Seed Saving

Seed Saving Is Neither Difficult Nor Complicated

Seed Saving

Guest Article by Lauren:

Seed saving is not difficult. The hardest part of seed saving is knowing when and how the particular crop produces seeds.

Some seed in the spring, some in the fall, some the 2nd year. Some have seed pods, some have fruit.

If seeds come from inside the edible fruit (like tomatoes, squash, and peaches), let one fruit ripen on the plant and harvest the seeds from that. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve lost track of how many times someone’s said “Wait, I can plant that?” The fruit will have to be fully ripe, so don’t try saving seeds from a soft, “edible” squash, for example. Many varieties of squash will be so hard when they’re ripe you may end up breaking them open with a sledgehammer, but by the time a tomato is ready to eat the seeds are fully ripe and can be harvested. Viability goes down considerably if seeds are harvested too soon.

Mature and immature squash from the same plant:
mature and immature squash

It’s best to let the seed fruits dry on the plant. If that’s not possible, harvest them at peak maturity and let them continue to ripen in a protected place.

Carefully separate the seeds from the flesh, but don’t worry about the fragility of the seeds—these seeds WANT to survive, and they’re hardened for abuse. Many can travel through the digestive system of an animal and come out unharmed, so a strainer and kitchen sink aren’t going to hurt them. If they seem unnecessarily fragile, you may have harvested too soon.

Clean and dry your seeds. They must be completely dry or you’ll get mold in storage. Some seeds, such as tomatoes, have a protective layer over the seed that keeps them from germinating, so cleaning is especially important with these. Keep your seeds in a cool, dry place to plant the next spring.

Harvest seeds from the best. Part of seed saving is making sure that your plants fill your needs for the foreseeable future, and not just for today, so you want to save the seeds that will pass on the best traits. Lack of pollination and insect damage aren’t desirable traits.

If you like the taste of one plant over another make that your seed plant. Mark it so you don’t accidentally harvest and eat your seeds. And yes, I have done that. :) If you really don’t like the taste of another, cull it. A little privation of your favorite flavors now will assure those flavors will be available in future years. If one plant wilts in the morning sun while another stays strong, cull the weak and do not save seeds from it. If one plant turns yellow or doesn’t thrive under your conditions, pull it.

If seed longevity is your goal (as it should be for long term survival), wait a few years before you plant to make sure you harvest only from seeds that have that trait. If you want drought tolerance, plant in dry conditions and harvest seeds from the best that survive. Over time you should get plants and fruit that best suit your needs.

Of course, this implies that no other pollen is getting into your seed plants. If you plant more than one variety of the same species (such as 2 different kinds of summer squash), they’ll cross and you may get a hybrid the next year. If this isn’t desirable, consider only planting one variety each year–even if they are biennials and seed the next spring, only one will seed at a time.

For further isolation, such as for plants that have been approved for genetic modification, I make small bags of light gauze and yarn to put over the flowers. When I isolate in this way I pollinate with a paintbrush so I have complete control over which plants cross.

 

Seed Saving

The following is basic information for a few of the more common garden plants. Longevity relies on storage and growing conditions.

 

Squash / melons

Male and female squash blossoms:
male and female squash blossoms

 

Grains

Mostly wind pollinated. If there are farmers in the area growing these you may not be able to get pure seed. Depending on variety and conditions, pollen can travel as much as 5 miles. Corn pollen travels less than 100 feet under normal conditions but has been known to travel further with wind. Seeds will last indefinitely.

Female flower of corn in the leaf axil:
female-flower-of-corn

Male flower of corn, or tassels:
male flower of corn

 

Greens

Most will go to seed the same year. Spinach has male and female plants so you need both for seeds. Brassicas (kale, collards, broccoli, etc) will often not self-pollinate so you need at least two plants. Most are technically biennial, but may go to seed the first year. The broccoli you harvest is the immature flower head so you’ll need to let it go to get seeds. Seeds will last a minimum of 2 years, but I’ve seen them last upwards of ten without loss of viability.

Lettuce seed head:
lettuce seed head

Brassica seeds and seedpods:
Brassica seeds and seedpods

 

Root crops

Beets and onions will “bolt” the second year and go to seed then. If you plant beets or onions for seed, put your seed plants in an area where they won’t be disturbed for two years. Depending on your conditions you may need to lift them and store until spring. Garlic does not seed easily and is propagated mostly through bulbs. Seeds will last a minimum of 2 years, but I’ve seen them last upwards of ten without loss of viability.

Alium (onion, garlic, leek, etc) seed head:
Alium, onion, garlic, seed head

Female beet with seeds:
female beet with seeds

 

Beans

May cross, but usually don’t. Let a few bushes go to seed and dry on the vine for seed next year. If seeds are small and shriveled they were harvested too early and might not germinate. Seeds will last between five and ten years. If you can cook the bean, you can probably grow it.

Tomatoes

May cross, but it’s unlikely. Keep seeds from those you harvest to eat. Seeds will last about five years.

Peppers

If you grow more than one variety they’ll need to be separated by ten feet or more to get pure seed. Otherwise just let a few dry on the vine. Seeds will last at least three years.

Peas

Choose the best plants [full pods, best taste] and let the peas dry on the vine. Watch out for pea weevil, as the larvae eats the seeds from the inside. Seeds will last about five years.

 
[Ken adds:] Some of you may be interested in the following book on seed saving. I picked this up several years ago…
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners

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69 Comments

  1. I store my seed frozen because the World Seed Bank is in a frozen mountain in Norway. They keep all the seed frozen. I found a package of squash seed I had overlooked in my freezer. It was dated and was 15 years old. I planted them and all came up and made wonderfully. That totally convinced me of freezing my seed.

  2. Lauren, very informative. I don’t do as much gardening as I’d like. DW wants to travel in our golden years and truthfully we don’t have all that many left. We also have way too many tall trees cutting into our sunshine factor. We have had some luck with peas and this year I’m going to add green beans. We planted garlic last fall and maybe half of the bulbs have come up but there hasn’t been a lot of growth. Can I expect that to increase as spring comes on? It hasn’t been a very cold winter here.

    Very interested in your potatoes from seed attempt and I’ve not been able to find a source for same. Maybe you could do a follow up on that?

    1. Garlic is planted in the fall and grows through the winter. The major flush of growth will come in the spring. Right now they’re just comfy under there and hibernating. It is possible to plant it in the spring (early spring) for a fall harvest in mild climates, but any level of real heat and they’ll die back until fall.

      I’m still working on the potatoes from seed, so I can’t speak to that. There aren’t many sources around. I’m luck to have a grower just north of me, so I’ll try again this spring. When I figure it out I may do another post (since a lot of people still confuse true potato seed and seed potatoes).

    2. True Potato Seed contact;
      Jim Ternier sells these seeds
      Prairie Garden Seeds
      PO box 2758
      Humboldt, Saskatchewan Canada
      S0K2A0
      He’s old school, you have to mail him your request with a cheque. I’ve grown quite a few of his seeds. They are excellent.

  3. For my climate and with seed harvesting in mind, the hardest thing is drying the seed, our climate is quite humid, getting anything to reliably dry on the plant is a challenge, creating a tunnel with pipe hoops and poly sheeting is about the best method, this also makes it possible to exclude birds and insects, for vegetables this has proven to be the only way to dry anything in the field,
    My biggest challenge has been grains, it is almost impossible to get a harvest of any significance, i am going to try and cover with the tunnel as well because so far i cant even get the grain to survive the birds and start drying down let alone get anywhere near a harvest. mildew becomes an issue either covered or not, and about the only way to stop that is with chemicals,
    If we are having dry weather, all i need to do is plant a grain crop and without fail we get torrential rains right about when the grains are heading out, so i get the whole thing blown flat and lodged, plus then it all mildews, fun stuff,

    1. Yes, climate makes a huge difference. Have you considered something like amaranth or quinoa? If you had a dehumidifier on your intake you could keep the inside of a refrigerator pretty dry and turn it into a seed “dryer.” Maybe.

      1. Amaranth and quinoa both grow real good, a little easier than standard grains, not as easily affected by weather etc, birds still a problem, getting viable seed from whatever i grow is the goal.
        I am most likely going to frame a loft in my packing shed, will stay quite warm and breezy during the day, so will be a good spot to dry down shocks of grain or seed heads from veggies, its all geared towards producing my own seed if things go south, nothing is produced here and the vast majority of people have no clue where the seed comes from, their idea is hey it comes from the rack at the hardware store,,,,,

        1. Down here in Southwest FL. What I have learned over the years is to only grow plants that actually work in sub-tropical in your case tropical climates.
          I gave up on standard northern old English crops… the insects chew them to the root or there is too much h20 in wet season and not enough in dry season. My soil is actually just nematode infested low nutrient sand that I mix with some compost.
          I do grow some mean sweet taters, Casava (yucca root), taro (edible elephant year). Most tropical edibles are propagated by tuber, cuttings and root starts.
          New Zealand Spinach is growing like gangbusters and self seeds so every year it comes back in dry season without effort. Many tropical edibles to grow vs the standard old English crops that really do not work well.

          1. Also remember that many plants we consider annuals are in reality tropical or sub-tropical transplants that just ripen quickly. Squash, tomatoes, peppers, and I believe potatoes as well, were cultivated in sub-tropical and tropical areas first. Given an opportunity they will revert to their origins (although the common growing instructions might not apply in your area!).

          2. Whitecracker
            That NZ spinach is a weed here on our place, is growing all over, that and choyote and daikon

      2. We live in South Texas and it is very humid also. For what ever my advice is worth we place our seeds in mason jars then put the jars inside five gallon buckets with sealable lids and bury them. This works quite well and we have not lost any seeds due to humidity. The five gallon buckets from Home Depot are what we use. We do not place oxygen absorbers in the jars. Keep in mind that we do not have electricity or running water on our mini-farm and desperation is always the mother of invention. thanks

  4. Thanks Lauren,

    I have recently started trying to save seeds. Sometimes they work, but often they do not. I have printed out your article to save in my important documents. I will try all your methods and ideas this summer.

    Dumb question about male and female greens: When I buy seeds in a packet, will there be both male and female plant seeds in the packet? Or do I need to buy separate seed packets to get both sexes?

    1. On plants that require both male and female, you’ll get seeds for both in the packet. It’s generally impossible to tell which is which until they actually go to seed, then you’ll see plants that look different in a patch of what you thought was the same plant.

  5. Very nice article Lauren; well written and easy to understand, you’ve done this before haven’t you? Heheheh

    Being one that literally loves to Garden and “get my hands dirty”, I can appreciate the usefulness of saving seed, and as one that ‘claims’ to be a “Lifestyle” Preparer I really should be more ‘into’ Seed Harvesting along with the seed bank I have stashed.
    As it is I have limited time for Garden and all the rest of the ‘life’s’ stuff that needs to be done, BUT I will always make more time for the Garden, and yes Planting Season is coming up fast here, already have a bunch of ‘starts’ going in the house :-)
    So I believe I’ll squeak a little more time and give the “Seed Harvesting” a go at it this coming Fall.
    You are absolutely correct about choosing the “Best” Plants to harvest from, I know I have read that it really takes 3 years to finally find the very best seeds for a particular area and Garden from harvesting seeds.
    Going to be a very busy Summer here, planning on a 12’X16’ Greenhouse this year. Along with the Garden, and like I said the Life Stuff, plus Harvesting a Steer and 2 hogs this Fall….. ohhhhhhh boy, no wonder I’m tired.
    I’m wondering how good of percent you’re having on your ‘harvested seeds’?
    Thanks again for the wonderful article.

    1. My harvested seeds actually do much better than purchased seeds. Which is another topic altogether. It’s that three year boundary you mentioned above. First year seeds from outside my yard (gifts or packets) I get great germination but most plants die. 2nd generation I get OK germination but the majority survive. Third year it explodes and I get nearly 100% germination and 100% survival. Each year the plants become more acclimated to MY environment, MY habits, and after three generations they love it here.

      The most time consuming part is cleaning and drying the seeds, and most of that can be done midwinter if you want. I leave dry seeds like lettuces and beans in a bag until I’m ready to deal with them.

  6. Well done Lauren and thank you for taking the time!!! Concise and to the point. Have saved some seeds in the past.

  7. Lauren,
    I am also printing your article out and saving it with my ever-growing notes so I can refer back, and I appreciate the photos as well.

    Thank you very much – great article!

    1. Thanks for the compliment CR

      I am still here, lurking. There are so many people on this site now that I usually just read and vote. Most of the people on this site have good info — better than I could contribute.

      1. Daisy K
        . Most of the people on this site have good info — better than I could contribute.

        Don’t think that……
        Any type of knowledge is beneficial.
        Any 2 cents from anyone is GREAT.
        Knowledge is power..
        You, too, contribute…..,
        all the reason to post.

  8. Lauren,
    Thank you for the info and such a good article! Picking onion seeds from the flower head is one of my favorite things to do.
    luv ya’ll, Beach’n

    1. I love eating them when they’re soft. :) Green or just starting to turn, before they harden.

    2. Beach’n & Lauren
      WOW, talk about Onion Breath… HAHAHAHA
      Ok Ok Beach’n just how do you ‘Pickle’ Onion Seeds?

      1. I think she said “pick” onion seeds, but if I wanted to pickle them I’d probably just use vinegar. The seeds are large and soft in the green stage, so it might be an interesting test.

        1. Lauren;
          OPPs, sorry about the mis-read, BUT I’m thinking hummm
          Pickled Onion Seeds, I already do Pickled Onions sooooooo :-)

          1. Picking them out of the heads would be the most time consuming part. Go ahead and try it! :)

          1. Antique Collector;
            I have to admit that was pretty good LOLOL, and from my last post it looks like the “pickling” is working HAHAHA

  9. I used Cashaw squash seeds from 20 years ago that had been frozen and they came up beautifully. We had a bunch. Great job on the article!!!

  10. I save all my seeds. They are all open pollinated and right after 3 years they have thick vines and stems against our strong winds. And the fruit grows much bigger than advertised. I haven’t found an open pollinated corn i like. I may have to go to a hybrid. Save the seeds from the biggest fruit or veggie.

    1. I’m going to start my own corn strain. We’ll have to see how that works. Nature thrives on hybrids.

  11. Lauren, fine job on this subject. Thank you. When I was a child, my Dad found what he called a “wild tomato” plant in a pasture. The fruit was small, resembling a cherry tomato, and very acidic. Mother made tomato preserves with them that we kids and Dad just loved. Dad propagated them for close to twenty years by taking ripened fruit and crushing them with his fingers and smearing the seed and pulp onto sheets of newspaper. He allowed this to dry, then folded the newspaper sheet to be stored till next planting season. In the spring he would unfold the paper and tear small sections containing 4-5 seeds stuck to the paper and plant the small section of paper and the seeds directly into the prepared beds. I recall no failures to sprout. Ever heard of this method?

    1. Yep. Just a variation. When I use paper (which I used to do all the time) I’d peel the seeds off the paper, but this is no different than the seed tape you can buy in the stores.

      1. There are wild tomato relatives in a lot of places. Some are edible and some aren’t. Do you mind me asking what area these were found in? Do you still have seeds?

        1. Lauren, No, before Dad died, he bought Mother the new brick home she always wanted and in the move, they were lost. He found the plants along a creek tree line on the edge of a pasture. we lived on a farm at the time in North East Texas about 20 miles east of Dallas (black land prairie). I always thought they were probably a result of birds depositing the seeds from eating the fruit in someone’s garden or self propagated from a long gone home place. Pretty sure they were edible, we ate a ton of preserves made from them.

          1. If they weren’t edible you would have known it. There are wild tomato varieties all across north and south america, so it might easily have been a native.

            There’s a man north of me who found some wild tomatoes and is breeding them back into the domestic lines, hoping to get a variety with open flowers so bees can pollinate it. Domestic tomatoes have closed flowers so cross pollination almost has to be done manually.

  12. Thanks Lauren for the article and thanks, Ken, for the book recommendation. I have been storing my seeds in Mylar bags and adding an oxygen absorber. Does anyone know about using oxygen absorbers for seeds? I have read both yeses and nos.

    1. It probably depends on the seeds. If it’s something like onions or tomatoes that dry all the way through I can’t imagine it’ll do any harm. Larger seeds like squash or beans…I’m not sure. It might work. I put pea seeds in a bottle with alcohol vapor to kill any pea weevil before I store them and I haven’t noticed that it hurts them. Maybe try it?

  13. Well Dag-Gum-It Lauren
    Now ya got me getting the “Spring Fever” even worse than before.
    Time to and sneak a few seeds into the ground and see what pop’s up.
    After all it’s been in the mid fifties for a couple of weeks now, and if I cover em at night……..
    Might even toss in some more Garlic & Onions bulbs for a late harvest
    OHHHHH yeah, we’re going to have fun this weekend :-) :-) :-)

  14. Lauren
    Thank you for doing this article.
    Now I can print it out for future reference. Parents passed this knowledge on to me but typical kid in one ear out the other. A few things I recall, but enough of what one would require for keeping a garden going.

    1. I didn’t discover my obsession with green stuff until I hit adulthood. Then I had to relearn it all. :)

      1. I love growing stuff,,, always have, used to start landscape hedge stock by the thousands, made pretty good $ with that too, mostly from hedge clippings from the accounts we did, the cuttings were a throw away otherwise, im thinking about linking with a few landscapers i know and start taking all their green waste to build some big compost piles,,, faster than collecting my own,
        Seed saving is where its at, especially for stuff you grow a lot of, like beans, corn, lettuce and peppers, have switche everything over to open pollenated, the toughest thing is learning the ins and outs of doing it in your area, thats the biggest thing.

  15. Lauren,
    Thanks for the article. I will work on it this season.
    I imagine you got a lot of folks gears turning now…that’s a good thing.

  16. Lauren, thank you for this. The pollination information is something I should have known but chose to ignore. It just hit me that that is why my Kentucky pole beans were hard to separate from my Rattlesnake beans planted next to them. The 3 year issue is also good to know. This summer will be the big three for some of my seeds. It will be exciting to see how they turn out. Really good writing.

    1. If you ever need to go back because two varieties have mixed (or because of an undesirable mix), you’ll need to go back three generations–If you notice the mix this year, the mix happened the last year you planted that item, so you need to go back at least a generation before that.

  17. What a wonderful article. Thanks Lauren! This was definitely time-appropriate. Since we are still building our home, I do not know if I will get time (or effort) to plant a garden. I will have to fence it and amend the soil, and I still do not know where to put it. Do you have suggestions for garden placement? Our last one was against the house on the southwest side, and it did really well until the Aspen trees I planted north of it grew too tall and shaded it out. (whoops!)

    I have heard of the “kitchen garden” and thought that was a small garden. How far away from one’s house should we place a garden?

    1. I really can’t say without knowing the property. My garden is right outside my back door. My sister chose to put hers at the back of their property because she wanted the kids to play closer to the house. Consider water, light and soil.

      A kitchen garden was just called that to differentiate it from the major crop areas. It was the garden they ate from every day. It can be as large as you like, and as close or far away as is convenient for you. Consider the distance, the terrain, if you have other things in the area that you’re going to be checking on a daily basis. If you’re sick are you going to want to walk that far?

  18. Lauren,
    GREAT article and thanks a million. It was just a week or 2 ago that I asked Ken about doing an article about saving seeds. I guess the old saying, “ask and you shall receive” is very true on this site. Saving seeds is probably my weakest point on long term self sustainability.
    This site has to be THE BEST of the hundreds out there. Obviously Ken sought out the person he felt could share the best knowledge on this subject from his readers. Being that everyone here is willing to share their knowledge with others is what truly makes this site great.

  19. Lauren,
    Excellent article.
    If I could suggest an easy method to clean tomato seeds?
    I simply squash a tomato and remove the big solid pieces.
    I put the pulp in a dish and cover with water. Bacteria will arrive and set up house in a few days. The bacteria does the work.
    When the pulp is digested, drain and dry the seeds. It’s how mother nature does it.

    1. I just put them in a strainer and smash them with my thumb until all the junk is gone. Then dry them.

      1. Lauren
        Thank you for the info/article.

        Re tomato seeds, I have a question..
        I have seen articles/been told, it is crucial to “ferment” them rinse and drain (was that to get rid of the extraneous stuff?)

        also seen/been told, just dry and use

        also, someone told me her sister puts them between wet paper towels, lets the entire lot dry and plants in spring…

        From what you are saying, it is good to (as you state) get rid of junk in strainer, dry and store?

        thks

        1. During the winter (or wet season, respectively) the tomato rots and the growth inhibitors deteriorate, allowing the seed to germinate when the circumstances are appropriate. It’s a survival mechanism, to keep the seeds from germinating when it’s too dry.

          By either fermenting or scrubbing, those substances need to come off or the seed will not germinate.

          Depending on the climate, the growth inhibitors may deteriorate after the seeds are planted, so in some areas simply planting will work. There are also varieties which don’t have as much of the growth inhibitor and will germinate easily without much preparation.

          I prefer to simply scrub the seeds (in a strainer) and dry. Fermenting does the same thing, it’s just a different process.

          1. Lauren
            Thanks. Good to know what it is “about”. I like your method of scrubbing, as having moldy stuff hanging around is not my favorite.

  20. Thank you for this article. I will have a new garden in a new place this year. The info was great especially the three year seed saver time frame.

  21. Thanks, Lauren, very helpful!
    I printed it off for future reference as well.
    Last year my garden went in late, so I hope to get a little jump start on it this year by starting some seeds indoors.

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