CGN Blog: Ottawa Seed Library

The Ottawa Seed Library

The Ottawa Seed Library (OSC) is exactly what it sounds like – a library from which gardeners can check out seeds, free of charge, instead of books! At the end of the growing season, borrowers collect seeds from the plants that they grew, and check them into the library for others to sow.

The Ottawa Seed Library is looking for interested seed savers or gardeners to take a leadership role in the Ottawa Seed Library, as well as additional volunteers who can support this initiative on an ongoing basis. You don’t need to be a skilled, or experience seed saver, or even gardener for that matter to participate in the operation of the Ottawa Seed Library! The seed Library is a place of learning and experimentation. The following sections describe some ways that you can help.

Organizing seeds

The library contains a variety of seeds, including common and easily collected seeds like lettuce, beans, and tomatoes, as well as more exotic species. Volunteers place seeds into packets, which they stamp with the OSC logo, and then note the year, type of crop, and specific variety. They may also note such things as whether the variety is adapted to container growing. These packets are then placed in storage bins. If you and your gardening friends enjoy working with seeds, this is a great opportunity to plan a social day once a month in which you can work collaboratively to pack and organize seeds. You may also need to periodically test the seeds to ensure that they meet the expected germination rates.

Getting the word out

The Ottawa Seed Library reaches interested growers through the Market Mobile, the Ottawa Tool Library, the Ottawa Horticultural Society, and Maple Hill Urban Farm. There are opportunities for interested volunteers to set up additional venues through which the library could be advertised, such as seed and plant swaps. The library maintains a list of individuals who have checked out seeds.

Training individuals how to collect seeds

Just Food periodically conducts workshops to train individuals how to preserve seeds. At the conclusion of the workshop, participants check seeds out from the library to plant in their own gardens.

There are opportunities for individuals who want to train others on how to collect, clean, and dry seeds. Just Food would conduct the initial “Train the trainer” course, and then the trainers can provide instruction to potential seed collectors across the city.

The future

Ideally, the seed library will grow into a seed “bank” from which daycares, schools, food banks, and other organizations can check out seeds. Seed costs can add up. Providing them free is a great way to reduce costs for programs that run on especially small grants.

For large-scale seed collecting, demonstration plots of about 1/16th or 1/8th an acre could be arranged at the Just Food farm. Just Food also invests in the seed library by replacing seeds that have become less vigourous, and by developing, through experimental growing programs, varieties that grow well in this region.

Collecting seeds

Are you interesting in collecting seeds for yourself or the seed library? You don’t need a large garden; even balcony gardeners can get involved, by providing seeds from plants that grow well in containers. Community gardens are often mistakenly thought to be unsuitable for seed collecting, but often times seeds are sown at different intervals, so they bolt at different times.

For best results, start with plants grown from open pollinated, heirloom seeds from a reputable local supplier. Annuals–such as lettuce, peas, cucumbers, beans, corn, squash, and tomatoes–are fairly easy to save seeds from, and produce good results easily.

To see predictable results in future crops, you’ll need to ensure that your plants haven’t cross-pollinated with neighbouring varieties.

  • Inbreeders–such as peas, lettuce, tomatoes, and beans–usually self-pollinate, but can cross-breed. They don’t require large isolation differences; 10 feet is sufficient.
  • Outbreeders–such as corn and squash–must receive pollen from another plant, either via bees or other pollinators, or the wind. Generally, this means that corn varieties should be separated by 2 miles, and squash by 1 mile, but strong winds and high levels of pollinator activity can necessitate greater isolation. In some cases, very different varieties of the same species (such as pumpkin and zucchini) can also crossbreed.

Once you’ve selected your favourite plants, you can now plan to harvest their seeds. This procedure varies depending on whether the seeds are harvested dry (from the seed head or pod), or wet (from the fruit).

Harvesting dry-seeded crops

When the stems below the seeds dry out and turn brown, it is good sign that the seed is mature. Look for early signs of shattering (ripening and dispersal of the seed). Examine the seed closely to see if it is dry and looks like what you’d find in a commercial seed packet.

Most dry-seeded crops ripen sequentially from oldest to newest flowers, so you can harvest seeds once the first seed begins to shatter. To harvest dry-seeded crops, pick the seeds by hand, hang the plant to dry, lay it in windrows, or shake or hit the plant to release the seed. The latter may be easiest for herbs with very small seeds.

Lettuce

Once lettuce grows past its prime, it forms a tall stalk with flower buds. About 6 weeks later you’ll have nearly ready seeds. To collect the seeds, visit your plants at the end of the day with a yogurt tub in hand. Gently bend the plant over the tub and lightly tap it; the seeds that are ready will fall in. Repeat daily until you have enough seeds. You can clean off the fluff if you want; it won’t harm the seeds to leave it on.

Beans

Let beans dry on the plant until the pods are papery to the touch, at which point you can shell them.   If the weather is too damp to let the pods dry outside, hang the plant upside down in a dry, well-ventilated place until the pods are dry.

It’s a good idea to freeze beans for three days after shelling, to kill any weevils that may have burrowed inside. After freezing, continue to let the beans air dry on a glass pan. Stir the beans every day; once you cannot press fingernail marks into the seeds, they’re dry.

Harvesting wet-seeded crops

Seeds harvested from wet-seeded crops need a little more preparation than dry-seeded crops before they can be put into storage.

Tomatoes

Extract some seeds from a ripe tomato, and clean them with a towel, removing their jelly coating to prevent mould. Let them dry.

If you’re saving a lot of tomato seeds, try slicing the ripe tomatoes and crushing them into a bucket. Set the bucket in a warm place (no warmer than 32C), for 3-4 days. The pulp moulds and the seed jelly rot offs. It smells awful, but the seeds sink to the bottom of the bucket, so that you can then easily extract, rinse, and dry them.

Winter squash

Select your best squash and let it sit for a week or two in cool, dry, conditions, then remove the seeds and clean them. Place racks of seeds over a heating duct to expedite drying and maintain air circulation.

Cucumbers and summer squash

Leave the fruits on the vine long past when you would normally eat them. When you open the fruit, the seeds will be larger, harder, and more rounded than the immature seeds you find in the cucumbers you eat. Clean and dry them as you would tomatoes.

Storage

Once the seeds have been harvested, leave them on a paper plate or in a paper bag (that’s labelled!!), to completely dry for a few weeks in the fall. Once the seeds are completely dry, you can store them in an airtight mason jar for use in the next 3-5 years. Store in a cool, dark, dry place. Seeds slowly reduce their germination percentage with time, so plant older seeds more thickly.