Seed saving is an environmentally sustainable, economical, and educational activity for all age groups, gardeners, and food lovers. With a few basics, you can save seeds from your own garden or community garden and enjoy the magic of seeds to plant the next year.
To begin, you need to:
select the right type of seed
use the appropriate drying method
adequately store the dried seed.
Seed Selection: For success, choose open-pollinated or heirloom, not hybrid, varieties. Open pollinators (OP) have obtained stable characteristics over successive generations of production and will yield vegetables, herbs, or fruits, that are basically “true”. This means that they have the characteristics (color, size, flavor) of their parent plant. Heirloom seed, open pollinators by definition, have also been saved for desirable characteristics and passed down over time (many from the 1800s or earlier) by generations of growers, usually families. In contrast, hybrid seeds result from crossing characteristics from two parents for desired characteristics and will not remain “true” over time or may be sterile. Although many OP/heirloom choices are available, new savers may have success with seed from self-pollinating, edible annuals such as tomatoes and peas. Tomatoes are a versatile, ever-popular crop, and peas mature quickly and thrive in our cool Minnesota spring weather.
Ashworth (Resource Box) describes two basic methods for seed preparation, wet and dry. Depending on conditions, seed can be dried in 5-10 days.
Dry method: Most seed can be saved by this method. Select ripened seed with desired characteristics and accompanying structure (whether in stalk, seed head, or pod) as they begin to brown and harden but before they fall from the plant. Take seed with desirable characteristics from several healthy plants. Stalk and seed head types may be stripped of leaves, tied in bunches, and hung upside-down to dry. If desired, place bunches in brown paper bags to collect falling seed. In pods (peas), seed should feel fully developed with browning, but unopened, pods still attached to the plant. Spread on paper or in a basket to completely dry before separating the dried seed from pods and other debris.
Wet method: Some vegetables/fruits, such as tomatoes, are encased in a gelatinous inoculant which protects seed from germination within the fruit and is removed by fermentation. Select a fully ripened tomato-easily removed from the vine, soft, but not mushy; slice it in half and squeeze seed and pulp into a jar or bowl. Add one cup of water for each cup of seed and allow to sit in a warm location until the liquid is completely covered with a grey or white smelly mold. Combine the mixture with an equal amount of water and stir. Defective seed and debris will float to the top and can be poured from the container. Using a strainer, completely rinse the seed, pat it dry, and place on paper or a ceramic plate to completely dry.
Storage: Completely dry seed can be stored in glass, plastic or paper for long term saving. Seed viability or lifespan varies by plant type, but most vegetables, herbs, or flowers will survive for an average of three to five years. Label all seed with botanical information, common name, year saved, and the original source. If placed in glass or enclosed plastic, seed may mold if not completely dry before storing; similarly, seed in envelopes must be protected from exposure to humidity. Store packaged and labeled seed in a dry, cool, dark location until needed for planting.
For gardeners who have not grown open pollinators or heirloom varieties this year, these are still available at our local co-ops and farmer’s markets. Sources of further information and specifics (e.g. preventing cross pollination by wind and insects) can be found in the resource box.
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy.
Seed Savers Exchange Inc. 2002.
Starting from Seed: The Natural Gardener’s Guide to Propagating Plants edited by Karan Davis Cutler. Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Inc. 2000.
Oliver H. Kelley Farm (seed swap, March 2010) Elk River, MN 763-441-6896 mnhs.org/places/sites/ohkf
What You Can Do
Successful flower and vegetable gardens begins by doing the basics correctly. Three important basics are:
1. Carefully choose the appropriate plants to match the conditions of your site. Always try to follow the “right plant-right place-right function” rule of plant selection.
2. Plan the garden before actually purchasing and planting your garden areas. It’s much easier to move plants on paper than once planted in the garden.
3. Take the time to properly prepare your soil. A healthy, living soil will ensure the long-term survival and vigor of all garden plants.