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Tips for Saving Seeds

Gardeners have been saving their vegetable and flower seeds ever since they have been planting gardens. After all, this is the only way to ensure that plant varieties will endure for generations. However, many gardeners as of late (myself included) have succumbed to picking up seed packets off supermarket shelves or ordering from seed catalogs.

It has only been since WWII that growers have had the option to buy affordable, high quality commercial seeds. Before that, the only alternative was to save their own or trade with friends and neighbors.

Saving seed from your own garden is a way to duplicate a delectable harvest and also to save money. By carefully selecting plants that flourish in your locale and saving their seed, you can create strains that are well adapted to local growing conditions…and it only takes a little effort. Here are a few guidelines:

Which Plants Are Best for Seed Harvesting

Without saying, it makes sense to choose plants that are the most vigorous, the ones that over-produce and have the best fruits and to choose the prettiest flowers. Besides this fact, take into account that not all plants produce productive seeds. Most of the plants sold in garden stores are hybrids that are created by artificially cross-pollinating cultivars and will not produce plants true to the originals. Do NOT save seeds from hybrids because they will produce seedlings that are different from the parent plant and are of sub-standard quality. If seed packets are printed with “Hybrid” or “F1” stay away from them if you want to save seeds from their plants.

Open-pollinated plants are the best choice for saved seeds. These are non-hybrid cultivars that produce by self-pollination or cross-pollination. Seeds from open-pollinated plants will breed true, providing they do not cross-pollinate with another plant of the same species. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated.

Self-pollinating plants like beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes have flowers that contain both male and female parts for fertilization. Each flower can be fertilized from itself or a nearby flower of the same plant. Saved seeds from self-pollinated plants almost always produce identical plants.

The majority of vegetables are cross-pollinated. These include broccoli, peppers and squash. They can be fertilized by pollen from other plants of the same family. When saving seed, take care to prevent cross-pollination between similar varieties growing nearby. For example, if you plant two types of radishes, they will cross.

Saving Seeds Depends on Plant Life Cycle

It gets tricky when saving vegetable, flower and herb seeds from different plant cycles. Annuals, biennials and perennials produce seeds at different intervals.

Annuals such as basil, beans, marigolds, tomatoes, oregano and others are ideal to harvest seed from as they are only grown for one season.

Biennials won’t produce seeds the first season so protect them over the winter and grab the seeds the second year. Beets, caraway, evening primrose, mint and Swiss chard are examples that require a little more patience.

Perennials are generally reproduced from cuttings or division. These are your bulbs and rhizomes.

When to Save Seeds

Be sure and wait until seeds are mature to save them. Plants give clues when their seeds are ready such as faded flowers, pods turn brown and are dried and ripe seeds turn color from white to tan to dark brown. Some seeds such as those from melons are ready when the fruit is ripe for picking while others aren’t prime until after the first frost.

The biggest thing is to make sure they are dry. If you fail to let seeds dry completely, they will mold and you will lose germination. The best way is to let nature do the work for you and leave them in the plant as long as possible. Just don’t wait until every seed is ripe or you risk losing many seeds to birds and wildlife. Make sure you choose at least four or five different plants to save seed from on the off chance that one plant is not viable

How to Save Seeds

The best time to harvest is after the dew has evaporated on a sunny day. That is when there is less moisture. Pluck the seeds and lay them out on newspapers or paper towels to dry. In the case of tomato seeds or squash or pumpkin, scoop out the goop and all and wash thoroughly before laying out to dry.

Tomato seeds take a little more work. Put them in a glass or container, add two teaspoons of water and then cover with plastic wrap. Poke a hole in the plastic and put in the windowsill to keep warm. Each night, remove the plastic and stir. After two to three days the fermentation will kill any diseases and the good seeds will sink to the bottom. Rinse with cold water and dry like you would other seeds.

Where to Store Seeds

Again, the most important thing is to keep them dry. Put them in jars or other containers, label them and store in a dark, cool place. Varying temperatures, heat and moisture are not kind to seeds and threaten their ability to germinate. Every 10 degree F decrease in storage temperature at temperatures above freezing doubles seeds storage life. Likewise, every 1% decrease in seed moisture content doubles its storage life.

Saving seeds isn’t really that hard and there is satisfaction in knowing that you are preserving a piece of your generation for ones yet to come. Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization founded in 1975 that consists of a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and collecting heirloom seeds and plants.

It is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. Its collection of 25,000 heirloom seeds is housed on an 890-acre farm near Decorah, Iowa, and serves more than 11,000 members and the public at large through its mission to preserve the world’s endangered garden heritage for future generations. If you are looking for a particular seed, you can contact them at 563-382-5990

Thanks to this organization and private seed savers, we have heirloom seeds and plant varieties that will live on for years to come.

Images courtesy of Getty Images

Published on Oct 12, 2020

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