There are numerous reasons to save seeds. One benefit is cost savings, but there are other perks, including being able to save seeds from your healthiest, tastiest plants.
I used to think that when a gardener starts to save his or her own seed, it is akin to embarking on a doctorate program in backyard food production. I found it pretty intimidating.
Then I heard horticulturist Christopher Wallen, from Dillsburg, Pa., begin a talk on seed saving with this: “Saving seed is so simple even a caveman could do it.”
As Wallen intended, it reminded me that between nature and the early gatherers in our tribes, seed has persisted without complication for uncountable years. Gathering seed for next year’s planting was part of the routine of growing food since there has been cultivation. For example, archeologists have found that nearly 10,000 years ago, Mesoamericans were not only collecting and saving seeds, but they were able to select teosinte (a grassy annual plant) seeds and over time, develop the food staple that we now know as corn. These ancient practices were passed down through generations and the cultural knowledge made the activity seem simple.
“Take seeds out of the fruit or pod. Let them dry and store. It’s that simple. Anything else is a detail,” said Wallen.
For kitchen gardeners, there are numerous reasons to save seeds. An obvious benefit is cost savings, but there are other perks that are actually more important. One overlooked advantage is the natural selection and adaptation process. Key to good seed saving is harvesting seeds from your healthiest and tastiest plants. Seeds from those plants will have the characteristics of their parent plants and over time, while the vegetables will be true to type, a strain personalized to your taste, region, soil and climate, will be developed. Regionally grown seeds are adapted to the area’s specific cultural conditions.
While there are exceptions, many hybrid seeds will not reproduce true to type. Seed-saving enthusiasts generally recommend starting with open-pollinated, heirloom seeds. These plants will produce seeds that closely resemble their parent plants — with a caveat having to do with pollination — which is one of the details referred to by Wallen.
The basic process involves cutting open the fruit or pods, scooping out the seeds and allowing them to thoroughly dry. With some fruits, such as tomatoes and squash, the seeds are allowed to ferment in their own juices for a period of days and then repeatedly rinsed before drying. The fermentation breaks down a chemical coating on the seed that would prevent germination. Dry the seed on a towel in an open area.
For pod-seed harvest, for vegetables such as beans, the seeds need to stay on the plant until they are brown and drying, generally four to six weeks after the pods would have been harvested for eating. Simply remove the seed and allow to fully dry.
All seeds to be saved should be placed in an airtight container, such as a glass jar or envelope, and stored in a cool place.
For leafy veggies, herbs and some brassicas, the vegetables are allowed to fully flower. Once pollinated, the seed will begin to form in pods. Harvest the pods when dry.
The tricky aspect to seed saving (perhaps similar to Ph.D. study) is the possibility of cross-pollination. Many crops, such as wind-pollinated corn or insect-pollinated squash and melons, can be very easily “contaminated” by another variety within their type. If you want to save seeds from these groups, you need to separate them by great distances. Squash within the same species need to be separated hundreds of feet. Wind-pollinated crops, such as corn can be cross-pollinated by crops as far as a mile or more away. Serious seed savers go as far as to cover all the blossoms or tassels with bags and then hand pollinate. Growers can also isolate crops in greenhouses or create other barriers to prevent wind pollination, such as caging or using closed, high tunnels.
For the home gardener, growing just one variety of a vegetable vulnerable to cross-pollination each season is a way to avoid this issue. Even if there is an unwanted crossing from neighboring gardens, you might end up with a happy accident. A crossed squash is still an edible squash.
Lucky for gardeners, many of our favorite vegetables are actually self-pollinating — the flowers pollinate themselves — and starting to save seeds of those plants keeps the process simple enough for a caveman. Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, in Mansfield, Mo., suggests beginning with tomatoes, common beans, eggplant, lettuces and cowpeas.
If your favorite vegetable is the tomato, you won’t need as much advanced study to save seed. However, if your favorite green is kale, saving seeds from kale — or any biennial vegetable —might take at least a master’s class. A biennial veggie is one that requires two years to flower. Plants have to overwinter and then be nurtured through a second growing season in order to coerce them to flower. Many cool-season vegetables and many root veggies are biennials.
Harvesting seeds from tomatoes is as easy as squeezing the fruit.2
With several vegetables, including tomatoes, allowing the seed to ferment in the natural juices causes a chemical reaction that improves seed germination.2
Saving seed, using some of the suggestions here, is simple. But be warned. If you start on this path, you might just find yourself paying close attention to the details and earning yourself a doctorate degree in pollination and seed production.
1. Photo courtesy of Laura Matthews
2. Photo courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
From State-by-State Gardening July/August 2013.