Saving heirloom seeds is really pretty easy, even for the beginning seed saver. Of course, you need to know a few things about how plants mate and produce seed early on, but once the seeds are harvested there are a few tricks that can help you save seeds that are much more likely to germinate quickly and grow well in the garden next spring. Naturally, the first trick for saving seed is to harvest them at the right time. The second trick is simply to clean and sort your seeds. There are many ways to do this, but the fastest and easiest way to sort any kind of seed is by using a simple set of seed screens.
In it’s most basic form, a seed cleaning screen (or just seed screen) is made up of a piece of wire mesh that has been firmly secured to a frame. The basic idea is that seeds and chaff are placed on top and sifted or pushed through the holes. Typically, the larger seeds are meant to stay on top while the chaff and small seeds fall through. True seed screens are graded by the space between the mesh, from large to small and frames can be square, round or rectangular. Seed screens are also sometimes called hand sieves and referred to in many ways such as scalping screens and sifting screens, for example.
No matter what you call them, using a seed screen to clean and sort dry seed can be extremely helpful. Having only one seed screen can be very helpful, but for just a little extra time or money, a set of several screens made with mesh of various sizes increases overall versatility and effectiveness. Seed screens and hand sieves are available online, either as a set of graded screens or as completely assembled sets that are sturdy and ready to use.
Fully assembled screens may seem a bit pricey at first, but most are made with quality materials that ensure their long and useful life. If money is an issue, go for the set of 5 or 6 graded mesh screens and build your own frames using what you have on hand. Use this handy diagram from the good folks at Seed Savers Exchange to help you build your own seed screens.
In the end, seed screens help seed savers save better quality seed by allowing them to sort seed by size. Why is this important? Because bigger seeds tend to be fully mature and contain large healthy embryos, which in turn enable them to germinate more quickly and produce healthy seedlings next year. In the end, sowing only the largest seeds is a form of selection that encourages the production of large seeds in the next and future generations. And if you’re growing crops like dry beans or shell peas for food, bigger seeds are always better!
In the picture below, I used two sizes of seed screens to sort a batch of black-eyed peas for food and seed. While it is normal to have various sizes of seed in each and every pod, it is not practical to hand-sort those that are deformed, immature, diseased, or shriveled. By using a large-holed mesh screen on top and a smaller one below, I was able to separate the largest seed from the rest of the lot. Once the biggest seeds were isolated, it was easy to spot and hand-cull any that had insect damage, cracked seed coats, or deformities, and set aside a portion of those for use as high-quality garden seed.
The peas that were left after the first cleaning were a mixed bag of undesirables and edibles, which I further sorted using a set of screens that had smaller mesh. The whole process took about 10 minutes and gave me a good choice of the biggest, healthiest seeds for saving and a plethora of quality dry beans for storing and eating. Had I been required to hand-sort this entire lot of black-eyed peas, I would have been at it for hours. With the seed screens, it took a whopping 20 minutes, including the final hand-sorting of my seed stock.
I hope you’ll give seed screens a try on your next seed saving adventure. They are extremely helpful when used to clean and sort seed of all sizes and relatively cheap to make yourself at home.
Until then, happy gardening!
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with proper titles and credits and a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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