Saving seeds is a great way to save money and encourage plants that thrive in your microclimate. People have been saving seeds for over 12,000 years.
Once you have plant varieties that work for you, there is often no need to continue buying seeds. Your plants will produce them for free!
There are three steps to successful seed saving: selection, timing, and storage. But, before we learn how to save seeds, we should review some basic information about plant reproduction.
Plants produce seeds to pass on genetic information. Those seeds are produced when a female gamete is pollinated. The way pollination occurs, and the plants involved, make a big difference in what the resulting seeds will become:
Seeds produced from plants pollinated by insects, wind, and other natural mechanisms are called open-pollinated (OP). Open-pollinated seeds are more genetically diverse, which helps plants adapt to new conditions. As long as cross-pollination between a different variety does not occur, open-pollinated seeds will produce similar offspring. That being said, bees can travel for several miles, carrying pollen, so there is no guarantee of avoiding cross-pollination unless you keep your plants sequestered in a greenhouse. The nice thing is, you may end up with something more beautiful, better adapted, or tastier than what you had before! If not, you can always add it to the compost pile and try again next year. So let’s get started!
Select seeds to save
The first step is to identify which plants in your garden are open-pollinated. You can use seed packets, plant labels, and online receipts to track down this information. Personally, I have a plastic tub that contains all of my seeds and seed packets, so everything is in one place. I put seeds in envelopes and then write what it is, and where and when it was planted, on the envelope. It really helps me keep track of things! Once you have figured out which of your plants are open-pollinated, pick the ones that grow well and taste the best. Be sure to save seeds from more than one plant of a particular variety, to maintain that healthy diversity. Do not save seeds from plants that lack vigor or flavor. One trick I use is I attached colored ribbons to plants that I plan to save seeds from, using different colors to indicate early or late producing.
A note on GMOs and other seed patents: private corporations have invested in and own this genetic information. It is illegal to save, use, sell, or trade these plants and their seeds, according to the World Trade Organization’s agreement on property rights. Consider yourself warned.
Leave the very best fruits to ripen naturally on your chosen plants. With tomatoes and peppers, you can even let them get a little wrinkly before picking. Then, open the fruit and remove the seeds. With tomatoes, I just drop the gel-covered seeds onto a paper towel and spread them out a little. Next, I write the name of the plant variety on the paper towel and allow it to dry completely before storing. Pepper seeds are just scraped off the white pith and allowed to dry. Peas and beans should be allowed to dry completely on the vine. Keep in mind, however, that this tells the plant it has completed its reproductive cycle and production may begin to lag. Seeds from plants such as lettuce, carrots, and onions can be collected using paper bags tied over the top of the pollinated flower heads. Generally, I do not save those seeds. Instead, I simply let them do their thing naturally. As a result, I have onions, carrots, and lettuces growing all over my property, with zero effort on my part!
Many people suggest storing seeds in glass jars or plastic bags, after the seeds have dried completely. Unless you are absolutely sure there is no moisture, it is a good idea to include one of those silica packets you find in shoe boxes and jerky bags, just wrap it in a piece of tissue. As you already saw, I use paper envelopes stored in a secure, but not airtight plastic container, that is kept outside year round. My thinking is, this exposes the seeds to as much of the local, natural environment as possible, weeding out the weak through natural selection. However you store your seeds, be sure to label them right away. It helps if you include the plant name and variety, plus the date the seeds were harvested. Older seeds lose their vigor, so you will want to use seeds within one year for the best results. Seeds need to be kept in a cool, dry, dark place to avoid germinating at the wrong time of year or when you’re not looking.
Seed surfaces can be contaminated with bacteria, fungi, viruses, spores and nematodes. The inside of a seed can also host pathogens. This is why it is so important to only collect seeds from healthy plants. In a study conducted at UC Davis, it was found that pumpkins exhibiting surface lesions of Fusarium wilt (Fsc 1) could still be used as a safe seed source, while pumpkins that were infected all the way into the seed cavity could not.
Saving your own seeds allows you to encourage the plants that thrive in your garden. Over time, you may even create your own heirloom varieties!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!