Ask A Master Gardener – Seed Saving & Sharing

Fall is a good time to sit back and ponder how the garden performed. Evaluate what went right and what did not cut the mustard.  Take notes and make plans to improve next season.  Was there a plant that you particularly liked and want to try again?  Did you save some seeds?  Saving seeds is a good indication that you have joined the ranks of the serious gardener.

Seed saving is an ancient practice that was an absolute necessity until seed companies came into existence. David Landreth started the first company in Philadelphia in 1784.  In the mid-1800s, local seed companies proliferated.  In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture, and by 1897 the USDA was distributing over one billion free seed packets to citizens.  By the end of World War II, hybrid technology had increased to the point that low-cost, high-quality seeds were readily available and seed saving took a back seat.

If you are going to save seeds from your garden, there are a few basics to keep in mind. To begin with, do not save seeds from hybrids.  Seeds saved from hybrid plants will not produce the same plant the next season, but will be a mix of the grandparents of the plants bred to make the parent plant.  However, seeds collected from open pollinated or heirloom plants will produce true plants to the parents.

To save pure seed, plant just one variety of the species you wish to save. Some plants are self-pollinating, but others are not and cross-pollination will compromise the seed.  If cross pollination occurs, the resulting seed will be a cross between the two varieties.

Monitor your plants during the growing season. Choosing healthy, vigorous plants to harvest seeds from will result in healthy, vigorous plants in the future.  Harvest only fully mature seeds.  Seed structures should remain on the plant until they turn brown and are dry.  If inclement weather threatens, pull the entire plant and hang it to dry in an enclosed area.

Some vegetable plant seeds are not ready to harvest until they are well past the edible stage. Cucumber, beans, and peas are just a few examples of vegetable that need a longer time before the seeds are mature.  Therefore, allow extra space in your garden for some plants to stay longer.

Clean seeds before storing by a dry or wet method. The dry method is used for beans, peas, lettuce, most flowers, and herbs.  Simply allow them to dry as long as possible on the plant.  Complete the drying process on a screen in a well-ventilated area.  Remove the chaff by gently blowing it away.

The wet method is used for any seed that is contained in a fleshy fruit, such as melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Peppers also fall into this category even though they are not in a fleshy fruit.  Scoop the seed masses out into a jar and cover with a small amount of water.  Allow the mixture to ferment for two to four days, stirring daily.  This process kills any virus and bacteria as well as separates the bad seeds from the good.  At the end of the process, the good seeds will sink to the bottom.  Dispose of the water and bad seeds.  Spread the good seed out on a paper towel and completely dry them.

Label accurately and store all seeds in a cool dry location.

Seed saving is fun, cost-effective, and preserves genetic diversity. It is also something most gardeners have tried at one time or another.  Save a few seeds and share them with a friend.  It is a great way to garden.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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