Many gardeners enjoy saving seeds from vegetables and flowers. Not only does it save money when gardening season rolls around in the spring, it eliminates the need to rush around from store to store to locate those hard-to-find seeds. As a beginner, there are a few important things you need to know.
Many popular garden vegetables have been bred by cross-pollinating genetically distinct plants with the intention to preserve the best flavor, color, size and resistance to disease. These plants are called hybrids. According to the International Seed Saving Institute, seeds saved from hybrid plants may be sterile or may produce offspring that are significantly different from the parent.
I learned this lesson young, when my mother saved the seeds from a squash. The seeds produced a wide variety of gourds when planted the next year. Although they were a delightful surprise, they didn’t put food on the table that year.
Unless you are up for a few surprises, don’t save seeds from hybrid plants.
Open Pollinated Plants
Open pollinated plants such as corn, melons, pumpkins and squash can cross pollinate if they are planted close together and mature at the same time. Saving seeds from plants that cross-pollinate in your garden will not produce offspring with the same characteristics as the parent plant.
The International Seed Saving Institute recommends beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers for you first attempts at seed saving. These plants produce seed the first year and typically self-pollinate eliminating the need for worries about cross-pollination. When harvested and stored these seeds produce true to type the next year.
Peas and Beans
Select and mark plants that exhibit the traits you wish to preserve. Consider size, flavor, maturity dates and the growing habits of the plant.
Allow peas and beans to mature on the vine.
Peas are ready to harvest about 4 weeks after the eating stage, whereas beans require approximately 6 weeks. If frost threatens, pull up the entire plant and hang upside down in a cool dark, well-ventilated area. Pods should be brittle and seeds should rattle in the pod when shaken.
Open the pods by hand and remove the seeds.
Store pea and bean seeds in a sealed glass jar in a cool dry area until spring.
Tomatoes and Peppers
Tomatoes and peppers require a bit more work, but are worth the effort. Check that the variety you are growing is not a hybrid before attempting to save seeds.
Select healthy robust plants that are free of disease and display the traits you wish to preserve. Again, consider date of maturity, plant and fruit size, flavor, color and resistance to disease.
Tag the plants and allow the selected fruits to mature on the vine.
Cut the bottom off peppers and remove the seeds. Spread the seeds on paper towels or a screen to dry completely. This may take a day or two.
Place pepper seeds in an airtight container and store in a cool dry place until spring.
Tomatoes require fermentation in water. Cut open the tomato and scoop out seeds and the gelatinous mass around them. Place in a glass and cover with water. Stir the mixture each day for 3 days. A scum will form on the top of the water. The scum breaks down the gel around the seeds and produces antibiotics that prevent disease in the seeds.
Fill the jar with warm water and allow the contents to settle. Immature seeds and pulp will float to the top, while viable seed sinks to the bottom. Slowly pour off the pulp and immature seeds until just the good seeds remain on the bottom of the jar.
Strain the seeds and place on paper towels to dry for a day or two.
Store the seeds in an airtight container in a cool dry place until spring.
International Seed Saving Institute: Basic Seed Saving
University of Illinois Extension: Saving Seed from the Garden