Seed saving can be a great hobby for gardeners looking for an extra challenge, wanting to save money on seed, or who are desiring to help save old heirloom varieties. While seed saving can be fun and rewarding, it can also be challenging and those who want to try saving seed should consider starting with varieties that don’t easily cross-pollinate and which are easy to process and save. Vegetables such as beans and peas can be good options as they don’t cross-pollinate easily and they are dry and ready to store without much work. In many states, you can even grow and save your own exotic weed seeds.
How to Save Seed
Saving seeds requires knowledge of the plant, its biological processes, and its growth patterns. You will have to learn when the plant grows, matures, and sets fruit and flowers. You will need to know how the plant is pollinated and when the seeds are ready to harvest, and you will need to know how to collect and clean the different kinds of seeds.
Choosing Plants to Save Seed
Before you are ready to start saving seeds, you need to choose the plants you will use. The variety of plant you choose should be one that you know is pure, not a hybrid. Hybrids will rarely reproduce well and often result in tasteless or otherwise subpar plants. You should also choose a variety that you have grown before. Finally, you should be choosy with the specific plants whose seeds you save. You can help further the advantages and qualities of a specific variety by saving seeds from the individual plants that are the best examples of the variety. Choose healthy, high-quality plants that are free from disease and whose genes are worthy of passing on to next year’s garden.
Some Things About Pollination
One of the most important things to know about saving seeds is to understand the pollination methods of the plant you are growing. Different plants can have very different pollination methods, and some of these are more conducive to easy seed saving than others. The biggest reason you need to understand pollination requirements is because your plant may become cross-pollinated and the resulting seed will not produce a pure variety. In addition, if your plants do not get pollinated at all you will not get any seed.
There are three main ways that plants are pollinated. First, some plants are pollinated by pollinators, such as bees, ants, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. These plants can easily cross-pollinate with any variety that the pollinators have already visited, whether they are in your garden or in a neighboring garden. Second, many plants are wind pollinated. These plants can cross-pollinate with the pollen that the wind might be carrying from another area. Usually, these plants won’t cross with those that are outside of your garden or very far away, but it is possible. Lastly, some plants pollinate themselves. These plants are said to have perfect or complete flowers. These flowers contain both male and female parts and often pollinate themselves before the flower even opens. These types of flowers rarely cross-pollinate and so are ideal for seed saving. Unfortunately, the first two types are more common in garden plants.
When to Collect Seed
Each kind of plant has different maturity requirements for collecting seeds. Some plants set seed after a long period of blooming and fruit growth, while others set fruit and mature quickly, early in the season.
You will have to learn the maturity rate of the plant you are saving seed from. The seeds of some plants, such as tomatoes, pumpkins, and melons are mature at the same time as the fruit is ready to eat. This makes timing the collection of seeds easy and the fruit can still be eaten. Other seeds, such as peas, beans, sweet corn, and summer squash are not mature at the stage they are normally eaten. In most cases, these seeds have to finish drying on the plant to be viable. Finally, some seeds, especially those from plants such as leafy greens and root vegetables, aren’t even produced before the plant is usually eaten and thus the plant must be left to mature long after it would normally have been harvested.
How to Collect Seeds
Each plant has different collection requirements, but with a few exceptions the collection involves separating the seeds from the fruit, flower, or pod and leaving it exposed to the air until it is completely dry. Tomato seeds are covered with a membrane layer that must be removed by fermentation before the seed can be dried, and this adds an extra layer of processing to these seeds that most don’t require.
In general, seed collecting falls into two categories: seeds that are wet when harvested, and seeds that are dry. Most seeds that are harvested wet come from fruits that are ripe and edible at the time of harvest, such as tomatoes and melons. These seeds must be washed well and left out to dry thoroughly before storing.
Dry seeds are usually those that are found in the flower, in the case of plants like lettuce, zinnias, and other flowers, or in a pod, as in the case of peas and beans. These seeds should not be washed, but should simply be separated from their surrounding plant bits as much as possible and can be immediately stored. They should only be harvested when completely dry. In many cases, the flower bits that are stuck to dry seeds don’t even need to be removed.
How to Store Your Seeds
Seeds of all kinds require similar conditions during storage. In order to stay viable for as long as possible, seeds need to be stored in a dry, cool, dark location. Any exposure to moisture could kill the seeds, and heat will shorten their period of viability. Many gardeners store their seeds in small paper or plastic bags in the refrigerator or even the freezer. If completely dry, very few seeds are harmed by freezing and when stored in this way they may last for 7-10 years or even longer before they begin losing vitality. Make sure that all the seeds you save are labeled well with the kind, variety, and date.
No matter why you want to save seed, or what kind of plant you want to save it from, the most important step is to learn all you can about that specific plant. While you may want to learn how to save many different kinds of seeds, it’s best to start with one or two easy ones. Once you have been successfully saving seeds for a few years and have several varieties that you specialize in, you can start sharing your special seeds with friends, branch out into saving more difficult varieties, or do genetic experiments to create new varieties.