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Save seeds: a backyard gardener’s guide

One of the best ways to guarantee tasty, hardy, relatively disease-resistant organic, heirloom vegetables is by saving seeds.

Instead of buying a packet of commercial seeds whose fruit is unknown to you, you can pick the hardiest, tastiest vegetables from your garden and save their seeds to plant the following year.

Since non-hybrid seeds are “true to type”, unless they are cross-pollinated (which can happen with other plants in your garden or neighboring gardens), the offspring should be nearly identical to the parent plant (See video Seed saving for a better tomato for an example of one backyard gardener’s saved seed collection and planting process).

Choosing which seeds (plants) to save

Use annual and biennial plants. The easiest for saving seeds are open-pollinating, non-hybrid annuals. If you want to save biennials, such as cabbage, cauliflower, celery, onions and Swiss chard, you need to wait until the second season for the plants to send up seed stalks.

Don’t save seeds from hybrid varieties. Hybridized plants produce a wide range of offspring, many of which are not at all like their parent.

For novice seed-savers, the easiest plants to begin with are tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, peppers and watermelon.

Choose the best genetics

Seed saving is an opportunity to choose the genetics of your next season’s crop.

  • Choose seeds only from the healthiest plants.
  • Choose seeds from only the healthiest fruit (not the runts of the plant).
  • Save seeds from the most flavorful plants/fruits. So if you bite into a delicious tomato, don’t eat all the seeds, but consider saving them for planting.
  • You can also select for things that are particular to your growing season and particular needs, such as harvest time, bolting time, yield, pest-resistance, etc.

When to save seeds

Choose mature fruits for harvesting.

  • Seeds are mature when the flowers or pods are faded, dry and brown (or with puffy tops).
  • Another signal of maturity is seed color: when ripe, seeds usually turn from white to cream or from light brown to dark brown.
  • Collect when most of the seeds are mature, not necessarily all. If you wait too long you may lose too many from nature’s collectors (i.e. birds and animals).

How to prepare seeds for storage

In general, it’s best to let the seeds mature and dry as long as possible on the plant. From there, some seeds are ready for storage, while others take a bit more work.

1) Dry seeds

With plants like beans, peas, onions, carrots, corn and herbs, the seeds can be prepared by a dry method.

Beans, peas, and legumes:

  1. Let the pods dry on the plant.
  2. When you hear a rattle, they are ready to pick.
  3. Pick and remove the seeds from the pods and store.

For seeds not produced in a fruit, such as lettuce or spinach:

  1. Leave the seed heads on the plant until dried, if possible or cut the mature heads and dry complete the drying process indoors.
  2. To remove seeds, place seed heads in a paper bag and rub between your fingers.

2) Wet seeds

Plants with fleshy fruit, like tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and squash need to be prepared using the wet method.

  1. Scoop the seeds out of the fruit.
  2. Put the seeds with a bit of warm water in a jar.
  3. Let the mix ferment for a few days, stirring daily. Fermentation kills viruses and separates the good seeds from the bad. The good viable seeds sink to the bottom.
  4. After fermenting is complete, pour off the water (along with the pulp, bad seed and mold).
  5. Spread the good seeds on a paper towel, towel, newspaper, pie tin, plate or a screen to dry.
  6. Move seeds daily so they thoroughly dry
  7. You can finish the drying process by moving them to a paper bag.

Storing seeds

  1. When the seeds are dried, put them in the freezer for a couple of days to kill any pests.
  2. Place in a glass jars, envelopes, spice jars or prescription bottles. The only exception is legumes which store best in breathable bags.
  3. Label seeds with type or variety and date.
  4. Store in a cool, dry place. The refrigerator works well.

How long can you save them

Generally, seed viability decreases over time. The best option is to plant seeds the following year, but many seeds can be saved up until 5 years.

Share your seeds

  • Try to save more seeds than you need.
  • Find a seed swap or share with your friends and neighbors.