.

Generally speaking fall grains produce more tillers (seed-bearing stalks) and thus have a higher yield, while spring grain is higher in protein and thus higher in gluten and better bread bakeability.

When to plant

Winter wheat is planted in the northeast sometime between late September and early October. The goal is to give the grain enough time to sprout up and establish itself before winter settles in, however not so much time that it begins it’s upward growth stages. Then it will hang out in the field ready to take off at the first sign of warm weather.

Spring wheat can be planted in early spring from late March to early April. In the picture below you’ll see them side-by-side. A benefit to planting in the fall is the jump the wheat gets on out-competing the weeds.

Side by side with Spring planted wheat on the left, and fall planted wheat on the right.

Wheat is a heavy feeder so you’ll want adequate fertility in your soil. Nitrogen is directly related to the protein in the kernel so if you’re trying to make a quality bread you’ll want to feed it well. We always grow a field of beans the season before wheat for their nitrogen fixing characteristics. A spring sown dry bean goes through its growth cycle just in time for winter wheat to be planted. We also broadcast red clover in late winter. The goal is for after we cut down the wheat we’ll be left with a field of nitrogen-fixing clover.

We’ve learned that some ancient grains like einkorn and emmer thrive on lower fertility and in fact too high could cause them to grow up so big they just fall over, which is referred to as lodging.

Seeding

Seed spacing really depends on your specific seed. We’ve grown a winter emmer that reaches 6′ tall and amasses a wide girth and can handle generous spacing of 10″ or so and still form a tight canopy. Conversely, our red fife wheat stays super compact. Finding a sweet spot that doesn’t overcrowd your grain but encourages a full cover when mature helps keep the competing weeds at bay and your yield at its best. Perhaps a good place to start is 6″ spacing in rows with 8″ between rows, or enough space to work your hoe between rows.

Broadcasting is fun to do but doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to control weeds. Perhaps in that case broadcasting is better suited for fall planting.

Cultivation

Stay on top of those weeds as best you can. It’ll be competitive for spring grains which can easily get gobbled up by all the other eager seeds. Hoe persistently before the grain grows out and you’re no longer able to pass through the rows. Winter grain will help keeps weeds away due to its early jump in the spring. However a broadcasting of red clover in late winter may halt any future cultivation plans. Either way when it comes to harvest time it’s nice to cut down handfuls of wheat rather than handfuls of, say, thistle.

Some varieties such as einkorn are allelopathic, which means they produce chemicals that repress other plants trying to grow around them.

Growth stages

After the grain sprouts it will go into tillering phase. This is when the plant starts producing young future seed-bearing stalks and look just like grass. It’s a great time to show off your super spotty “lawn” to your friends for a good laugh. Yet each of these tillers will potentially grow up to produce a seedhead.

Soon the energy is focused upward as the stalks start climbing led by the flagleaf. When it reaches a sort of terminus, from beneath the lead leaf a bulge begins in the stalk. A little seedhead head then pokes out and gets lifted higher yet into the sky.

Then emerges what looks like little white dust dangling from the seedhead which is the plant’s flowering. Wheat is pollinated romantically enough by the summer breezes. When the flowers fall away, now begins the ripening of the grain.

At this point the grain chamber seems empty but with a little time it fills in and starts taking shape. The seed starts with what’s called the milky stage. This is when if you squeeze the seed it will ooze a milky substance. Next it will firm up into the soft dough stage. It’s basically as it sounds, when the kernel is chewed between the teeth it will feel like just that- a soft dough. Then with continued ripening the kernel hardens into a hard dough stage. The grain is rapidly loosing moisture and preparing for its future germination as a seed.

flowering wheat

When to harvest

Once the transition node between the seedhead and the stalk has browned the seed is no longer receiving nutrients from the plant. Additionally, the longer the seed remains on the plant the higher the percentage of germ will be in each kernel. The germ assists in the germination of the seed into a new plant. However if you want to for instance to make bread then you’ll want to maximize the starch and minimize the germ. In that case you will harvest about two weeks early, when the kernel is in soft dough. If you’re harvesting for seed, simply allow the plant to fully ripen, just making sure to get it before the birds do.

Harvest

Harvest by either clipping the grain heads off or cutting the somewhere along the stalk with a sickle or machete. You’ll want to store them somewhere they can finish drying- so a well-ventilated space safe from the weather, but also somewhere away from where birds, rodents, and other rascals might be able to reach them. Tying them off into sheaves is beautiful and helpful for transporting them if you grew enough, though not really necessary.

Once your grain is dried enough that it doesn’t dent beneath your thumbnail it is storable and ready for the threshing floor.

What follows is the threshing, winnowing and storing, plus milling, etc. We’ll have resources for those topics along shortly. Stay tuned and give wheat a try!

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Ferment Pittsburgh’s Justin Lubecki, together with his brother Nick, began a farming project in Spring 2017 an hour north of Pittsburgh to explore what it meant to feed themselves throughout the year. Experimenting with crops and traditional farming techniques the challenge then carries over to the kitchen to process, preserve, and eat them naturally.