Many gardeners simply love that time of year when the seed catalogs arrive in their mailboxes, or when they can pop over to the garden center or feed store and pick up their favorite seeds. But for those hardcore gardeners who want to do it all themselves, seed saving is a time-honored activity. Not sure how to do it? Keep reading for our best tips!
Why Save Seeds From the Garden?
Mostly, to save money. Got a bunch of flowers or veggies in your garden? Think of how much you spent either on the transplants or the seed packets, and think of what you can do next year with that extra money.
But also, saving seeds is a real back-to-nature activity that connects you to your garden and to the earth in a way that few other garden activities can. Similar to composting, there’s a circle of life feeling that you get when you participate in every phase of a plant’s life. For many gardeners, saving seed is a passion, and they’d do it even if it didn’t save them money.
What Plants Can Seeds Be Saved From?
Start by choosing the plants that are the healthiest, most vigorous, and the best-tasting from your garden, then promise to be patient. Plants have large seeds or tinier seeds, and are held in various things like pods, husks, and capsules — get to know how each plant produces its seed and make a plan for how to harvest and store them (see tips in the next section).
- Annual flowers: Annual flowers are the easiest plants to collect seeds from — you simply wait until the flower has faded and seed heads or pods are brown or turn ripe, then collect the seed. Flowers like poppies, columbine, coreopsis, sunflowers, and marigolds are silly easy to collect seed from.
- Grasses: Although it’s simplest to divide your ornamental grasses every couple of years, it’s certainly possible to collect seed and grow your own. Many grasses have seedheads that develop in the fall, but each grass is a little different, so be sure you know when a particular grass sets its seed. Little bluestem, Mexican feathergrass, fescue, and fountain grasses all have easily identifiable seedheads to harvest.
- Veggies: Seeds from beans, peppers, peas, tomatoes, and cauliflower are the easiest to save because these crops are self-pollinating. Plants like cucumbers, squash, melons, corn, and pumpkins, though, can cross-pollinate and give you a seed that is a hybrid of two nearby plants.
First, know that each plant has a unique seed and with it, a different recommended method of collecting that seed. Second, be aware that when you collect seeds, there’s a good chance that the plant that grows from it will be different from the plant you harvested the seed from. And third, understand that with some plants (lettuces, for example), you’ll have to choose between eating the lettuce or saving the plant for seed, so it’s best to grow some extras “just for the seeds.”
Crops are either dry fruited or wet fruited, with different ways of harvesting seeds from each type:
- Dry Fruited Harvesting: Crops like beans, lettuce, grains, and many herbs have seeds that dry right on the plant itself. This means that you’ll need to let some of your these plants remain in the garden after their prime so that they will “go to seed” — plant a few extra just for this purpose.
When you notice the flowerheads or seed pods have dried up on the plant, go outside with a paper lunch bag and place it over the top of the stem, securing it with a twist tie a few inches below. Cut the stem a few inches below the twist tie, then tie a string to the twist tie and hang it all upside down in a cool, dry place for a week. The pods will dry up, pop, and release seed into the bag.
- Wet Fruited Harvesting: Other plants like tomatoes, berries, and squash have membranes around each seed to keep them from germinating inside the plant. In order to save them for future sowing, you need to remove that membrane through some fermentation. Remove the seeds and place them into a sieve or a very fine colander, rubbing them gently under running water to remove as much pulp as possible.
Now place the seeds in a jar with about a cup of water and seal with a lid, placing the jar in a cool, dark place for a few days. Every day or so, give the jar a gently swirl and, after about one week, you’ll notice bubbles forming — that’s the fermentation we talked about above. At this point, the seeds that are at the bottom of the jar are viable and can be stored; the floating seeds are not viable and should be discarded.
- Place harvested seeds in a small paper envelope, and label the envelope with the seed variety and the date it was harvested.
- Place the envelope in a glass jar and secure with a lid.
- Place the glass jar in cool, dry place in a part of your house where the temperature remains even. Temperature fluctuations and high humidity or moisture are the nemesis of seeds, so be sure you keep their environment stable.
- If stored properly, most seeds will remain viable for 2-3 years, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Onion, parsley and parsnip seeds tend to only last about 1 year, while cauliflower, Swiss chard, eggplant, tomato, pumpkin, and squash seeds can still be viable at 4 years. But the award for the longest viability goes to watercress, collards, endive, lettuce, and cucumber — their seeds last a whopping 5 years!