Seed Saving 101

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Guest post by Diane Ott Whealy*

It is remarkable to think that all the heirloom seed we have today exists because our ancestors saved seeds. They did not have a degree in plant breeding or seed saving and they did not use fancy equipment to do so. When families passed seeds from generation to generation, the knowledge on how to save those seeds was also passed along. Saving seeds from the heirlooms in your garden is a great way to continue this tradition and become a more self-sufficient gardener. And by selecting and saving seeds from your healthiest fruits, vegetables, flowers, or herbs, you are encouraging vigorous, productive plants in the next generation.

Follow these basic tips to get started:

  • Save seeds from open-pollinated varieties. All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning you can save the seed from year to year and the plant will produce fruits identical to the seed it came from. A hybrid variety does not breed true from seed; hybrid seed is produced by crossing two different parent types of the same species and will revert back to some form of the parents if the seed is saved and planted.
  • Avoid cross pollination by knowing how your plants pollinate. Cross pollination is the transfer of pollen between plants; some varieties are wind-pollinated (such as corn), some insect-pollinated (such as squash), and some are self-pollinated. It is easiest to start saving seeds with self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes, beans, peas and lettuce. Even for self-pollinating plants, though, it helps to separate different varieties of the same species by at least 10 ft to prevent possible cross-pollination.
  • Know when your seeds are ready to harvest. Some seeds, like tomatoes, are ready to harvest when the fruit is ripe for eating. Other garden plants need to be left to grow past the point at which you would normally eat them. Lettuce, for example, needs to “bolt” and produce a flower stalk, and beans need to be left to dry on the plant.
  • Always save seeds from healthy, vigorous plants. Choose the fruits that exhibit desirable traits in order to pass them along to the next generation. Also, to ensure a good genetic mix for the variety, it is best to save seeds from multiple plants rather than one plant.
  • Clean and store your seeds properly. Clean seeds of fruity flesh or chaff before drying to prevent mold. After properly dried, store in a clearly labeled paper envelope in a cool, dry and dark place.
Mascara lettuce "bolting" and going to seed, photo courtesy of Rosalind Creasy.

Mascara lettuce "bolting" and going to seed, photo courtesy of Rosalind Creasy.

Start seed-saving with self-pollinated varieties, it’s easy:

TOMATOES. Tomato seeds are ready for harvest when the fruit is ready to eat. Slice open a tomato along its equator and squeeze seeds, juice and pulp into a jar. Let this mixture sit and ferment for a day or two before you rinse off the seeds in a fine mesh colander. Set the seeds out to dry on a coffee filter in an airy location out of direct sunlight for 3-4 days before storing.

BEANS AND PEAS. Let bean pods and pea pods dry out on the vine through late summer and into fall. Harvest is simple - simply split the pods open when they are brittle and the seeds inside are extremely hard.

LETTUCE. As the summer warms and the days get longer, lettuce plants will grow tall and produce a flower stalk (it will “bolt”). I always choose a few colorful lettuce varieties to add some interesting color to my garden. In late summer, small lettuce flowers will open, self-pollinate, and close within just a few hours. 2-3 weeks after the flowers have opened, the seeds will be ready for harvest – the seeds have feathery parachutes attached to the seeds just as dandelions do.

Self-seeding ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glories, photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

Self-seeding ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glories, photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

Perhaps the most basic way to practice seed saving is by growing old fashioned self-seeding annuals that come back every year like perennials, but from seed. ‘Grandma Einck’s’ dill, borage, love-in-a-mist, kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, and of course my much loved ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory are all varieties that seed themselves in my garden. I planted ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory seed along the south side of the barn 25 years ago and have never planted them again. Each year they sprout from seeds dropped the year before. Some complain about the self-seeding practices, and at times it can be challenging to keep them in one place, but I love that about Grandpa; he is reliable, self-sufficient, stubborn, somewhat hard to control, and somewhat sneaky.

Visit seedsavers.org for more information, seedsavers.org/Education/Webinar-Archive/ to view Seed Savers Exchange webinars on seed saving topics, or for detailed seed saving instructions look for Suzanne Ashworth’s book, Seed to Seed.

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*Diane Ott Whealy is the Co-founder and Vice President of Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that seeks to maintain thousands of endangered heirloom seed varieties. It's headquartered on scenic 890-acre Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa.