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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lettuce: From Seed to Feed - Part 2: Saving Seed

By Llyn Peabody
Saving your own seed is an important aspect of developing local food self-reliance. Relying on commercial seed farmers may become increasingly unreliable as climate change disrupts weather patterns and seed crops falter. Growing your own seed slowly modifies your plants to be uniquely suited to your micro-climate and growing conditions. Networking with other seed-savers in your area builds a sense of community.
Lettuce flowers - close-up.
Seed-saving can seem intimidating at first. I know I felt that way. Many vegetables will cross with their neighbors yielding inconsistent results. There are many questions that must be answered before moving forward. For this reason I definitely recommend Suzanne Ashworth's "Seed to Seed". It is a comprehensive manual that covers all aspects of seed-saving. I am also grateful to my husband, Chris, for all he has taught me from his 40+ years of gardening. He's helped me translate the book knowledge into experiential learning. Saving seed appeals to the outlaw in me, I guess. Like treating illness with herbs I grew myself, there is something empowering about developing skills usually left to "the experts". As it turns out, it's not really that difficult at all.
"Red Sails" lettuce - blooming.
Saving Lettuce Seed: Like most things in gardening, a bit of forethought goes a long way. Ashworth recommends 12' - 25' separation between types of lettuce to prevent cross-pollination (the farther the better). Plan your plantings (and harvesting) to leave sufficient distance between the flowering plants. Though you may have enough time to bring a Fall crop of lettuce to seed, we usually do our seed-saving with the lettuce we plant in the Spring.

Lettuce bolting - Black-Seeded Simpson
 Lettuce is an "annual" crop. This means that the plants will produce seed in one season (without over-wintering). As the weather gets hotter and drier you will notice on romaine or "leaf" lettuce a definite lengthening of the plant. ("Leaf" types form a loose rosette of leaves but not a tight "head). When it lengthens, it is starting to "bolt". Lettuce that is bolting gets noticeably more bitter (probably nature's way of protecting the plant in this important phase of its reproduction). On "head" lettuce (such as Iceberg), Ashworth says it can be helpful to slit the head, forming a cross-cut with a sharp knife, making it easier for the flower-stalk to emerge. She says some gardeners strike the head of the lettuce with the palm of their hand thus breaking the leaves away from the stalk. Without some effort to free the flower-stalk, head-rot from heat and humidity may kill the plant before it can go to seed. So far we have saved seed mainly from "leaf" lettuce. This summer we will experiment with our red and green "head" lettuces to see what works best for us and report back.

Lettuce marked for seed with bamboo.

As we are gardening with a group of people, we have found it essential to clearly mark the plants that we are saving for seed, so they are not harvested by accident. We have made small tipi's with bamboo sticks, tied a red ribbon around the plant or put a small sign on a stake and driven it in nearby. Even a plant that is obviously past an edible stage for harvest is not safe as a well-meaning fellow-gardener may assume the responsible thing to do is weed out your seedy lettuce plant and toss it on the compost pile!

Staked lettuce - the flowers get heavy.

As the flower stalk grows it will produce a big head of flowers. You may need to tie it to a stake so it doesn't fall over. Seed production occurs 12 - 24 days after flowering. Ashworth says you can harvest seeds daily by shaking the stalk over a large paper sack. The ripe seeds will fall into the bag. The method we have used is to wait until the majority of seeds are ripe and to cut off the whole flower head and place that in a paper sack. Leave the sack open in a warm, dry place (like the top shelf your tool shed) until the flowers are thoroughly dry. Be sure to label the bag with the name of the lettuce variety. If mice are a problem and you have the space, try hanging the open bag from rafters.

To winnow the seeds, roll the flowers between your fingers and the palms of your hands to free them . Lettuce seed is challenging to separate because the seeds are not much heavier than the chaff. Patiently drop small amounts of the seed/chaff over a tray, from a height of a foot or two while blowing gently. The seed should drop and the fluff blow away. Some people run the seed through screens but we have not tried this method. Commercially available seed-sifting screens are another option. They have different sized holes.

Put ripened lettuce flowers into a paper bag to finish drying.
Lettuce seed will remain viable for 2-3 years if kept in a cool, dark place, in an air-tight container.

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