By now, many gardeners are well along on their seasonal activity of saving seeds. If you haven’t started yet, you have a few weeks left to get on the bandwagon. It’s a rewarding and cost saving practice that’s been around for ages. Heirloom varieties we enjoy today are the result of someone taking the time to save those seeds. That small effort preserves our biodiversity even as growers have developed hybrids that have other qualities like disease resistance or larger flowers, etc.
Not every vegetable and flower produces seeds worth saving. If your intent is to save seed from a plant that is a hybrid, be warned. The seeds of these intended crosses can be sterile, or they yield a seed started plant that is true to only one of the parents. Then there are plants that cross willingly with others in their family by insects and wind (open pollinated). The plants produced from these will not be true to the parent as well. Squashes, chards, and parsleys are just a few that open pollinate.
Yet some gardeners like using hybrids because of the surprise and delight they derive when they see the offspring. I have an annual poppy that is the result of 10 crosses. It came up one season in a deep Concord grape purple. A squash plant that grew out of a gardening friend’s compost pile yielded some of the best tasting home grown butternut squashes our family enjoyed in years.
Despite the potential pitfalls, you can save many seeds. Vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and peppers are good candidates to consider saving. Flowers like black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, zinnias, and sunflower are popular for home gardening seed savers.
Choose from plants that are the best you have. The most flavorful and disease free vegetables and beautiful flowers of good size, vibrant color, staying power, etc. are the ones you should focus on. Feel free to ask your gardening buddies if you can have a flower head or fruit of something you’ve admired in their garden. Not only will you expand your palette of garden plants, you’ll also be paying your friend a high compliment. Offer to trade what you have to sweeten the deal.
Seeds for saving need to be ripe, so they must come from mature fruit, which is usually past its prime for eating. Bean pods rattle when the seed is ready to be harvested. Then just open the pod and drop the seeds onto a paper towel. Flowers for seed saving should be faded and dry, a challenge for sunflowers which the birds will always want to eat before you can get to them. But if you wait for every vegetable or flower to be fully mature to save you might lose much of it to wildlife or late season diseases.
You can easily harvest flower seeds by simply removing them from the flower head. Some people like to tie a small brown bag over the entire flower head to be sure to catch all the seeds, sometimes before the flower head has fully dried. Then you just cut the blossom as the seeds ripen.
Once you’ve harvested dry seeds, you can complete the drying process by spreading the seed on a screen in a dry, well-ventilated area. A small fan blowing above the screen will greatly aid the process. The colors of white seeds will change to cream or light brown. Darker seeds will be dark brown when fully dry. Remember to label what you’ve harvested. and store your treasures so rodents can’t get to them during the winter.
Your favorite internet search engine will yield lots of sites devoted to the art and science of seed saving with detailed instructions on all manner of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. If you’ve never done this, a small investment of your time will yield great rewards, especially next spring when you can walk by (almost!) those seed racks.
Written by: Lorraine Ballato, garden writer and author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide.