Any discussion of seed saving should start out with—why? What’s in it for me? Seeds are readily available at most neighborhood big box stores, garden centers, and even local dollar stores. Why would I want to go to the trouble of saving my own seeds?
Why Seed Saving?
- Seed saving saves you money. If you grow many types of plants, purchasing the seeds can get expensive!
- If you save seeds from your favorite varieties year after year, you will develop strains that grow well in your climate. They will develop resistance to pests in your area.
- Your saved seeds will develop flavors that are unique to your area—soils and their minerals vary from location to location. (Think Vidalia onions and Tabasco peppers.)
- Saving seeds ensures that we have a safe seed supply for future generations.
- Seed saving helps to preserve our seed diversity. Let’s look at tomatoes for instance. We all have our favorites. Our favorite tomatoes may be due to their flavor, their size, their suitability for canning and preserving, or any number of reasons. The point being—we won’t all save the same varieties of tomato seeds, so many varieties will be preserved. This study shows that in 1803 there were 408 varieties of tomato available through commercial seed catalogs. In 1983, there were only 79. Thankfully, not all those varieties were lost—farmers and home garden seed savers to the rescue—you just couldn’t get them commercially.
Next we need to look at seed ‘types’. Are you confused about all the seed terms out there—heirloom, hybrid, open-pollinated, GMO—what does it all mean?
Glossary of Seed-Types
Heirloom—Heirloom seeds are seeds that have been around long enough to have stable genetics. This means that if you plant an heirloom seed, it will produce a plant with fruit like its parent plant. For example, a Brandywine tomato seed will always produce a Brandywine tomato. Packets of heirloom seeds will be labeled ‘heirloom’.
Hybrid—Hybrid seeds come from crossing 2 or more plants to get a specific trait or result. Hybrid seeds are perfectly safe to plant and eat, but they do not have stable genetics. In other words, you have to purchase these seeds each year. Seeds saved from a hybrid plant will not produce the same plant. It could produce any number of combinations from any of its parent plants, and sometimes the seed will actually be sterile and will produce a plant that won’t fruit at all. Packets of hybrid seeds can be labeled as ‘hybrid’, ‘F1’, ‘VF’, or ‘VFN’.
Open-pollinated—This simply means seeds that come from plants that were naturally pollinated—by wind, insects, or animals (including humans!) Open-pollination is the best way to ensure that we have just enough genetic variability to maintain a strong seed supply. This term may or may not appear on seed packets
GMO—GMO is an acronym for genetically modified organism. This type of seed comes from genetically mixing not just 2 varieties of the same plant (like a hybrid), but from mixing 2 different species to create something entirely new. As a home gardener or small farmer, you will not likely encounter GMO seed. These are sold commercially to Big Ag farmers and involve contracts and legalities; it’s just good to know the definition.
Choosing Which Plants to Save Seeds From
If you have 5 tomato plants of the same variety, which seeds do you save? All of them? That would be a lot of seeds! This is your chance to play.
Watch your plants—which one is the sturdiest? Which didn’t lose half of its leaves when pests came through your garden? Which one tolerated that scorching hot week the best? Which one had the best yield? Which tomatoes tasted the best? These are all good attributes, but most likely they won’t all occur in one plant. You choose which qualities are most important to you.
So let’s say you want plants with the best yields. Each year save the seeds from the plant/s with the best yields. Eventually over the years, you’ll get a strain that reliably produces great yields.
The trick here is to save the most seeds from your best plant. You want to save a few seeds from your second choice also. You want to be careful not to breed out too much of the diversity! For instance, if you choose seeds from only the best tasting plant year after year, you may breed out strength and yield.
Which Seeds Are Easiest to Save?
What makes some seeds ‘easier’ to save? It’s all about pollination. For the beginning seed saver it’s best to start with plants that don’t easily cross-pollinate. As you gain experience, you will learn how, where, and what to plant to keep cross-pollination from happening. For now, let’s stick with tomatoes, legumes, lettuce, peppers, and annual flowers. These 5 are less likely to cross-pollinate, meaning you’ll get a plant similar to the parent plant next year.
Tomatoes—Tomato seeds are viable when the tomato is ready to eat. Tomato seeds need to be fermented. You scoop the seeds, along with the gel that surrounds them, into a jar with a lid. Cover the seeds with water. Set the jar on the counter. Shake it a few times a day. In 3-4 days, it will form a floating layer of gel, solids, and maybe a bit of mold. Good seeds will sink to the bottom of the jar, non-viable seeds float. Pour off the floating bits and most of the water. Pour your good seeds into a fine strainer and rinse until the seeds are clean. Spread them out on a paper towel, coffee filter, or paper plate. Set them aside to dry. **Note: Some people have success just dumping seeds; gel and all onto a paper towel to dry. This is not recommended. Any debris, chaff, or anything else stored along with seeds has the capacity to mold, rot, and damage your seeds.
- Legumes—Bean and pea seeds are really easy! The hardest part is leaving them on the vine and not eating them all! Near the end of the season, you’ll need to leave enough beans on the plant to save seeds for the next year. Let them dry on the plant—really, really dry. The pods will begin to shrink up and curl a bit. When they’ve reached this stage of dryness, pull them off the plant and remove them from the pod. Easy, peasy! If there is threat of frost before your beans are dry, pull up the entire plant (roots and all). Hang it upside down in a dry place until the beans are dry enough.
- Lettuce—Lettuce is a cool-season crop. When it gets too warm, your lettuce will send up a tall stalk. This is called ‘bolting’. This stalk will produce flowers which will become the seed. When about half the flowers on the stalk have gone to seed, cut the entire stalk and place upside down in a paper bag. Allow to dry. Most of the seed will simply fall out into the bag. Shake the stalk a bit to remove the rest. Collect the seed.
- Peppers—Leave the pepper on the plant until it is fully ripe. For most peppers, this means red in color. Open the pepper. Pull out the seeds. Remove any material clinging to the seeds. Rinse them. Lay them out to dry. Done!
- Annual Flowers—In general, saving seeds from annual flowers means leaving the flower on the plant until the petals wilt and/or fall off. The seeds are left behind in the ‘seed head’. There will often be lots of debris left around the seed. With flowers it can be hard to tell what is debris and what is seed. When I am unsure, I go to my favorite online search engine, type in name of flower seed (ie: marigold seed) and look for images. Then it’s easy to pick out the seed from the debris.
Seed Saving: Proper Storage and Labeling
Before you store your seed, it’s important to make sure they are dry! I’m going to repeat that—make sure your seed is dry before you store it! Damp seed can germinate in storage or cause mold that will kill the seeds.
Seed should be stored in glassine or paper envelopes. I often re-purpose junk mail envelopes. You can also use glass jars. Don’t store seeds in plastic baggies or plastic lidded containers! Plastic doesn’t breathe and retains moisture–if your seeds have any moisture in them, they will rot in plastic. Properly stored seed lasts an average of 5 years—longer for some seed, shorter for others.
Make sure to label your seeds! I know, I know—you won’t forget what you planted, right? Wrong!! You. Will. Forget. Label with plant type (tomato), variety (Brandywine), and the year the seed was saved. (So you can use your oldest seed each year.) While you’re busy labeling and storing, consider packaging up extra seeds in small amounts for giving away or trading at a local seed swap!
That’s a lot of information, isn’t it? Most of it necessary so that you know what seeds to save. Now that you know—the actual act of saving seed is simple! What are you waiting for? Give it a shot—knowledge without experience doesn’t get you very far!
For more information on seed saving, my go-to is Seed Savers Exchange. They are a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds and the stories that go with them. They have a large amount of educational material available for free on their website.
Happy Seed Saving!