Category Archives: Cleaning Equipment

The Real Seed Catalogue DIY Seed Cleaner

Here is a video that Ben Gable from the Real Seed Company sent me of their DIY seed cleaner:

Open-Source, DIY Seed Cleaner Plans are also available on their site

If you want to see more DIY seed cleaning equipment, you can view two of my previous post that include the air columns that Patrice Fortier and Greta Kryger built.

Do any of you have homemade seed cleaning equipment you’d love to share with other seed growers?

Also, tomorrow (March 23) there is a free webinar on Breeding for Nutrition in Organic Seed Systems at 2 p.m. Eastern. However you have to register in advance.


Visiting Greta’s Organic Gardens

This post is a little late coming …

On August 25th, 2010, the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network (ECOSGN) hosted a field trip to Greta’s Organic Gardens in Ottawa, Ontario. The visit was broken up into

  • A little about Greta,
  • A field walk,
  • A tomato taste test,
  • A peek inside Greta’s seed workshop, and
  • A seed cleaning demonstration.

A Little Bit About Greta

Greta Kryger is a staple at most Seedy Saturdays and Sundays across Quebec and Ontario. Her seeds are also available through her on-line seed catalogue. Greta grows all her own tomato, pepper, eggplant, and melon seed in addition to as many other species as she can fit in to her gardens.

Greta’s Organic Gardens began as a market garden in 1991. She began saving seeds and  selling at the Ottawa and Toronto Seedy Saturdays in 1992-1993. In the late nineties, she switched from market gardening to 100% seed production. Her production has been certified organic since 2003.

Greta has also been on the ECOSGN steering committee since its first meeting in March 2008.

Field Walk

The morning began with a walk across Greta’s fields.

A few cucurbit species on black geotextile (for weed control).


Some of Greta’s seed crops are also grown in tunnels. This adds heat and isolates plants from  other pollen sources.

These guys make good use of any seed cleaning byproducts (i.e squash and tomato pulp).

Tomato Taste Test

Greta is known for her huge selection of tomatoes. With a couple of volunteers, Greta set up 30 or so sampling stations of different tomatoes.

Tasters rated each tomato from 1 to 5 on different aspects such as taste and  appearance.

A Peek Into Greta’s Seed Workshop/Greenhouse

This greenhouse is Greta’s seed wonderland with an aquatic garden and heat loving plants.

The controlled climate let’s Greta collect seed from many plants that might not set much seed in our climate.

In one corner of the greenhouse, tomatoes are fermenting.

Tomato seeds are placed on screens (these are actually pepper seeds.)

Then stacked to dry.

Greta also brings seed crops into the greenhouse to dry out of the rain.

Some seed crops are hung in pillow cases to dry.

Seed Cleaning Demonstration

Greta uses a set of seed screens (also notice the colander collection in the upper left corner) to remove most of the chaff from her seeds. The final cleaning of most crops is done with this air column:

Dirty seeds go in the top right pipe. Lighter material (dirt, dust, chaff) is blown out the top of the long pipe. Heavier material (seeds and maybe stones) are collected from the bottom of the pipe.

The air column is powered by a bathroom fan with a dimmer switch.

(Compare this with Patrice Fortier’s air column.)

Thanks Greta for a great farm tour and a great farm lunch – the turkey meat balls were especially good!

ECOSGN is currently planning more great seedy events – more details soon …

Cleaning Lettuce Seed

Lettuce is the other seeed crop that took me years to learn how to clean well (radishes being the first).

The basics are like other dry seeded crops (thresh, screen and winnow ad nauseam) but to do a good job I’ve had to pay a lot of attention to the threshing and final screening.

(If you want to read more about growing lettuce for seed : growing lettuce seed under field tunnels  and growing out crossed-up lettuce seed)

Harvesting Lettuce Seed

I keep a regular eye on the lettuce plants to catch them as they flower.

After flowering, the lettuce blooms close up.

A couple of weeks later, the flowers open again to reveal little fluffies at the end of mature seed (kind of like dandelions).

Since the seed doesn’t all mature at once, some folks walk their lettuce patch every couple days and shake the plants into bins or paper backets to collect the seed. I’ve tried this approach but don’t have the time to handle the plants this regularly.

Instead, when about 1/2 the flowers are mature, I harvest the whole plant.

I cut the plants above the roots (keeping dirt in the garden!), pile them in bins, and bring them back to the barn.

Drying Lettuce Seed Plants

I spread the lettuce plants out on tarps with a fan blowing air over them. I rotate the plants at least once a day so that the leaves dry down rather than rot.

If I have a little lots, I dry them upside down in a bucket.

The lettuce plants usually dry for 1-2 months before I process the seed. By this time the plants are completely dry and most of the seed has matured.

Threshing Lettuce Seed

Whereas we now stomp most seed crops to thresh them, we put on kid gloves to handle lettuce.

We rub the plants vigorously between our hands so the flowers fall apart dropping the seed and fluff.

This leaves the stems bare. I try not to break many stem pieces into the mix as they can be tough to later extract.

Screening Lettuce Seed (First Time)

I usually skip the 1/2″ screen and move right to the 1/4″ screen.

I separate the seed and chaff into the bin below and leave any stem on the screen. This is where cleaning lettuce seed gets tricky because the chaff is similar in weight to the seed and the fluff doesn’t seem to want to let go.

At this point I turn to more specialized equipment.

Screening Lettuce Seed (SeconD Time)

This is my favorite colander. The size of the holes are perfect for little oblong seeds (such as lettuce).

I rub the chaff-seed mix through.

This extracts the coarse material. I use this screen a few times and wind up with seed and a bit of fluff.

Winnowing Lettuce Seed

At this point I winnow delicately. If the seed is still dirty. I winnow again a bit more aggressively and perhaps run the seed through my colander another time.

One of the biggest tricks I’ve learned is to not try to save every last seed. When I accept losing a bit of seed, I can get the remaining seed much cleaner.

This is about as clean as I can get most lots with screens and fans. I pick out some of the remaining bits but have to live with the rest.

I apologize for the delay in getting this post up (Brian Creelman has been asking me to post about lettuce for nearly a year.)

Some of the delay is because I’m not much of a lettuce seed man – I’ve often had trouble getting lettuce seed crops to maturity and even though I’ve been cleaning lettuce seed 10 years, I still can’t get it as clean as most other seed. I’m currently looking into some seed screens from Hoffman Manufacturing. If these work out maybe I’ll become a lettuce seed cleaning maniac. I’ll keep you posted!

The rest of the delay is that I’ve been conference and workshop hopping this past month and any my spare time has been going into our new website. I’ll tell you guys more about all that soon …

Special Seed Winnowing Bucket

On my last post, Xander commented on the bucket I was using to winnow radish seed. The bucket in question in one of the 2011 additions  to my seed cleaning arsenal. Here a few shots of this bucket in action:

Restricting seed and chaff flow rate

I use this modified bucket to restrict the amount of material falling at once and pour a steady stream of material in front of the winnowing fans.

I used an old wooden field marker as the bar and fixed it in place with duct tape. This works better on a bucket with straight sides.

Usually the material flows easily through the gap. Sometimes the chaff gets stuck and blocks the flow.

Increasing flow rate

I use a finger to dislodge any stuck material.

Decreasing flow rate

If on the other hand material is going through too quickly, I use my hand to hold some of the chaff back. I might also do this if the chaff threatens to pour over the bar instead of under!

Anybody have any equally handy high-tech seed cleaning equipment?

Also, happy new year!

Saving Radish Seed With Gusto!

As a new seed saver I used to work delicately with seed crops to avoid any damage and minimize seed loss. This worked well for plants like arugula that have seed that shatters easily and light chaff. But radishes, with their big spongy pods that squished before shattering and left pieces of pod the same size as the seed, gave me a headache. And after a couple miserable attempts, I gave up on radishes for many years.

Four years ago, with some seed saving experience, I tried radishes again with success. The differences in my approach came down to making sure the pods were very dry and not being too delicate with the extraction process (quite the opposite in fact!).

I clean  radish seeds with multiple cycles of threshing, screening and winnow steps in my radish cleaning. This is what I call aggressive seed cleaning and use this approach with seeds that don’t easily shatter (snap beans, and now chicory, fall in this list).

This post covers the radish seed cleaning,  you can read about growing the plants for seed here:

On with the cleaning!

Primary Threshing

We harvest the plants when they’ve dried down in the field. Then let them dry further in the barn

When they are dry, I put the plants in a bin and stomp them with my boots.

I screen out the plant stems and largest material with a 1/2″ screen.

This is what fell through the screen. There are still a lot of whole pods in here.

I run this through a 1/4″ screen. The whole pods stay on top.

This is the chaff and seed (with a few whole pods) that went through the second screen. I leave this in a bin and pay attention to the pods that didn’t fall through.

secondary Threshing

This is what didn’t go through the screen.

I stomp on the pods some more and then screen again the 1/4″ screen. I add what falls through the screen to the bin with what fell through during the previous step. I repeat with any pods that didn’t fall through the mesh.

After a few passes all the plant material has fallen through the 1/4″ screen and is collected in one bin.

I take this bin into the barn.


I transfer the chaff and seed to a bucket and then winnow.

I start with the fans on low-speed and crank the speed each successive pass till I achieve desired results. In the case of radish seed both fans are at high-speed.

I winnow over three bins on a tarp. I can recuperate my seeds if I have a fanning mishap, and also I can see what is being separated at different steps.

The left bin (closest to the fan) is full of seed and non-shattered pods. The bin on the right is full of stems and shattered pods.


Repeat Threshing And Winnowing

I compost the plant matter from the bin on the right and screen the bin on the left with my 1/4″ screen. crushing anything that doesn’t go through with my boots.

After another cycle or two of screening and winnowing, the large plant matter has been removed from the seed.

Only the seeds remain with a few big bits. At this point I take out my specialized radish screen.

Final Screening

This is one of my fine collection of colanders, the square  holes are the right size for radish seed.

I pour the seed into the colander and delicately shake from side to side …

separating the last bits from the seed lot.

I lay the clean seeds on a tray to dry a few more days than bag them up to bring them into the office.

Key Lessons

As you can see I really kick the seeds out of those pods – hence aggressive seed cleaning. Getting the seeds free from the pods is the critical first step in seed cleaning. From that point on screens and fans can do the rest.

Next, I’ll talk about how aggressive winnowing does the job for lettuce seed.

More ways to clean brassica seeds

Over the last 10 days I’ve been cleaning the brassica seed we harvested in June from overwintered plants. This is to clear some space for spring planted brassica seed crops that are ready for harvest.

I’ve already written about our brassica seed cleaning techniques. However this year I used some different threshing methods:

Your choice of music is not important for the success of this method, as long as it’s loud.

I always wear gloves when handling dry seed crops. It is very easy to get splinters. Whether working by foot or by hand I’ve also started wearing a dust mask when cleaning dry seed crops.

The chaff pile also has a video on alternative brassica seed cleaning methods.

If you want to know more about the harvesting part of this operation, you can read my 2010 brassica seed harvesting post.

Now, if the thunder storms hold off, we’ll get into some serious garlic harvesting.



Saving Bean Seeds

As I started this post, I realized I haven’t shared much about our bean production this year. That kind of surprised me since we grow 100-150 lbs of beans a year and spend a good part of September cleaning bean seeds.

Why don’t we catch up and first look at

  • different types of bean seed
  • and harvesting beans.

Then we can talk about cleaning beans seeds by

  • threshing
  • winnowing
  • screening

These are the same steps we use to clean brassica seeds, but the process is slightly different because of the size and weight of the beans.


Stating there are different types of beans seeds can mean different things:

  • It could refer to species. We do grow four main bean species: Phaseolus coccineus (runner beans), Vigna angularis (adzuki beans), Glycine Max (soybean), and Phaseolus vulgaris (the common bean).
  • It could refer to variety names: Black Turtle,  Painted Lady, Provider, and many more
  • It could refer to color, flavor or use.

But when you’re saving seed the main distinction is whether the bean is primarily used as a dry bean, or as a fresh snap bean.

  • Snap bean varieties  have sweet pods that are less fibrous than dry bean pods. As these sweet pods mature, they tightly wrap themselves around the beans inside. These wrinkled pods resist shattering and are quite difficult to clean.
  • Dry bean varieties have starchy pods that don’t wrinkle as they mature. When the pod is dry, a good tap will split the pod open spilling the beans.

The following photos demonstrate how we harvested and cleaned Black Coco beans – a dry bean. The same methods work for snap beans but take more time. For small batches of snap beans, it can be easiest to just shell them by hand.


Beans are ready when the pods look white and papery.

We cut the whole plant with secateurs, stuff them in bins and bring them to the greenhouse to dry. This usually happens during the first 3 weeks of September.

If most of the pods have yet to mature, we pick individual dry pods by hand so they won’t be exposed inclement weather. This is usually the case for pod beans and snap beans.


When the pods have thoroughly dried, we use people power to get the beans out of the pods and off the plants.

This can be done by bashing the plants against the side of a bin.

Or by getting ready for the tap dancing competition.

As the pods shatter we remove the empty plants and put them in the wheelbarrow. We pour the bin contents into buckets.

We wind up with a number of buckets that look like they are full of dust, sticks and bits of leaves.


When we clean light little seeds (such as brassicas), we winnow indoors where we can control the wind with fans. With heavy seeds (such as beans), we happily work outside, pouring beans from container to container.

Look at those beans go!

We winnow a few buckets into a bin.

Then winnow a few more times from bin to bin. This removes  most of  the chaff.


Next we pour the beans through screens.

First we use a 1/2″ screen. This removes large pieces of stems and pod pieces. After screening once, we’ll often winnow another time.

Then we use a smaller screen.

The beans don’t fit through this 1/4″ screens. Smaller pieces fall pass into the bin below.

This step removes stones and shriveled beans that would be too heavy to winnow out

We winnow the beans again and to remove any remaining big light pieces. This leaves a bunch of nice beans mixed with objects of similar size and  weight (including rocks and shriveled germinated beans).


During the winter, I spread the beans out on cookie sheets and pick out bad beans and stones by hand. I do this over a couple of weeks while listening to the radio (the CBC is a constant seed cleaning companion).


Fred and I will be attending the Guelph Organic Conference from January 27-30. We will be giving a course on crop planning for vegetable growers. I will also be on a panel on farm financial sustainability and Fred will give a talk on running a cooperative farm.