This post was originally published in the Wenatchee World.
So you say you have never saved seeds before. Well, you are in luck because today is a great day to start. There are a multitude of plants in your garden and landscape that you have the ability to collect the seed from and fall is the time to do it.
Remember that head of lettuce you forgot about in your garden all summer long that is now stretching toward the sky and is covered in white fluff? Turns out that white fluff is valuable stuff and is worth holding on to. Like its cousin prickly lettuce, the more refined culinary varieties are also capable of making seed within the length of a Central Washington summer. And even though many of the varieties available in seed catalogs are labelled as F1 Hybrids (This is not genetic modification but old-fashioned cross breeding often using hand pollination methods.) many of the commercial lettuce varieties are very stable hybrids yielding babies that look and taste just like their parents. So find an old brown paper lunch bag and a scissors or clippers and walk yourself out to that lettuce on your next day off (And preferably before a strong wind blows all of the fluff away!). To harvest, simply clip off the flower stalks of the lettuce and place them seed head first into the paper bag.
When you get back to your house, use your fingers to gently rub the seeds free from the stems. Discard the stem material into the compost. Allow the seed and fluff to dry for a day or two out of direct sunlight with good air circulation (meaning: don’t overfill the bag). Once they have had a chance to dry, you should be able to rub the fluff free from the seed using your fingers. The seed should fall to the bottom of the bag leaving the fluff on top. Don’t worry about trying to get every last seed cleaned. In the bottom of your bag should be more than enough loose seed to get your garden started next spring.
Pour the seed into a small metal bowl and use a fan (like a blow dryer on the lowest no heat setting) to blow the fluff away. It will take a little practice to get the technique right but it can be a very effective method for cleaning your seed once you figure out the correct angle to hold the fan. Do this activity outside so you don’t end up blowing all the fluff around inside your house…oops. And to be safe, while you are learning to manipulate the fan, hold the bowl over a cookie sheet or shallow pan so that you can catch any seed you accidentally blow out of the bowl.
After completing this last step, you should now have a quantity of beautiful lettuce seeds that you can keep for next season. Pour the cleaned seed into an envelope. Seal and label the envelope with the variety (if you remember) and the year the seed was collected. The envelope can be stored in the freezer or in a cool and dark location until needed. Typically seed is best if used within the first year or two of saving. Once you have mastered the art of saving lettuce seed, begin experimenting with other crops. It can be incredibly rewarding to grow food from the seed that you collected yourself. And as time goes on, you can refine your techniques and begin experimenting with selective breeding, creating unique varieties that are well suited to your own personal garden environment.
Have fun and happy gardening!