Saving seeds from your own flowers or vegetables is a wonderful way for gardeners to experience the full cycle of plant growth. It is also less costly than buying packets of seeds each spring, and seeds saved from your plants will be well suited to the peculiarities of your own garden’s growing conditions. Seed saving is a simple process, one that doesn’t take a lot of extra time.
For many gardeners, gardening actually begins in January when seed catalogs first begin arriving in the mail. While the cold winds howl outside, devoted gardeners retire to a cozy chair and leaf through seed catalogs, carefully notating which varieties of beans and tomatoes to try and wishing they had more space to plant each and every flower so artfully depicted in the catalog photos.
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Have you ever wondered where your great-grandparents acquired the seeds for their gardens, long ago before there were seed catalogs and fancy garden centers? They were saving seeds from their own plants for the next year, and sometimes sharing their carefully saved seeds amongst friends and neighbors.
When saving seeds, select those only from healthy, vigorous plants. Some plant abnormalities and diseases may be harbored in the seed and could be passed on to the next generation of plants. It’s not a good idea to collect seeds from a plant that is obviously diseased or has struggled all season.
Collect seeds from the plants that have the characteristics you desire, such as height, hardiness, early or late ripening, flavor or vigor. Saving seeds from your best, most productive plants will help ensure that those seeds produce the best, most productive plants for the next growing season.
Saving seeds from hybrid plants is not recommended. Hybrid plants are the result of crossing two or more genetically different parent plants. The parent plants are typically severely inbred to concentrate their desirable characteristics, sometimes at the expense of other characteristics, such as flavor. When saving seeds from hybrid plants, those seeds will not grow into plants that are identical to the parent plants.
The first generation of plants from seeds produced by a hybrid cross are referred to as F1 hybrids. They are generally superior to the parent plants. But succeeding generations of plants grown from seeds of an F1 hybrid tend to randomly revert to some - but not all - of the characteristics of the inbred ancestor plants. So seeds of hybrid plants produce a sort of grab-bag of plants. You just can’t be sure of what you’ll get.
Saving seeds from supermarket vegetables is also not recommended for a couple of reasons. The most important reason is you don’t know the parentage of supermarket vegetables. You won’t know if that tomato or melon is a hybrid, and a plant grown from its seeds may produce fruit that is nothing like those at the supermarket. Additionally, vegetables that are mass produced are often selected for characteristics that are not desirable in the home garden. As an example, commercial tomato growers are more concerned with growing tomatoes that will ship well across the country, rather than with flavor. If you are saving and growing seeds from commercial tomatoes you may end up with thick-skinned, nearly indestructible fruit but it may not have that homegrown-tomato flavor you were looking for.
Many seed catalogs will indicate whether or not specific seeds are hybrids. Seeds that are not hybrid are referred to as open-pollinated, or sometimes as heirloom seeds. If you intend to start saving seeds, always start by growing your plants from open-pollinated seeds.
Heirloom varieties may have been passed down through generations of seed saving. Often, seeds of a favorite plant have been saved within a family for many years before becoming available to the general public.
If you plan on saving seeds from your flowers or vegetables, you should be aware of cross pollination when creating your garden layout. Cross pollination occurs when plants from the same family are planted nearby and they trade pollen with each other. Cross pollination often results in seeds which have a genetic makeup that is different from the parent plant.
Let’s say you decide to grow two varieties of beans in the garden and you plan on saving seeds from both varieties. One variety will be purple bush beans, the other will be climbing pole beans. If those two varieties of beans are planted too closely together and allowed to cross pollinate, the seeds that result from the cross pollination will grow to produce bean plants that aren’t exactly purple bush beans but they’re not quite the same as those pole beans either. One seed may produce green bush beans, while the seed planted next to it could grow up to produce purple beans on taller plants.
Pumpkins, squash and small gourds may cross pollinate with each other, resulting in seeds that grow to produce rather odd looking fruit. Sweet corn will cross pollinate with popcorn or field corn, and your short border of marigolds may cross with the neighbor’s taller pompon marigolds. However, crossing only occurs within a species. Cucumbers will not cross with squash or potatoes, and zinnias won’t cross with petunias.
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To avoid cross pollination when seed saving, keep two varieties of the same species separated by as much space as possible. For some plants that are typically pollinated by the wind, the pollen can travel great distances. These plants must be pollinated by hand and the plants chosen for saving seeds must be kept isolated from other varieties of the species. This can be done for corn by tying a small paper bag over selected ears before the silk emerges. Once the silk appears, it is hand-pollinated with pollen from the same plant or one of its healthy neighbors of the same variety.
Collect seeds from flowers after the blooms have fully dried and the seeds are mature. Gather the seeds on a dry, sunny day. If it is late in the season, don’t worry if a frost is expected. Frost doesn’t hurt most seed as long as the seed remains dry. Flower seeds and vegetable seed such as lettuce or radish should be collected after the seedheads have become dry, but don’t wait too long as many will drop from the plant if left for too long. When seeds are naturally dispersed from the plant this process is referred to as “shattering”.
It is a good idea to plan ahead and have small envelopes already labeled for each variety of flower seed you will be saving so they don’t get mixed up as they are collected.
When saving seeds from vegetables, allow the vegetables to become overripe in the garden before harvesting. Once beans, peas or corn have become fully dried, the seedpods or ear of corn can be collected. For extra insurance, you can spread the seeds out on newspapers in a dry place for a time to make sure the seeds are fully dry.
For vegetables that produce seeds surrounded by pulp, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers or squash, the process is just a bit more involved. Choose a healthy specimen in the garden and allow it to become overripe on the plant. Harvest when the fruit is overripe but not rotten or moldy. Bring the fruit indoors and slice it open, then scoop out the seeds and surrounding pulp and place the whole mess into a container of water. Give it a stir, then let the pulp float to the top while the seeds will settle to the bottom. It may take up to a day or two for the pulp to separate from the seeds. Pour off the pulp and repeat the process if there is still a great deal of pulp on the seeds, Once the seeds are clean or nearly so, strain out the seeds and spread them on newspapers to dry.
Allow your seeds to fully dry so they don’t get moldy in storage. If the seeds are damp and become moldy, they will lose their viability and your seed saving efforts will come to naught. Store your dry seeds in tightly sealed jars, vitamin bottles, film containers or other small, watertight containers and keep them in a cool place until spring planting time. To save space, smaller quantities of several varieties of seeds can be stored in separate sealed envelopes within a jar.
Saving seeds will be an exercise in futility if they are not stored properly. Temperatures between 32 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal for seed storage, so the back of the refrigerator is a good place for saving your seeds over winter. An unheated garage that never freezes, a cool basement or a closed-off spare room may also be suitable.
If you’ve been busy saving seeds all summer and fall, but didn’t label those seeds, you could end up with a very interesting garden when the seeds are planted. Be sure to label your jars and envelopes of saved seeds so you’ll know what’s what when Spring comes around and you’re ready to start planting. It is also helpful to make note of the date when the seeds were collected. Seeds of some plants will remain viable for several years, but most will grow best if they are planted right away the following spring.
Go ahead and start saving some flower or vegetable seeds from your garden this year to grow in next year’s garden. This endless cycle of planting and saving seeds will allow you to extend your gardening experience through all the seasons and all the stages of a plant’s life.