Now summer is progressing into fall, and many fruits, vegetables and flowers are reaching the right point for collecting and saving seeds. I thought I’d write more about the actual process of saving seeds, like what to collect, how to collect it and how to store it.
First, I’ll just share a bit of refresher info for those who missed or have forgotten my info on plant sex ed. Keep in mind that many plants cross pollinate in the garden. So you may be (hopefully pleasantly) surprised by what you get from saved seed.
For vegetables, the most commonly saved seeds are beans and tomatoes because they usually don’t cross that easily (their flowers are closed, which limits outside pollen).
Seeds that are often saved include heirlooms, which are older seeds that are open pollinated, or they “come true” from being saved.
It is a common misconception that you can’t save seeds from hybrid plants. You can indeed save seeds, but you’ll likely not get the results you want. You’ll get a small number of plants similar to the ones you want, and a larger proportion will resemble either the mother or father plant.
Once you’ve selected what you want to save, the first step is to make sure it is appropriately mature. This goes for both flowers and produce. For many flowers, knowing when seeds are mature is simply waiting until the flower fades and dries up.
This is especially true for flowers that form heads such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and daisies. Some flowers, though, produce a fruit after the flowers fade, when seeds mature.
Milkweeds have pods that split open and let their silky seeds drift on the breeze, impatiens have seed pods that explode open when mature and lupines have bean-like pods that need to dry.
For vegetables, some gardeners may need to re-train themselves to harvest seeds when appropriately mature. Some gardeners are surprised to know that the fruits they harvest from their garden are not mature — we harvest and eat them before they are ripe.
Peppers are a good example. Peppers that are harvested when green, such as bell peppers, jalapenos and poblanos are actually not ripe. They will change color, usually to red, when they are ripe or mature. To save seeds from these plants, wait until they have fully changed to the ripe color.
Beans are another crop that we usually harvest when they are immature. Green beans are not the ripe form of the bean pod. To collect seed (for seed saving or to use as dry beans), leave the beans on the vine until they change color and dry out.
The color is usually yellow or pink and often has specks or stripes of color. The bean will eventually dry out on the vine, but you may want to pick it before it is done drying and dry it in a protected area since rain can damage dry seeds.
This is true for any of those crops or flowers where the mature seed pod is dry — you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t get rained on too much to save it’s quality.
We also eat some of the squash family plants when they are immature, such as cucumbers and zucchini. If you are saving the seeds from these plants (though I caution that these are some of the most likely to cross with other plants), you’ll need to wait until they are mature. They are mature when they are well beyond edible size and change color (cucumbers are yellow, zucchini will be dull green).
To save seed, collect the seed from either the dry seed pods or remove them from the ripe fruits. Set them out to dry in a warm place to preserve quality. Make sure they are completely dry before storage to keep them from molding, rotting or germinating.
Tomatoes are a special case. Remove the seeds from the ripe fruit and add them and the fluid around them to a container. Add some water to make sure the seeds are completely covered, and leave it in a protected place for a few days. Let them sit until mold grows on top of the water.
After the solution has fermented, rinse the seeds with tap water until all traces of extra material is gone. While it may sound gross, this process is necessary to remove a protective cover from the seed that will inhibit germination. Spread them out and dry them, then they are ready to store.
Some folks just spread their seeds out on paper towels to dry rather than doing this process, but you’ll likely get better germination if you ferment the seeds.
Once your seeds are dry, now comes the storage part. All you need to keep in mind is having an air-tight container. It can be a plastic bag, an old medicine bottle or a special seed-saving tin. You just want something that will keep moist air out.
Keeping seeds cold will help increase their shelf life since it slows down their consumption of nutrients (they are still living, after all).
The freezer is the best place for storage because it is the coldest place at home, and it doesn’t have the moisture issues of the refrigerator.
I typically store my seeds with two layers of protection — an outer plastic bag that will become wet with condensation after it is removed from the freezer. This keeps that moisture one layer away from your seed container.
Saving seed can be a great way to make sure you have those favorite plants on hand in the garden year after year. It is also a great way to save money and preserve the old heirlooms that many people love.
And sometimes you get that surprise from a cross pollination you didn’t expect. If you haven’t done it, I suggest you give it a try.