With the garden in “full summer swing” – now is the time to start thinking about saving some of those seeds from your favorite vegetable plants for next year’s garden.
Saving seeds is not only an economical way to garden – it’s also a very rewarding process. There is something special about completing the entire growing cycle of a vegetable that ends up on your kitchen table: from tiny seed, to seedling, to mature plant with ripe produce – and back to seed again!
There are additional benefits to saving and growing your own seeds as well. Seeds grown, planted and harvested in the same soil often become better suited to the growing conditions with each passing year.
Garlic is a great example of this – each year our crop has become larger, tastier and more productive by saving the very seed stock that has become adapted to grow in our soil.
What Seeds Can Be Saved?
The first rule is to know what can and cannot be saved when it comes to seeds. Only open-pollinated plant varieties (often referred to as heirloom) can be saved successfully to bear the same crop year after year.
Unfortunately, hybrid plants will not. Hybrid seeds are a cross of two or more plants – and the seeds from those plants revert back to one of the originals, or a mutation of it when grown. This often results with a plant with no fruit at all, or something with little taste or resemblance of the original fruit or vegetable.
So remember – NO to saving hybrid seeds – and YES to open-pollinated or heirloom varieties!
What Varieties Can Be Saved?
When it comes to what plants to save – there are certainly some plants that are easier to save seed from than others.
Although you could conceivably save and grow almost everything in your garden – some crops, like carrots – have to grow for two years before they produce viable seed. Others, like heirloom cucumbers need to be separated by such a long distances to avoid cross-pollination (1/2 mile in some cases), that it is far easier and reliable to purchase them each year from a reputable seed company like The Sustainable Seed Company, Johnny’s or Baker Creek Seeds. A good rule of thumb is to save what is the easiest and most productive for your garden!
For us, we save our own tomato, pepper, peas, beans and popcorn seeds – and leave the others to the experts to “save” for us. Here are some of our favorites – and tips on how we save each of them:
Saving pepper seeds is a big one for us! We grow about 16 varieties of green, red, hot and ornamental peppers in our garden and landscape – so saving seeds is a must.
The process for peppers is by far the easiest of all. First, we select a few of the best looking and largest mature peppers (you will want to make sure to select peppers that have reached their final color and have even begun to dry a bit on the plant) from a few plants. Next, we simply open up and scrape out the seeds and lay them out on a paper plate for a week or so on the back porch to dry. Finally, when they are dry – we put them in a zip lock bag with a folded paper towel to help absorb any remaining moisture – and we are all set!
One note on peppers – although not common – the seeds can be crossed from plant to plant if they are planted right beside each other. To help alleviate – we save the seeds that have been in our pots or planters that are away from the other varieties.
Tomatoes are another great variety to save – and so worth the effort when it comes to keeping heirloom varieties from year to year. Our favorites like Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and Black Krim are a taste explosion when it comes to true flavor!
The tomato saving process is a bit different than that of other seeds. With tomato seeds – it is best to ferment the seeds when saving – this allows the seeds to germinate better in the spring.
Start by selecting a healthy, good-looking and ripe tomato from your best plant. Cut the tomato in half and scoop out the entire inside (seeds and pulp) into a jar. Next, in an out-of-the-way place (we use our garage) – let the seeds sit for two to three days until the pulp begins to mold with that familiar green and white coloring.
Next, pour water into the jar and wash off the mold slowly – repeating the process a few time to get the seeds clean. The good seeds will sink to the bottom – allowing you to skim off the pulp and bad seeds. After washing, lay the seeds out on a paper towel, paper plate or screen cloth and allow them to dry completely before storing.
Beans are simple to grow and save. Allow the pods you want to save to dry on the stalks and turn brown. This usually takes the pods about 6 to 8 weeks past the time you would have picked them for eating. If the pods do not seem to be drying well on the stock – you can also pick and store the mature beans in a cool dry place to finish drying. Once the pods have shriveled up and turned dry and brown – simply shell them and save the seed.
Much like beans, peas are very simple to grow and save seed from year to year. The process is the same – allowing 6 to 8 weeks for the pods to dry before shelling and saving the seed.
Garlic is one of the best “seeds” to save – as home-grown stock tends to grow better as it gets accustomed to the soil with each passing year. Save back the biggest, most firm cloves that you pull out of the soil from this year’s harvest. Store them in a cool dark place as you would with your normal garlic – and then a few days before you will be planting – pull the cloves apart – and use them as your new seed! (see: How to grow, plant and store garlic)
Popcorn is another favorite for us to save. Again, you need to be growing an heirloom variety if you plan on saving.
We grow two heirloom varieties – Strawberry and Ladyfinger – and have had great luck in saving the seed from year to year. For popcorn – it’s as simple as letting the cobs dry on the stalks til mid fall – and then bringing them inside to hang and dry out in a cool dark place. We select a few of the best ears to save back for seed – and then remove from the cob and store for spring planting.
Storing Your Seeds…
It is important to store your seeds in a cool, dark environment with low humidity. Some people save their seeds in a refrigerator – but we have always had excellent luck with simply drying them out –and then placing in marked envelopes and then storing in a zip lock bag in our basement.
That marking part I mentioned – that is a big one. Trust me when I say they all look the same later – and when you fail to mark a certain variety of pepper seeds – you may not always be able to guess what they are the following year. Can you tell I speak from experience? 🙂 – Jim
Happy Gardening and Seed Saving!!! Jim and Mary – Old World Garden Farms