By saving seeds from your favorite flowers, fruits, and vegetables, you can create a custom seed collection suited to your growing conditions.
If you want to try it, this tutorial on saving tomato seeds has step-by-step instructions.
Seed Saving For Beginners
If you grow flowering annuals or perennials for flowers, fruits, or vegetables, you likely have a lot of seed saving options right in your own backyard. Or patio. Or balcony.
When I was a beginner gardener, I found information on seed saving to be overwhelming. With so many warnings about cross-pollinated seeds and unpredictable hybrids, it was difficult to know where to start.
Ease into it, one plant at a time.
The best advice is to ease into it and learn as you go. Or, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, take it plant by plant.
While it’s true that different plants require different seed collecting methods, and your saved seeds might not always grow true to the parent plant, seed saving and sowing from seed opens up a whole new and rewarding element of gardening.
Over time you will create best practices—just as gardeners have done for generations—and eventually have a custom seed collection suited to your garden and growing conditions that you can replenish each year.
- Reasons to Save Seeds
- Save The Best
- Seed Saving Methods
- Seed Harvesting Time
Reasons To Save Seeds
Initially you might start saving seeds simply to save money. While seed packets usually cost just a few dollars each, growing a variety of plants can really add up.
You may also regard seed-saving as part of a self-reliant lifestyle. It’s no small thing to know you have a few years’ worth of vegetable seeds on hand during turbulent times.
Seed saving is rooted in tradition and together we are the guardians of the seed supply. Gardeners have been saving seeds for generations, both by necessity to feed our families, and to ensure favorite plants are protected for generations to come. What a sad world it would be if we were reduced to just a few mass-produced varieties of vegetables or flowers.
The rewards are also personal. By collecting seeds from our own gardens, we have seeds adapted to our specific growing conditions—something you cannot ensure from purchased seeds.
If you enjoy it, you may also want to participate in seed swaps or contribute to community seed banks.
Save The Best
For many of us, our first ventures into seed saving involves tossing some dried seedpods into a paper bag at harvest time and hanging it up in the basement until sowing time in spring. And this can work. It requires little effort and you get free plants.
But, if you’re wanting to be more intentional with your seed saving efforts, the payoff comes by paying attention to your plants all season long.
The best plants produce the best seeds.
Simply put, the best plants provide the best seeds. Watch for traits you like and be sure to save seeds from the plants that have them.
Know What You’re Growing
To get started, you need to know what you’re growing. Are the plants annual, perennial, biennial? Straight species, cultivars, or hybrids? Will the seeds be open-pollinated (OP) or unpredictable hybrids? Are the seeds easy to grow like peas or beans or more challenging? I’m talking to you, onions and clematis!
It’s worth learning the basics about botanical names for plants. Besides gaining an understanding of plant families, just the way the names are written (the format) tells us a number of important things about the plant. There are some interesting examples here.
You particularly want to find out about seed purity, asking will these saved seeds grow like the parents? And if not, is it worth experimenting to see what I get?
With your plants identified, you can then find out if seed saving is recommended and learn tips for success. A good reference book will be dog-eared for years to come (see Resources below).
In some instances plants or their seeds are patented but the ones we want to focus on are open-pollinated and available for saving and sharing.
Tag Your Favorites
When you’ve got some candidates in mind, mark them with ribbon or tags and watch how they grow. I also like to take photos and jot down notes to refer to at seed harvest time.
Desirable Traits May Include
- Healthy, vigorous plants showing no signs of weakness, disease, or pests.
- Best flowers in size, color, scent, or yield.
- Most delicious fruits.
- Tolerance for local conditions including drought, heat, or wind.
Seed Saving Methods
While there are nuances for every type of plant, it helps to group seeds into two basic seed saving categories: dry and wet.
“Dry” seeds form outside the plant, often in a pod or capsule. These can be the easiest to collect if we gather them before they disperse.
Opportunities also open up when summer heat waves cause vegetables like radish and lettuces to bolt. Desperate to survive, the plants jump right to the flowering and seed stages.
To save dry seeds, we clip off the seed heads, careful to catch any loose seeds in a bag or bowl, and finish drying them indoors.
Other dry seeds include beans and peas. To get seeds, the pods are left on the vine beyond our normal food harvest time. When they are brown, brittle, and rattle when you shake them, the seeds are mature.
For extra insurance, you can always put organza bags or some other breathable pouch over your dry seedpods to catch any seeds that try to escape while you’re waiting for peak maturity. This shows some examples.
“Wet” seeds are found inside fleshy fruits. These are plants like tomatoes and melons where the seeds are covered in a protective gel that helps prevent germination within the fruit. To remove this gel, we ferment the seeds as shown here with tomatoes, then dry and store them.
Seed Harvest Timing
We associate fall with seed saving because so many plants produce their seeds at that time, but there are plenty of other plants that flower earlier and go into seed production from mid-summer onward.
Seeds have to be mature to be viable.
Seeds have to be mature to be viable and that means collecting them at the right time—not too early or too late.
This is why it is so helpful to know what you’re growing, when to expect mature seeds, and where to find them on the plant. It’s different for each type of plant.
For many dry seeds that grow in pods or capsules, seed harvest time is easy to spot. We know it’s time—or almost too late—because the stems and pods have turned brown and the birds are dining on the seeds.
You may also notice that not all seeds on the same plant are ready at the same time. Some plants will have mature seeds on some stems while still flowering on others. But you can still harvest the ready ones.
Biennials don’t flower and turn to seed until their second year, so plants like carrots, beets, Swiss chard, brassicas, and celery will need to survive the winter—perhaps under covers or in a polytunnel—to produce seeds next year.
Some wet seeds reach maturity at the same time the fruit is ripe for eating. This is true for plants like tomatoes and melons so you get to have your fruit and save seeds too—all at the same time.
For others, we have to give up the fruit for the sake of seed production. Eggplant, zucchini, and cucumber are examples. At the time we normally harvest them for food, the fruits are not yet completely mature. To get mature seeds, we have to let the fruit continue growing on the plant. When they’re tough-skinned or wrinkled, the fruit is inedible but the seeds will be mature.
Once you know these tips, the timing seems pretty straightforward until you toss in unpredictable weather. Warm, dry conditions are ideal at seed production time, but nature often has other plans. We just have to do the best we can and finish the drying process indoors if necessary.
Air-dry seeds only—do not apply any heat or light.
Keep your seeds labelled throughout the entire process. You will thank yourself in spring.
- Identify your plants to understand which ones produce viable and useful seeds and how to harvest them.
- By saving seeds, you can create a custom seed collection suited to your unique growing conditions.
- The best quality fruits and flowers produce the best seeds so save seeds from those that have the traits you want.
- For seeds to be viable, they must be mature. Learn the right time to harvest seeds for each type of plant.
- Dry seeds come from plants that form seeds outside the plant. These are often the easiest to collect.
- Wet seeds are found in fruits. Some are mature when the fruit is ripe for eating. Others must ripen longer, forgoing edible fruit for mature seeds.
- Use of organza bags or something similar can help prevent seeds from falling into the garden before collection.
- Allow seeds to dry thoroughly before storing them.
- Keep your seeds labelled so you know what you have.
The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving | (Book) Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Saving Kit | WhimsicalWindchimers | Etsy
Seed Storage Options | Best Practices
An Introduction to Seed Saving For The Home Gardener | University of Maine Cooperative Extension
How to Check if Seeds Will Germinate
The Paper Towel Test
- Check your seed packet for any special instructions including pre-chilling the seeds or scratching the seed coat before sowing. Do these steps first as instructed.
- Next, place 10 seeds on a moist (not soaking wet or too dry) paper towel (or cloth towel), spacing them about a half inch or more apart.
- Wrap up moist paper towel and place in a zip lock bag or food storage container. You can leave the bag or container open to allow some air circulation.
- Store in a warm, dark spot (70°F / 21°C is ideal for many seeds). Check every few days to ensure the towel remains moist.
- After the expected days to germinate (see your seed packet), check if the seeds are sprouting.
- If seeds are viable, some or all will start sprouting. If not, wait another week just in case. To get your germination rate, note how many seeds sprouted. For example 8 out of 10 = 80% germination rate.
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I hope you will try seed saving, learn as you go, and remember to take it plant by plant.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛