Saving seeds from your own garden can be a most rewarding exercise – but there can also be some disappointments if you are unaware of some basic, time-saving points.
This guide will help you choose which seeds to save and give you a head start in planning and maintaining a successful seed saving garden. You will also learn about when to know if seeds are ready to harvest and how to best store your seeds for longevity.
Of course, the best tip of all is opening yourself up to experiencing the immense value of connecting with Nature’s abundant nature. As we know, one seed does not only grow up to give us back only one seed in return. We are given back SO much more! More than enough to sow again for another harvest and more than enough to share. With some basic planning, practice and a good dose of passion, we can reap the rewards of seed saving and share in the abundance of nature’s bounty. This kind of sharing is one of the Permaculture principles
So, on that note, let’s grow!
- OPEN POLLINATION VS HYBRID
When starting a seed saving garden, I highly recommend choosing open pollinated crops.
Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind or other natural mechanisms.
Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, allowing plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.
If properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, open pollinated varieties will produce seed that is genetically “true to type.” This means that the seed will result in a plant very similar to the parent.
If open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. While seed from a hybrid variety can be saved, it will not be true to type.
For example: if a “Roma” tomato cross-pollinates with another “Roma” tomato plant, the seeds from the tomato fruit that results from this pollination will have seeds that will grow into a “Roma” tomato plant. If you are also growing “Oxheart” tomato plants close to your “Roma” tomato plants then they will cross pollinate, resulting in seed that is not true to either type.
To become adept at saving seed you have to read up on which plants will cross-pollinate with what other plants and how far the pollen will travel. Then you can grow them at a sufficient distance from one another so that the pollen of one never reaches the pollen of another. Another option is to choose plants that bloom at different times, so they aren’t pollinating at the same time.
You can check out which crops will cross by looking at their scientific name in a seed catalogue. Crops with the same name will cross. Luckily, though, many are largely self-pollinating, and many of these require minimal spacing to keep seed stock pure. Beans and tomatoes are two common examples of such “easy” crops.
Fun Fact: Open pollinated plants that are grown for more than 50 years are considered heirlooms.
- TIMING: ANNUAL, BIENNIAL, PERENNIAL
Not all plants flower, set seed, and die in a single growing season. Those that do like, corn, beans, peas, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers are called annuals.
Biennials, such as cabbage, cauliflower, beets, carrots and onions, don’t flower until their second growing season.
Saving seeds from biennials takes a little more work since, in most climates, the plants to be saved for seed must be heavily mulched in the garden over winter, or they must be stored properly so they can be replanted the following spring.
Some long-lived plants, like artichoke, rhubarb and asparagus, are perennial, surviving and flowering for many years.
- COLLECTING YOUR BOUNTY: WHEN TO HARVEST SEEDS
Dry fruited crops, like lettuce and beans and peas, can be removed from the plant once seeds are dry and hard.
For crops that produce wet fruits, the seeds are not always mature when the fruits are ready to eat. Eggplant, cucumber, and summer squash fruit for example, are eaten when the fruits are immature and still edible, but before the seeds are actually mature. This means that seed savers need to leave a few fruits to fully mature in the garden when they want to save seeds. Leave your best cucumbers on the vine to get huge and yellow; let several gorgeous peppers stay on the plant until they get red; let summer squash mature until they look like garden submarines; allow a few stalks of sweet corn to get hard and dry.
Some seed may be saved from the vegetables you harvest to eat. These include winter squash, pumpkin, watermelon, dry beans and sunflower seeds.
- HOW TO HARVEST SEEDS
Collecting seeds from dry fruited crops, can be as simple as going out to the garden, handpicking a few mature seedpods, and bringing them into the house for further drying and cleaning. To catch smaller seeds, such as lettuce and carrot, you can tie a stocking over the flower heads as they dry out then gently remove and collect the seeds.
While most seeds are simple to harvest, requiring only stripping out of the mother fruit, some, such as tomato and cucumber, require a different approach as these seeds need to be separated from the pulp. With these crops, pick ripe and ready fruits, scoop out the seed-bearing pulp into a bowl or jar, add enough warm water to cover them, and place in a warm area such as the back of your counter for a couple of days. The pulp ferments and releases the seeds. After this happens, carefully rinse the fermented pulp-seed mass through a colander or sieve and soon only the seeds will be left. Spread these on a cookie sheet or pie plate and let them dry in a protected warm area.
- STORING SEEDS
Seeds are happiest when they are stored in a cool, dark, and dry place. A dark closet in a cooler part of the house or a dry, cool basement are both good spaces to store seeds for a year or two. Once properly dried, seeds can also be sealed in airtight containers and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for several years. The seeds of some crops are naturally longer lived. Tomato seeds and beans can be left for many years in adequate storage conditions, while onion and carrot seeds are notoriously short lived.
Don’t forget to label your seeds with the crop type, variety name and date. You can also record any useful notes about your seed source, where you harvested the seeds, and how many plants you harvested from.
One of the best tips is to get to know other seed savers in your community. Reach out and get involved in seed saving and sharing groups and initiatives. This is one of the most important ways we can contribute to local food security and protecting diversity.
Here are some amazing local seed saving and sharing groups –
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