People have saved seeds for thousands of years in order to having something to plant the next year. It has only been in the last century that people have planted hybrids and bought their seed each year.
Saving seeds has again become popular in the last ten to twenty years. Any open pollinated plant has seeds that can be saved. There are five popular reasons most people choose to save seeds.
- Money savings. If you save your seeds to plant the next season, you do not have to buy them. If you have a large garden, this can quickly add up to real money.
- Seed security. You can keep the gene pool for specific varieties of seeds going even when the seeds go out of fashion and are hard to find. As mono-cropping becomes more popular with industrial farms, this becomes more important.
- Regional adaptation. As you save seed from the best of your plants, you are choosing the plants that grow best in your area. If you do this long enough, you will develop a strain of plants that are uniquely suited to the conditions on your farm.
- Consistent quality. When you buy heirloom seed from large seed companies, they typically do not police the quality of these plants very well. They save their time for policing hybrid seeds because they make more money that way. If you save your seeds, you know you saved the best seeds, not just the convenient ones.
- Explore heirloom vegetables. There are many hardy and nutritious vegetables that are not listed in most seed catalogs. You can save the seeds from such plants and get better tasting vegetables than are produced commercially. Heirlooms tend not to ship well, so they don’t show up in the grocery stores. By exploring them yourself, you can taste a wealth of flavor.
Any seeds you save need to be open pollinated. Hybrids will produce seeds, but they will not breed true. You will end up with a plant that is more like one parent or another and likely has undesirable characteristics.
When getting ready to plant a crop from which you want to save seeds, you need to consider how large the crop will get and how long it will need to be in the ground. For example, beets and carrots will only bear seeds the second year they have been planted. You will have to plant them the first year, let them grow, and harvest them before a killing frost. In the spring, you replant them and let them grow out to produce seeds. They may spread to three feet across while growing out. Make sure you leave enough space for this or you will not get a good seed crop. Even plants that produce seeds you simply let dry on the plant will be in your garden longer than the ones you are not getting seed from. Make sure your account for this when you plan your garden plot so that these plants are not in the way during succession planting.
When growing crops for seed, as well as for eating, you need to make sure your plants do not cross pollinate. That means you will need to grow only one variety of that plant at a time. For example, carrots, beets, corn, and cucumbers will cross pollinate and then will not breed true. Even planting the two varieties at the other ends of the garden patch may not be enough to keep them from cross pollinating one another. Try growing different varieties on alternate years to increase the varieties you have to choose from.
Some plants won’t cross pollinate. These are plants that self pollinate such as tomatoes, peas, and beans. You should still separate varieties by about 25 feet just to prevent rare instances of cross pollination.
How do you choose which plants to allow to go to seed for harvest? Pick the best tasting, most vigorous plants. You want to select for vigor and good harvest. If you just pick the convienent plant to let good to seed, you may be choosing seeds that will have undesirable qualities. For example, if you pick the seeds from a head of lettuce that has bolted early, you are going to end up with a problem with your lettuce bolting early.
For most seeds, you simply wait for the seed pod to dry out and then harvest the seed. Peas, beans, and corn are harvested this way. When you harvest the seed, take it inside and spread it on a screen so that it will dry well. Then place the seed in a glass jar in a dark cool place to wait for the next time you need it. Make sure you keep good records of variety each seed is and what year it was harvested. Every few years, you will need to “grow out” some of the seed to replace the seed you have saved so it will remain viable.
When saving seeds from tomatoes, cucumbers, and other wet seeds that form inside a large vegetable, you will have to process them a bit more to get viable seeds from them. These seeds are inside a capsule of vegetable matter that has to be removed before the seeds can be dried and saved. Soak the seeds twenty-four to forty-eight hours. The good seed will sink, while the immature seed will float with the pulp. Pour off the water, leaving just the good seed. Add clean water and soak another day. Repeat this process until there is no more pulp, just the clean seeds on the bottom.
Pour this seed through a strainer and spread it out on a piece of newspaper. Try to unclump the seed so it all has a chance to dry thoroughly. When the seed is about half dried out, stir to break up any remaining clumps. When the seed is completely dry, place in a glass jar and label before storing in a cool dark place.
Seed storing can be a very rewarding activity. There are many excellent books on how to process each variety of seed for maximum storage life. SEED TO SEED by Suzanne Ashworth and David Cavagnaro is one of my favorites.