Saving Seeds: In Our Nature
At some point, all gardeners save seeds. It’s in the nature of who we are as growers of things. We will save them with diligence or just here and there as the mood and opportunity strike. We carry paper sacks for gathering pods and seeds in our back pocket — or in the back seat of the car, just in case we run across a plant we can identify and that has seeds to be saved. We scribble notes on the bag and carry them home to cram into a drawer with other scribbled-on bags because there will come a time when those seeds will be needed, wanted, or just remembered.
The reasons for saving seeds are easier to understand than many make them out to be. Gardeners are all for protecting bio-diversity and not losing varieties to the march of evolution or the corporate seed behemoths. Again, it’s in our nature.
We save seeds so we can grow the things we want. We save seeds to save money. And we save seeds because we have never lost the ability to be amazed at how one tiny fleck of material can become a plant that feeds us in so many ways.
Gardeners grow things because they like to grow things. The results — a flower arrangement or grilled vegetables are the very nice by-products of our enjoyment of growing things. Saving seeds, and growing things with saved seeds, is fundamental to our enjoyment of the process.
Likewise, gardening can be an expensive hobby (some would say a contact sport in the South) and seeds make up a certain portion of that expense. A single, ripe tomato can yield about 50 seeds, which is about double the amount of seeds in a standard packet. A packet can cost from $4 to $5. Looking at it this way, a single ripe tomato has an equivalent value. We would not normally pay $5 for a single tomato but we do when we buy seed packets. Saving seeds eliminates this.
And the amazement that comes from a single tomato seed and its ability to produce a plant with dozens or hundreds of delicious fruits simply defies words.
Along with all of the other complicated reasons to save seeds there are wordy books full of Latin names, cross-pollination guidelines, and convoluted storage processes. In general, gardeners like simple things (Latin names aside which are widely despised) and much like the reasons, the way to save seeds is really very simple.
So let’s go back to our first reason for saving seeds — growing the things we want. That means we will save the seeds from plants we really like. If you don’t really like eggplant, don’t save the seeds. Don’t like marigolds? Don’t bother. Just save the seeds from things you like.
Second, we will save the seeds of things we have already grown ourselves. That way we already know that the seeds are viable and have the characteristics we like. By viable we mean seeds that come from open-pollinated or heirloom varieties of plants. The only way to know is if you planted it yourself.
And third, you have to grasp the basics of processing, drying, and storing seeds so that they can be used in the future.
Open-Pollinated Seeds and Those Damn Bees
So we’ve decided to just save seeds from the things we like. Now we need to make sure they are viable plants. There are two parts to this.
We need to save seeds from open-pollinated and heirloom varieties and not hybrids. Open-pollinated plants are varieties that have the same or similar genetic parents. Heirloom varieties are handed-down, open-pollinated varieties with documentation of their generational history and are typically at least 50 years old. All heirlooms are open-pollinated. Not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. Hybrids (F1) varieties are crosses between similar genetic parents that produce a desired result (tall, short, colors, textures…) Hybrids are not usually genetically modified (but some are).
So which seeds can you save? The seeds of all open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of plants and flowers can be saved and will produce new plants which are identical to the parent with similar traits. Read the tag to see if it is a hybrid plant.
The second part involves the problem of cross-pollination. Some plants are easily cross-pollinated by bees, insects, or the wind. Other plants, not so much. For beginners it’s always advisable to stick to saving seeds from plants that are self-pollinating. But you can almost eliminate this issue entirely by only growing one variety of a species at a time. You can find out if a plant is self-pollinating and its species from a variety of books and guides. And you really don’t need to grow three different kinds of cucumbers do you? If you do, great, just don’t plan on (easily) saving seeds from them.
So bottom line, save open-pollinated or heirloom varieties that are self-pollinating or grow just one variety at a time. And keep notes about growth habits, height, fruit set, and vigor while you’re at it so you’ll remember why you saved it.
The Basics of Processing, Drying and Storage
Few tools or supplies are needed to save seeds. Some seeds require dry processing, others need wet or fermentation processes. It really pays to read each plant guide and to plan ahead!
Dry: Wait until the stem and the seedpod turn brown before collecting. Care must be taken to collect seeds before the pods open and scatter seeds. Crack, crush, or thresh as required and finish drying before storage.
Seeds requiring dry processing include beans, peas, okra, lettuces, herbs and flowers.
Wet: Remove seeds and place in bowl of water. Floating seeds are not good seeds. Remove and discard floating seeds. Strain and dry the seeds on wax paper or a plate (not on paper towels because they will never come off without being damaged).
Seeds requiring wet processing include peppers, chiles, and some melons and cucumbers.
Fermentation: Remove seeds and place in a jar with a little water and cover. Allow them to ferment (mold) for 4 to 6 days stirring each day. Pour fermented seeds into a bowl of water and finish the same as the Wet process.
Fermentation is required for tomatoes and some melons.
All seeds should be dried fairly quickly after washing to prevent mold or premature sprouting. Do not dry seeds in the sun or at temperatures above 95°F. Seeds should be dried in a thin layer on any hard, non-stick surface such as plastic, wood, metal, glass or window screens. Avoid paper towels, newspapers, or cloth as the seeds will stick.
A combination of ambient room temperatures and airflow from fans or air conditioning is typically enough to dry all seeds.
Seeds may be stored in envelopes placed inside a moisture proof container like a large mason jar with a lid or even zip-top bags. Seeds should be kept at room temperatures out of direct light or frozen for best results. Be sure to make notes about what the seeds are, when they were saved and any traits. Place the notes directly in with the seeds for safe keeping.
Beginner Vegetable Seeds
These vegetables offer the easiest way to begin saving seeds successfully. They all produce seeds in the first year and are strong self-pollinators. Remember to select non-hybrid seeds or plants for your seed saving and keep notes about vigor, fruit size, taste, color, and other facts.
Strong self-pollinators. More than one variety can be grown nearby. Save seeds from two plants.
Process: Select two plants of the same variety and tag them for seed saving. Allow pods and stems to dry brown before harvesting, about six weeks after you would normally pick for eating. Open pods by hand onto a screen, winnow (gently blow away) the chaff, then allow to dry for a few days more before storing in an air-tight container.
Selection Traits: pole or bush, seed color, vigor, heat resistance
Strong self-pollinators. More than one variety can be grown nearby. Save seeds from two plants.
Process: Same as beans.
Selection Traits: tall or short, pod size, seed shape, vigor, heat resistance
Good self-pollinators. Grow one variety or separate by 50-feet or more. Save seeds from two plants.
Process: Select two plants of same variety and tag them for seed saving. Allow fruits to fully mature (usually turn red) before harvesting. Remove seeds from inside of peppers and dry to where they crack (not just bend). Seeds can be wet processed as well to separate any non-viable seeds that may be present. If a gel surrounds seeds, process using Fermentation method.
Selection Traits: color, flavor (heat), vigor
Good self-pollinators. Grow one variety or separate by 10-feet or more. Save seeds from four plants.
Process: Requires fermentation process. Select four plants for saving and tag. Allow fruits to fully mature before harvesting. Cut fruits on half at equator and squeeze out gel that contains seeds into a glass jar with lid. Add small amount of water and stir. Continue with Fermentation method. Dry seeds fully before storing.
Selection Traits: fruit size, color, flavor, vigor, plant height
Good self-pollinators. Separate lettuce varieties by 20-feet or more. Save seeds from two plants. Do not save seeds from plants that ‘bolt’ or go to seed early.
Each lettuce flower produces one seed (it’s very small!) Some outside leaves may be harvested without interrupting seed production. Allow seed heads to dry for two to three weeks after flowering. Individual heads will mature at different rates making harvest of large amount of seeds impossible at one time. When half of flowers on one plant have gone to seed cut entire top of plant and allow to dry upside down in a paper bag. Shake seeds from stalks or rub with hands to release. Winnow any chaff using a fine screen before storage.
Selection Traits: slow to bolt, color, flavor, size
And a Word or Two about Saving Flower Seeds
Saving flower seeds demands the same in terms of open-pollination and other basic guidelines presented here. Generally, flower seeds are harvested when blooms have dried (sometimes the petals fall off too). The seeds can be found inside the dried bloom or remaining on the plant stalk. Some favorites to save are marigolds (pick flowers left to dry on the plant then twist to release the seeds), cosmos (the flower petals fall off and a number of small spike seeds are left attached to the flower stalk), and sunflowers (allow one or more heads to dry on the plant — you may have to put a net around them to protect from birds — then scrape seeds out of the head and dry for one week more).
For more plant details, pollination information and sources of open-pollinated or heirloom seed varieties, visit:
Seed Savers Exchange www.seedsavers.org
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange www.southernexposure.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds www.rareseeds.com