Seed Saving Strategies

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Sat, Jul 19, 2014 - 9:59pm

Squash seeds, drying

Certain vegetables have seeds you can save and plant next year. Some of these have been shown to be valuable enough to the home gardener to have been saved for a hundred years or more. These proven,  seeds are typically called "heirloom seeds." And since you save your own heirloom seeds and the ones that did well in your climate survived and thrived, in as little as two or three generations those heirloom seeds (that can) will adapt to your climate. Saving these seeds is easy, too.

I like to save enough for two years in case of severe weather or a bad harvest: most seeds are still 80% viable after two years. Save the seeds of the nicest plants you have so you will get healthy plants next year.

Before the how-to, a few definitions.

Organic does not mean heirloom: some growers are offering hybrid seeds what were grown organically (organic is how a plant is grown, not a type of seed). And though all heirloom seeds are "open-pollinated" not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom: some open-pollinated varieties are new and untested by time and experience. On the other hand, hybrid means that the seeds will not breed true; a real heirloom breeds true to subsequent generations.

Here are some of the more popular heirloom varieties for vegetables and herbs, and how to save their seeds. Make sure you label them with the year harvested!

  • Basil: Let the plant flower and the seeds dry on the stalk. I roll the seed-stalk in a piece of smooth cloth like part of an old sheet, and run the seeds out through an opening like a funnel. I save the silica packets from various things and put one in with my jar of tiny seeds.
  • Beans & peas: These have to dry in their pods until the dry pods rattle; until the seeds cannot be dented with a fingernail. I dry pods in bowls on a windowsill, break the pods for the seeds and save them in labeled paper envelopes.
  • Carrots: Carrots are biennial plants, so to save the seeds you have to let some of the plants overwinter and go to seed in the next year. They make lovely white umbels (cup-shaped masses of mini-flowers) and you cut the seed heads off when these start to dry. I roll the heads over a bowl since the seeds are so tiny, and store them in wax paper envelopes.
  • Cucumber: is your cuke too bitter to eat? Then the seeds are ready to save on a paper towel on a windowsill. Once dry, I just fold up & label the paper towel and use it as a seed envelope.
  • Coriander/Cilantro: I love this plant; it's a two-fer! The greens are cilantro and the seeds are coriander. Lovely white umbels turn into masses of large round seeds. Dead easy to save - just cut the seed head and roll them off the stems into a jar, again with a silica packet.
  • Corn: Hang husked ears to dry on the cob; rub off kernels when fully dry.
  • Daikon radish: Let some of them go to seed; they have easy, easy seed pods to spot. Save in a paper envelope.
  • Dill: This seed is a spice, and dill plants provide that - plus dill weed, a pickling spice and good on fish. Simple to grow, with easy seeds to harvest and save in paper envelopes.
  • Eggplant: Eggplant should be left on the plant until overripe for harvesting for seed. The dry eggplants will turn a dull whitish, yellowish, or brownish color. Keep eggplants off the ground during ripening, since they may rot. Use the "wet seed" saving method. (see below).
  • Fennel: Allow umbels to dry completely on plants before harvesting seeds.
  • Gherkin, West Indian: You HAVE to try these insect, rabbit and deer-resistant tiny cukes. I cut the overripe gherkins into slices that dry on a windowsill, and plant them next year, one slice per hill.
  • Jerusalem Artichoke (aka sunchoke): When harvesting, do not save seeds! Lop off their yellow blossoms and enjoy them as cut flowers. With their flowers removed, the plants will use their late-season energy to grow plump roots instead of producing seeds, and they won’t shed seeds all over your garden. Set aside tubers smaller than a robin’s egg, or simply drop them back into the soil to replant the crop.
  • Kale: Let kale seed pods mature and dry on plants before harvesting, or the seeds will not be fully mature. Harvest quickly after drying, though, as the pods often shatter once fully dried.
  • Lettuce:  When lettuces bolt, they form flowers that only last one day, but they flower a long time. This means flowering lettuces will have seeds most of the time. Wait until most seed heads have dried and hang the plant upside down over a flat pillow case or craft paper (harvest dry seeds if rain threatens, though).
  • Melons:Allow melons to ripen on vines until skins are hard, then store for an additional 3 weeks before removing and cleaning their seeds. Use the wet seed saving method (see below.).
  • Okra: Allow pods to dry on the plants until they begin cracking. Split open pods to remove seeds and finish drying. Okra produces a high percentage seeds with seed coats which are not readily permeable to water.  So it can be slow to germinate after thorough drying or long storage. For best germination, soak your okra seeds the night before planting to give hard seeds time to start to take up water.
  • Onion: Personally, I like potato onions and walking onions where you save the bulbettes, But if you want to save onion seeds let them ripen and dry on the stalks, then harvest seeds. Note: onion seeds are short-lived and should only be stored for one or two years before planting.
  • Parsnip: Another binenial member of the carrot family. The only difference between carrot and parsnip seeds is that the plants have much larger yellow umbels, and the seed is a little larger.
  • Pea: see Beans.
  • Peanut: This is a rough one. Not all of the peanuts you save will make it! But your best shot is to lay them out in an outdoor drying rack or on a table (set up hanging, clanging aluminum pie pans to discourage birds and squirrels!) for about a week. Store in a cool dry place.
  • Pepper: Lord, these are easy. I just pull out the seed core and let it dry in a dish on a windowsill. Once dry, I rub the seeds off with my fingers, and store in a Ziploc bag.
  • Potato: They are grown from pieces of tuber, although true seed is occasionally used. The potato does not set seed regularly. Recently .breeders have developed some seed varieties. Diseases are not transmitted to the next generation through the seed and the ease of storage for seed versus tubers would be a great advantage to growers(but these are not tried and true, yet). When a potato gets "eyes" each eye is a potential new plant. knock off the eyes on your storage potatoes, but lt a few of them grow eyes toward the end of the storage season. But about an inch of of tater to feed the eye was it grows leaves, and let that piece dry for a day to seal the cut sides.
  • Pumpkin: See the instructions for melons. Wet seed saving method below.
  • Radish: These have really obvious seed pods, and I just save the pods and plant them, whole.
  • Squash: For wet-seeded squashes, see instructions for melons. For dry ones like gourds an luffa, let them dry on the vine until they rattle, (Wet seed saving method, below.)
  • Sweet Potato: see instructions for potato starts, above, as sweet potatoes are not grown from seeds. They are grown from "slips"
  • Tomato: Wet seed saving method, and these must be fermented.

Tip: you can reuse silica gel packets by running them through a dehydrator or putting them out in the sun on a dry day.

Wet seed saving method.

For further reading here are some books you can try and online resources:

Login or Register to post comments