Gardeners have been saving seed ever since we settled into one place and started growing our own food. Thanks to seed saving, and passing them down from one generation to the next, we have the heirloom seeds and plant varieties that are so prized today. It’s only since the end of World War II that growers have had the option of buying affordable, high quality commercial seeds; before that saving your own seeds or trading with neighbors was the only way to procure prospective plants.
Saving garden seeds at the end of each growing season can be a great cost saving measure and a way to duplicate last year’s delectable harvest. It’s also a good way to preserve plants that grow best in your own backyard. By carefully selecting individual plants that flourish in your garden and saving their seed, you can create strains that are well-adapted to local growing conditions.
Choosing Seeds to Save
When it comes time to decide which plants to save seeds from, look for the most vigorous and healthy plants — the ones that produce fruits or vegetables you love to eat, or flowers you can’t stop admiring.
Keep in mind, not all plants produce productive seeds. Hybrids, the majority of plants sold in most garden stores, are created by artificially cross-pollinating cultivars and will not produce plants true to type. Do NOT save the seeds from hybrids. They will produce seedlings that are very different from the parent plant and are rarely any good. Avoid seed packets with the words hybrid or F1, or ask before you buy if you plan to collect your plants’ seeds (see Hybrid Varieties and Saving Seed).
Open pollinated plants are what you’re looking for to get reliable results from seeds. They are non-hybrid cultivars that reproduce either via self pollination or cross pollination. The seed saved from an open-pollinated plant will breed true providing that it does not cross-pollinate with another plant of the same species.
Note: All heirloom seeds are open pollinated.
Self-pollinating plants, such as beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes, have flowers that contain both male and female parts. Therefore, each flower can be fertilized from itself or from a nearby flower on the same plant. Seed saved from self-pollinating plants almost always produces an identical plant. However, this does not take into account the possibility of an insect transferring small amounts of pollen from one cultivar to the next.
Note: If pollen is transferred from one flower of a self-pollinating plant to another, then the seed produced from that flower will be different from the seed produced by all the other flowers on that plant.
The majority of vegetables grown in home gardens are known as cross-pollinated plants. These cultivars, including broccoli, peppers and squash, can be fertilized by pollen from other plants of the same family. When saving seed, care should be taken to prevent cross-pollination between similar varieties growing nearby. For example, if you plant two types of radish in the garden, they will cross-pollinate with each other. The seed from these plants may or may not be what you’re looking for as they will carry traits of each plant. (Learn how to keep your seeds true to type below.)
Saving seed from vegetables, herbs and flowers is relatively easy. However, the plants life-cycle (annual, biennial or perennial) will determine when — and sometimes how — the seed can be saved.
|Annuals such as basil, beans, marigolds, tomatoes and oregano, flower and produce seed within one growing season. As a result, they are ideal plants from which to harvest seed. Biennial plants won’t produce seeds the first year, so protect them over the winter and grab their seeds at the end of the next growing season. While saving seed from biennials, such as beets, caraway, evening primrose, onion and Swiss chard, requires a little more patience, their seed will produce plants that are true to type, providing they are not allowed to cross-pollinate with similar cultivars. Perennials come back year after year and include plants such as artichokes, chives, daisy, mint and rhubarb. While they are propagated from seed, perennial plants are usually reproduced from cuttings or division (see Plant Propagation for more information).
When to Save
Wait until seeds are mature to gather them. The plants will give you a few clues as to when they are ready. Look for faded, dry flowers, or those with puffy tops. Pods should be brown and dried. Ripe seeds tend to turn from white to cream colored or light brown to dark brown.
When to collect seeds depends on the plant. Melon seeds, for example, are ready when the fruit is ripe for eating. Cucumber and squash seeds should be left on the plant until after the first frost. In general, let the seeds dry on the plant as long as possible, but don’t wait until every seed on the plant is ripe or you’re likely to lose a bunch to birds or other wildlife.
Tip: Consider saving seeds from several plants (around 5 is best) in case one or two plants produce inferior seeds.
Root crops, usually biennials, will need to be dug out in the fall and replanted in the spring so they can produce seeds their second year. Store roots between 32°-45° F. through the winter.
How to Save
Harvest seeds after the dew has dried on a sunny day. Remove as much fiber and pulp as possible. You can wash the slime off in a mild bleach mixture (1 part bleach to 10 parts water). Then lay the seeds on paper towels or newspapers to dry.
Shake plants whose seeds scatter easily (many flowers, lettuce, dill) over a paper bag every day, or so. Beans, peppers and sunflower seeds can be picked by hand.
Dry seeds on the plant for as long as possible. Then, place them on a screen or in a paper bag to completely dry before storing.
Tomatoes require a little more preparation. Slice the tomatoes across the middle and scoop out the seeds, goop and all. Add a couple teaspoons of water and the seeds to a container and cover with plastic wrap. Poke a small hole in the plastic wrap and place the container on top of the refrigerator or in a windowsill to keep it warm.
Each night remove the plastic wrap and stir the fermenting mixture. In 2-3 days the fermentation process will have killed any diseases and the seeds are ready to go. The viable seeds sink to the bottom while the non-viable seeds float to the top. Remove the debris from the top of the container and pour the rest of the mixture into a sieve. Rinse with cool water and then dry the seeds on wax paper, newspaper or paper towels.
Where to Save
When storing seeds it is very important to keep them dry or they may become moldy. You can purchase desiccant packs to keep seeds dry or keep them in glass jars, paper envelopes or plastic containers. If you go the envelope route, consider putting the envelopes in a container to keep pests away. Don’t forget to label everything so you know which seeds are which (see Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds).
Store all seeds in a cool dark place until it is time to plant. Varying temperatures, heat and moisture are not kind to seeds kept in storage and will threaten their ability to germinate.
Note: Every 10 degrees Fahrenheit decrease in storage temperature doubles the seed storage life at temperatures above freezing. Every 1 percent decrease in seed moisture content doubles seed storage life.
Seed Saving in a Small Garden
What seems like a small garden to a farmer can be a large garden to an urban grower. In this case a small garden refers to an area 300-400 square feet or smaller. If your plot is this size, you can NOT grow crops far enough apart to eliminate cross-pollination. So how do you insure that your seeds stay true to type?
An obvious technique is to plant only one variety of each plant — one kind of tomato, one type of lettuce, one variety of carrots, etc. BORING!!!.
Another technique is to set up physical barriers. Row covers can guard low growing plants from unwanted pollinators. Upright and tall plants can be surrounded by a screen, while climbing plants may need to have their flowers covered (find a material that lets in air, but keeps out insects, cut a swatch and tie it gently around individual flowers or clusters).
Now you just have to figure out a way to pollinate those covered flowers. Some plants (tomatoes, beans, peppers, chicory, endive, and peas) are largely self-pollinators. Gently shake these plants to help distribute the pollen. Lettuce can self-pollinate, but it does better with the help of bumble bees.
Other plants will need you to pollinate them. Grab a small artists’ paintbrush or Q-tip and gently touch the stamen on the male flower. Then, touch the pistil of the female flower. Some flowers have the male and female parts on the same flower, but the process is the same. Make sure you use a new Q-tip or clean the brush when pollinating more than one variety of the same cultivar. Re-cover the flowers so they aren’t susceptible to further pollination. Learn more about hand pollination here.
If a physical barrier isn’t your style, try different planting times. One way to do this is to plant similar varieties at intervals so they do not flower all at once. Easy, if you live somewhere with a long growing season, more difficult if your growing season is short. Some gardeners prefer combining these two methods by planting in intervals, but using a physical cover during the time when the flowering overlaps.
Biennial plants produce seed in their second year, and lend themselves perfectly to interval planting. For example, if there are three varieties of radishes you enjoy, plant them all the first year. Then, completely harvest two of the varieties, leaving only the best of the third variety in the ground (you will collect seed from these plants the following year). In the spring, plant all three kinds of radishes again, only this time let a different variety carry over at the end of the growing season, and so on. You can keep these seeds in the refrigerator for several years and always have a viable supply. (Other biennials include: beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celeriac, celery, collards, Florence fennel, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, parsley, parsnip, radishes, rutabaga, salsify, Swiss chard, turnips.)