Saving seeds from plants in your garden is a fun way to save money, but over time, it can also provide you with plants that are better adapted to the specific conditions of your garden than anything you could purchase at a nursery or garden center.
Obviously, when you save seeds, you save money: Every seed saved is one less seed or plant you have to buy in the future. But there is more to it than that. Saving seeds from the most productive vegetables or prettiest flowers can result in future plants that are better adapted to your garden's very specific growing conditions. You use mother nature’s process of natural selection to create locally-adapted plants with better yields or better bloom, and with each generation you save, you get better results.
What seeds should you save?
First off, start with plants that have easily harvested seeds like Lettuce, Beans, Peas, Morning Glories, Four-O'Clocks, Scarlet Sage or Zinnias.
Make sure you're saving seeds from open-pollinated varieties. Open-pollinated plants are relatively genetically stable, so seeds produce plants resembling their parent plants. Many heirloom vegetables and flowers are open pollinated. Open pollinated plants differ dramatically from F1 Hybrids, which you often see in many seed packets and six-packs. (check labels to be sure). F1 Hybrids produce predictable plants from distinctly different parents. After the first generation, seeds grown from F1 hybrids are totally unpredictable and you are never sure what you’ll get.
Other tips for saving seeds:
- Many plants readily cross-pollinate with other plants of the same type. This list includes Corn, Gourds, Cucumber, Pumpkin and Melon. For these plants, grow only one variety each season so you don’t comprimise the genetics of the seed you’ll collect.
- Biennial plants need two growing seasons to produce seeds. In mild winter areas, fall-planted biennials bear seed the following spring. This list includes Beets, Chard, Cabbage, Carrots and Parsley.
- If you save seeds, it often means that you'll have less vegetables to eat and fewer flowers to pick, because you'll be letting plants produce seeds instead. With fruiting vegetables like tomatoes or peppers, you won’t have to sacrifice plants to collect seeds; only a few fruit. With leafy vegetables, you have to let the whole plant go to seed, so you lose that harvest.
Before you start collecting seeds, allow them to completely mature on the plants. Look for seeds with a hard seed coat and darkened color. Check plants daily for maturity.
For seeds that mature inside a pod, like those of Cardinal Climber or Beans, let seedpods dry on plants and harvest individual pods as they dry. If freezing weather or heavy rains are forecast as seedpods are ripening, harvest them all and dry indoors.
If possible, its easiest to collect entire seed heads or pods rather than individual seeds. You can do that with Zinnias, Scarlet Sage, Lettuce and Broccoli. Plants like Four-O'Clocks, Dill or Onions produce seeds that are easily scattered or small and difficult to collect one by one. With these, you can tie a paper bag over the seed heads and shack the plant to release the seeds or allow them to drop into the bag naturally.
Separate seeds from the flower head, husk or pod. Often you can simply do this by rolling the seed head between your hands over a piece of paper. For smaller seeds, blow chaff away with a three-speed fan.
You could also build a hand screen by attaching metal screen to a wooden frame. Choose a wire gauge of the screen that will allow seeds to pass through without the chaff. Crumble the dry seed heads over the screen, and then shake the screen over a large piece of paper and collect the seeds.
Dry seeds by spreading them on newspaper, paper plates or a screen in a cool, dry place. Do this as soon as possible to preserve viability and future germination. Drying times will vary depending on humidity, but most seeds will dry in 5-7 days.
How do you tell if seeds are dry enough?
- They should be brittle and hard.
- The seeds won’t bend when you try to break them in half – they snap in two instead.
- Beans are hard when dry; they won’t give or be soft when you try to bite them.
Conditions should be cool and dry. Ideal storage conditions are less than 50ºF with relative humidity less than 50º%. Too warm and humid and the seeds may germinate prematurely. Store in paper envelopes, glass jars or clear plastic bags. Glass is the best choice, since it excludes moisture and you can easily see the seeds. To help absorb moisture and reduce humidity, some gardeners add silica gel to seed storage containers. If you try this with sealed jars, remove the gel after one week.
Seed longevity doubles with every 10 degrees that storage temperature decreases. If you have valuable seeds, store them in glass canning jars and put them in the freezer. Allow the jars to reach room temperature before opening. This will help prevent condensation from forming on seeds.