Old gardeners know all about saving seeds. As newer gardeners develop their gardens and learn more about which vegetable varieties they prefer while reducing input costs, “seed saving” often becomes a part of their gardening plan.
Saving seeds from one year’s vegetables or flowers to grow the next year requires some understanding of basic genetics (heirlooms vs hybrids), harvest timing, drying techniques, and finally, storage.
Genetically, not all seeds saved from one year to the next will be the same. Heirloom plants have been pollinated over time, and fruit from the heirloom varietal you save should have most of the characteristics of the parent. Gathering and saving seeds from a hybrid plant will often result in disappointment as only the first generation cross (i.e., hybrid) will yield the improved traits that led you to choose it in the first place. Hybrid plants are grown from seeds crossed from two pure parent lines. These parent plants are not similar and are combined to create desirable traits, such as disease resistance, increased vigor, and uniformity. The result of these crosses usually only lasts one generation, so the seeds harvested from hybrids may produce frustrating results.
When growing heirlooms, be sure to save seeds from your high quality, typical fruits. For example, if you desire a tomato variety that is round, dark red, and the size of a baseball, do not save seeds from fruits that are pale, elongated, or undersized.
While any seed can be saved to plant the following year, experts suggest saving seeds from the following: beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce. The reason for this short list is that these vegetables are self-pollinating and are likely to be true to what you raised the previous year.
When these vegetables above are ripe enough to eat, they may not always be mature enough to save seed. Different vegetables require different methods in order to gather the seed from the plant. For example, beans and peas should be allowed to mature and dry on the plant. The tender Purple Hull pea pods we pick and cook have seeds that are not dried. Leave some bean pods on the plant and then you can easily break them open to remove the seeds.
Left unharvested, lettuce will send up flower stalks that contain seeds. If you harvest all of your lettuce when it is time to eat it, you may never see a seed! Lettuce has individual composite flowers that are similar to dandelion flowers. So, harvest lettuce seeds before they are dispersed by the wind and separate the seed from the tufts that allow them to blow in the wind.
Tomato seeds can be harvested when the fruit is ripe enough to eat. Their seeds must be fermented to separate them from the gelatinous pulp that surrounds them.
To do so, cut the tomatoes and squeeze the seeds and pulp into a jar with water. Let the jar sit for two to three days, agitating it occasionally. The viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the jar. Pour out floating seeds and liquid from the top of the jar. Fill with fresh water and repeat. When enough seeds are completely separated, pour the viable seeds from the bottom of the jar onto a cheesecloth, a paper towel, or a fine sieve to dry.
While most seed savers focus on vegetables, you can also save seeds from flowers. Though some flowers readily seed themselves, you can control where those seeds are replanted and gather them to share with others.
Check for mature, dried seeds about two to three weeks after the plants have bloomed. Flowers that lend themselves well to seed saving include bachelor’s buttons, calendula, cosmos, four o’clocks, globe amaranth, marigolds, morning glories, nasturtiums, and zinnias. Sunflowers are another popular choice for seed saving. The flower petals should die back, and the head should be allowed to dry for a few days while on the stalk. You will probably need to cover it with a paper bag to keep birds from eating the seeds. The flower head can then be cut off to dry in the bag in a warm, dry space.
The final step for seed savers is to dry and store the seeds for the following season. Seeds should be dried to the point where they could be snapped by hand or shattered with a hammer. Another test for proper dryness is to make sure that you cannot dent the seed with your fingernail. Gardeners spread seeds on various materials to dry them, including newspapers, coffee filters, paper plates, and screens.
So long as seeds are kept in a cool, dry, dark place, they can be stored in a number of clean containers. Some seed savers have good luck with storing seeds in the refrigerator; others feel that this environment could contain too much moisture, causing the seeds to mold. You’ll want to experiment to find the storage location that works best for you.
Regardless of how they are stored, your seeds should be labeled with details about the plant variety and harvest date. Many seeds are viable for only a few years, which makes the date of harvest very important.