Seed Saving 101: How-to Guide on Keeping Seeds
Have you ever looked at or tasted that perfect backyard veggie and thought how good it would be if they all turned out like that one? Well, there is a way you can make that happen: saving and starting your own seeds. Get that urge from just a few tomatoes, peppers and zucchini and you’ll end up like me – most of my garden is started from seeds that I kept or were shared with me from the top performers of family gardens gone by. Saving seeds is easy to do and takes a lot of the guessing out of your harvests. Whether you care about the source (organic, heirloom, etc.), specific plant variety, looks, flavour or productivity, by saving seeds it ensures you know exactly what you are growing and how it will turn out. If you’ve never saved seeds before, follow my guide below for all the tips on what, when and how to start your own collection.
Plant Types That are Best to Save
There are three basic types of garden plants to understand, each with different characteristics and difficulty levels when it comes to saving seeds successfully.
Self-pollinating: Plants with single flowers such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplant, brassicas, greens and herbs like basil and parsley. These are generally the easiest seeds to harvest and the most “pure” to produce exactly what you want.
Cross-pollinating: Plants such as corn and vine crops like melons, cucumbers and zucchini, have male and female flowers in order to bear fruit. Different varieties of these in a garden can be cross-pollinated by insects. While this doesn’t affect the fruit produced by the parent plant, the seeds within can carry mixed genes. Plants grown from these seeds may bear fruits unlike the parent plant with different flavour, texture, shape or colour.
Biennial: Mostly hearty root veggies such as carrots, beets, garlic and onion varieties that require two growing seasons to produce a seed pod at the top of their stalks. For that reason they are harder to save from and I tend to avoid it.
Selecting What To Save
Deciding which fruits or veggies to harvest from comes down to common sense. You want to take seeds from the best tasting, largest fruits or seed pods from the healthiest plants. But the nuances of when to take those seeds is more specific to the crop or plant type.
For some crops – including zucchini, eggplants and cucumbers – the best seeds form once they are overgrown and fruits are over-ripe. Look for the skin of the fruits to lose their shine, colour and turn yellow. These won’t be appealing to eat but they will have perfect seeds inside. Follow the same practise for beans and peas; letting the pods turn yellow and dry out. Many herbs, leafy greens and radishes also need to be left to grow until they flower and the seed pods at the base of the flowers dry out.
Leaving plants to flower or produce over-ripe fruit can signal to them that their life cycle is ending, so the productivity of the plant will fade. For this reason, pick and enjoy regularly throughout the season and then harvest seeds from a late-season fruit you left for that purpose.
There are some garden favourites that don’t need to be sacrificed in this manner in order to save seeds. Tomatoes, cantaloupes and peppers should be picked regularly once they are ripe. From these, simply remove the seeds and enjoy the rest. With these types of fruits veggies that don’t need to be left to over-ripen, I was taught by my Nonni to save seeds from the biggest and best, picked when the plants are at peak-production.
The process of extracting seeds is easy. Seeds contained in pods or flowers such as beans, lettuce, broccoli and herbs should be dry by the time you remove them. For this reason the pods can be picked and the seeds left inside or emptied out to be stored loosely. I prefer leaving them in their pods to dry out further until they are needed for planting and to avoid overhandling smaller seeds.
When saving seeds contained in the flesh of fruits and veggies, simply cut open and remove them with your hands or a spoon. Spread the seeds out on a rack or tray lined with paper towel or a piece of wax or parchment paper to dry for approximately two weeks before storing. While it doesn’t hurt for the purpose of cleaning seeds off, it is not necessary to rinse seeds before drying.
It’s important to keep seeds dry, cool and away from sunlight to prolong their shelf-life. While paper packets and envelopes are common, seeds are stored best in air-tight containers made of glass or plastic. TIP: try reusing medication containers which won’t break, have secure lids and are easy to relabel or write on. Packed seeds can then be kept in a pantry, storage closet, garage or even your fridge. Be sure to label and date your seeds to keep them organized. Well stored seeds can maintain high germination rates for up to 5 years.
By now you’re already thinking ahead to starting seeds, so it’s never too early to be thinking about next year’s garden. If you’re looking to start, upgrade or expand, I can help with the planning and installation of ready-to-grow raised beds or in-ground gardens. And if you need to fast-track your harvests with years of expert growing knowledge, check out my garden services page for specifics.