Seed Saving for Beginners

As our growing season comes to a close, I’m slowly beginning our Last Harvest of the season: Seed Saving.

After we shut down the farm for the season (around the 1st week of October), we begin the slow process of pulling out all the plant. Yes, all of them, except the perennials. It has the potential to be depressing… but the act of gathering seeds as I pull out the plants is so exciting and inspiring!

A few weeks ago, I led an informal “Seed Saving Garden Tour” for about 20 people. We had a great time wandering around the gardens, examining each plant and discussing how to save the seeds from that plant.

We had so much fun! I think it’s safe to say that there are LOTS of other people who are as interested in seed saving as I am!

In this post, we’re going to discuss:

-WHY to save your own seeds
-WHEN to save seeds
-HOW to save seeds
-WHAT to do with your saved seeds

Something to note BEFORE we discuss seed saving techniques….

HEIRLOOM SEEDS vs. HYBRID SEEDS

As the Seed Savers Exchanges says:

Hybrids, which are created by crossing plants of two different varieties, generally do not produce offspring with the same traits as the parent plant.

Seeds saved from open-pollinated varieties [Heirloom or OP], on the other hand, will produce plants identical to the parent.

Heirloom seeds, which Seed Savers Exchange sells, are open-pollinated varieties with a history of being handed down from generation to generation.”

If you want to save seeds, it’s essential that you choose seeds that are Open Pollinated (look for the term “OP” in the seed catalog) or Heirloom.

AVOID any seeds that have the term “F1” behind their name - this indicates the seeds are Hybrid.

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WHY SAVE SEEDS?

There are several reasons to save seeds, but I’ll just share a few here!

  1. SAVE MONEY. Seeds costs can add up over time! Learning to save your own can be a real value.

  2. PROMOTE DIVERSITY. In same way that animal breeders are always trying to promote genetic diversity, by saving your own seeds you can do the same.

  3. SHARE WITH OTHERS. Passing on seeds to future generations is an incredible way to leave a legacy behind. It’s also a great way to build community and connection.

  4. INCREASE INDEPENDENCE. Saving your own seed decreases your reliance on outside sources.

  5. IT’S FUN!

 Tomato seeds a friend sent me in the mail… from their farm!

Tomato seeds a friend sent me in the mail… from their farm!

WHEN TO SAVE SEEDS

Most seeds are collected in the fall, after the fruit or flower is “spent”.

Each plant has it’s own unique stage for seed harvest, but as a general rule allow the plant to get past the “pretty stage” so it can set seed. Yup, you’re going to have to look at some ugly veggies and plants in order to harvest seeds at the proper stage.

For vegetables, this means allowing the veggie to ripen beyond the point of harvest. So, this means you’ll let your beans get old, tough and brittle. You’ll allow a few cucumbers to grow huge and seedy. You’ll make sure your tomatoes are fully ripe.

For flowers, it means you abstain from “deadheading” (cutting off the spent blooms) and allow those dead/over ripe flowers to form seed heads.

Instead of tearing out the garden at the end of the summer, be sure to leave some plants behind to “go to seed”.

In this post, we’re going to explore saving “Annual” seeds - that is, plants that are grown from seed in the spring and set seed in the fall. Saving Biennial seeds requires more forethought and time investment.

Annual Seed Examples: Tomato, Pepper, Bean, Pea, Zinnia, Sunflower, Dill, Broccoli, Cosmos, Squash, Pumpkins, Basil, Cilantro, Cucumber, Lettuce, Radish, Spinach, Love-in-a-Mist, Marigold, Poppy,

Biennial plants require 2 years to harvest the seeds. The first season, they grow the plant. If allowed to remain in the garden over the winter, biennials will set seed their second summer.

Biennial Seed Examples: Onion, Carrots, Cabbage, Beets, Swiss Chard, Kale, Hollyhocks, Leeks, Celery

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HOW TO SAVE SEEDS

There are 2 main seed saving techniques to master depending on the type of plant and seed:

”Dry Seeds vs. Wet Seeds”

DRY SEEDS: These include seeds from most flowers and some vegetables, such as beans, peas, onions, carrots, lettuce, etc.

Harvesting “dry seeds” is simple and straight forward. The easiest way is to go out into the garden on a sunny, dry day with paper lunch bags. Cut off the flower head/beans/peas/etc and place them in the paper bag. Place the bag in a well ventilated dry place for a few weeks to ensure the seeds are fully dry.

After that, you may need to “Thresh” or “Winnow” the seeds, to separate the seeds from the “chaff” (the excess plant material surrounding the seed).

”Threshing” involves rubbing, beating or trampling on the seed “pods” to release the seeds from their casing.

”Winnowing” is the process of removing the chaff using wind. I do this by first threshing my seeds, then pouring the resulting mixture into a bowl. I wait for a windy day, then head outside with another bowl. Slowly pour the seeds and chaff back and forth between the 2 bowls. The wind will blow away the lighter chaff, leaving the heavier seeds behind. Voila!

WET SEEDS: These include seeds from “fleshy” fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, etc.

Harvesting “wet seeds” is a little more work! You will need to allow the fruit/veggie to ripen fully before collecting (think baseball bat sized zucchini!).

Open up the fruit/veggie and scoop out the mature seeds with a spoon. You will need to wash/sieve them several times to remove the pulp.

Helpful hint: You can soak the seeds in a jar of water for a few minutes to help clean them as well. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom, while the “duds” will float at the top.

”Wet Seeds” tend to stick to surfaces, so place them on a non-stick surface, such as parchment paper and shuffle them around every day until they are fully dry.

Some “wet seeds”, such as tomatoes and cucumbers benefit from undergoing a “fermentation” process. Fermenting the seeds mimics what happens in nature and helps to reduce diseases that can be passed on.

Fermentation is simple. Simply place the seeds and pulp in a jar of water and leave it in a warm place (be sure to cover the jar to prevent fruit flies! I cover with a coffee filter secured with a rubber band). After about 3 days, you will notice things are starting to get a little “funky”. Allow things to get a little bubbly, then you can rinse and clean the seeds in a sieve. Allow to dry fully before storing.

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WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR SAVED SEEDS

Once you have saved, cleaned, washed, threshed and winnowed your seeds, it’s time to store them!

There are several options for storage including baby food jars, mason jars, envelopes, seed packets, plastic bags and more.

Simply be sure that the seeds are FULLY DRY before storing them and check on them occasionally during the off season to be sure that they are still dry.

Be sure to properly label each seed variety, especially if you plan on sharing with others.

Seeds should be stored in a cool, DRY, dark place. Dampness is your enemy! Also, high temperatures decrease the shelf life of seeds, so the cooler the better. The refrigerator or freezer are great options, if you have the space! Be sure to enclose the seeds in an airtight container or bag before placing in the fridge/freezer.

When spring rolls around, it’s time to pull the seeds out of storage and get planting!

Now get out there and start saving your seeds! We’re planning on putting together a “Seed Swap” this winter and we’d love to see you!

Questions? Comments? Ask below or email me at: lori@threeacrefarm.net