By Matt Gibson
Flower and vegetable seeds aren’t very expensive, but for an avid gardener who plants for new crops every spring and fall, the cost of those small paper packets can add up quickly. Saving your seeds for replanting only takes a few minutes and it can save you a lot of money in the long run. Plus, harvesting seeds leaves you with more than you need, which allows you to give lots of them away to your gardener friends.
Seed Saving Tips For Beginners
Gardeners can harvest seeds from just about any type of plant. The easiest type of plant to save seeds from are annuals, as they flower yearly, and are typically prolific seed producers. You can harvest and store the seeds of biennials and perennials too, but depending on the plant, you may have to wait until the second year or longer before the plant decides to flower.
Every plant in your garden produces seeds, but not every plant’s seeds should be harvested. Just because you can grow a plant from seed doesn’t always mean that you should. Some plants are better propagated by division, and dividing plants is a lot quicker and easier than growing from seed.
Harvesting seeds from hybrid plants is not recommended, as the seeds that a hybrid produces will not be true to the variety of the mother plant, and may not look anything like the plant that they came from. The best plants to harvest seeds from are heirloom plants, and old-fashioned varieties, as their seeds are typically true to the parent plant.
Open-pollinated plants are also recommended, for as long as they are pollinated by a plant of the same variety that they are, they will produce true to type offspring. You can continue to grow the same variety year after year, as long as you avoid cross-pollination. Learn more about the difference between open-pollinated, hybrid, and heirloom seeds here.
Start practicing by saving seeds from annual, self-pollinating crops such as beans, peas, lettuce, and tomatoes. These crops need little to no isolation and only need a few plants to successfully produce seeds, making them great choices for gardeners that are new to seed saving. Annual, self-sowing flowers are also great for beginners, because they don’t need any special care to help their seeds germinate. Good flowers to start with include California poppies, cottage garden columbines, and spider flowers.
Learning about the different ways in which your garden plants are pollinated will help you avoid cross-pollination. Some plants are self-pollinators, meaning they self-pollinate without the help of insects, wind, or neighboring plants. These species often self-pollinate before their flowers are even open, which makes them less likely to cross-pollinate, however, on rare occasions, insects can cross-pollinate plants that typically self-pollinate.
A few examples of self-pollinators include tomatoes, beans, and peas. Plants that are typically wind-pollinated, like corn and spinach, and plants that are insect-pollinated, like cucumbers or squash, are much more likely to be cross-pollinated.
Many plants need more than one of their kind to be growing nearby in order to pollinate. If there are too few plants in the garden, some of your crops may have a tough time producing seeds. Also, genetic diversity can suffer if the population size of a seed crop is lacking in size. This effect can be measured over the course of many generations of plants, and over time, if the seeds are used to cultivate the same crops year after year, your crops could suffer a loss in yield and a decrease in vigor. The seeds produced by these plants may also become much harder to germinate.
In order to stop cross-pollination between different varieties of plants of the same species, gardeners sometimes need to take action. With certain crops, the only action needed is to put a little bit of additional space between the different cultivars in your garden that belong to the same species. However, certain crops may call for more involved operations, such as pollination by hand, increased isolation distances, or putting up pollination barriers.
Avoiding Patented Seeds
Seeds are generally either open-pollinated or hybrid. Hybrids are commonly bred to make varieties that are well-suited to certain tasks, like larger fruit sizes, or increased yields. Hybrids are also bred to avoid issues that commonly affect the species, like resistance to pests, diseases, or issues specific to the species, such as bolting. Hybrids are usually patented and bred to grow just once, so that seeds have to be purchased again and again for every growing season.
Technically, hybrid seeds can be saved just like any other seeds, and you can try to plant them and hope for the best, but the success rate for regrowing hybrids from seed is incredibly low. In fact, hybrids are very rarely saved and regrown, as they most likely won’t grow true to type. If saved hybrid seeds even germinate and sprout at all, they will likely produce a very different plant than the one you initially saved the seeds from.
In 1970, the Plant Variety Protection Act awarded companies with a certificate ownership of seeds. In 1980, the Supreme Court further protected seed company ownership rights in their ruling in the Diamond v. Chakrabarty case, voting to allow seeds full patent protection. After 1980, farmers were no longer free to save patented seeds and breeders could no longer use patented seeds to breed new plant varieties. Today, just four companies control the bulk of global seed sales, accounting for more than 60 percent of worldwide sales.
Modern farmers have turned to renting their seeds from corporations like Monsanto or Syngenta instead of buying their seeds each year. Instead of growing open-pollinated seeds that were made to perform well in certain climates or soils, farmers all around the globe are growing the same cash crops, purchasing their seeds from the few big conglomerate corporations that control the market. If this trend continues, it is likely that even more seeds will end up under patent laws, and it will become much harder to access seeds that are not owned and distributed by the few major seed companies.
Luckily, farmers and seed breeders alike, have recognized the issues that have arisen due to seed patent laws and are beginning to fight back. Seed breeders are making efforts to expand the amount of plant varieties that can be saved and shared for free. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) has been working with plant breeders that breed open-pollinated varieties, asking them to pledge not to place patents or legal restrictions on the use of any newly-created open-pollinated plant varieties.
Seed companies are allowed to sell open-pollinated seed varieties, but they are not allowed to restrict other companies from selling them (or giving them away) by placing patents or legal restrictions on the new open source varieties. Open source seeds are growing in popularity, and along with their rising popularity, comes new open source seed libraries, open source seed exchanges, independent seed companies, and an exciting new agricultural push towards food sovereignty. Though it is getting easier to find seeds that are specifically geared to thrive in local conditions, you still can’t find them at mainstream plant stores, garden centers, and nurseries.
As an individual gardener, seed patents are not likely to ever apply because no one is checking to see if you are planting seeds next year that you saved this year. It is generally farmers and people who attempt to save and then sell patented seeds who run into trouble.
Learn more about patented seeds and how they apply to gardeners here.
The Importance of Seed Saving
If small farmers and backyard gardeners around the globe did not meticulously harvest and store old heirloom seeds, cultivating the same plants that their ancestors grew and passed down from generation to generation, the heirloom vegetables that we have today, simply wouldn’t exist. Saving seeds and growing heirloom crops is a great way to preserve food culture. Some of the world’s most beloved cultivars are heirloom crops, such as tomato varieties Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Nepal, Sun Gold and Yellow Oxheart.
Indigenous Native American tribes practice seed saving to preserve important cultural crops that certain tribes have been growing and passing down through generations for centuries. Crops like Cherokee White Eagle Corn, Candy Roaster Squash, and the Trail of Tears Bean exist because of seed saving practices, which continue to ensure that these valuable heirloom varieties are still around for future generations.
Timing For Harvesting Seeds
Knowing when to harvest the seeds from flowers, seed pods, plants, and fruits is vital to collecting usable seeds. Immature seeds will most likely fail to germinate, so it is essential that you wait until seeds have fully developed on the plant before harvesting. The best way to do this is to wait to harvest them as long as possible, until they are thoroughly dry.
When it comes to harvesting seed from fruits like cucumber, zucchini, and eggplant, it is wise to stall harvesting until the very end of the growing season, taking seeds from the last fruit the plant produces. The reason gardeners wait to harvest seeds from the final fruit of the season, is because seeds don’t fully mature until the fruit has stayed on the vine way past the point in which the fruit is edible, which often kills the host plant. Luckily, the last fruit provides plenty of usable seeds, which can be planted to regrow the plant in future growing seasons.
How To Save Annual Seeds
After your annual flowers have faded and withered, the seedpods remain, waiting for someone to come along and give them a shot at growing sometime in the near future. To get a good chance to grow and develop, annual seeds must be harvested, dried, and stored in a dark, cool environment until ready for use. Harvesting seeds from annual flowers and flowering plants is much easier than you probably expected.
During the fall, the seedpods of poppies, pansies, and snapdragon flowers remain on the plant after the flowers have faded away. Begonias and ageratums can be dug up and replanted in small containers so that they can be moved inside instead of letting them perish from winter freezes. Indoors, these annuals will continue to bloom until late December. In regions with mild winter weather, pansies will bloom all throughout the winter, and even in cold climate areas, they often continue to bloom until near the end of the year. Sweet alyssum is another annual that flowers deep into the fall.
Annual seeds are easy to save. Some of the easiest annual flowers to collect seeds from include: Cleome, Datura, Larkspur, Marigold, Morning Glory, Nasturtium, Poppy, and Snapdragon.
Harvest annual seeds when your annual flowers are fully ripe. Cut the flower head off of the stem with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife. Gather the ripe seeds from the flower head and spread them out on a piece of wax paper. Clean the seeds off by pulling out any husks or pods. Let your seeds dry out completely before storing.
Once dry, place seeds in an envelope and seal. Label the envelope with the species, variety, and harvest date. Store envelopes in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location. Sow seeds in the spring either by planting directly into your garden beds or by starting them indoors early to get a jump on the growing season.
How To Save Perennial Seeds
Like annuals, it’s quite easy to save your perennial seeds for next year. Most perennial seeds can be sown directly into the garden in the fall for spring sprouts. Plant perennials in loose, well-draining soil in a location that offers protection from harsh winds. Water your perennial flowers deeply just after planting and lay out a two to three inch layer of mulch to help deter weeds and improve water retention.
Tropical perennials like the polka-dot plant can seamlessly transition indoors in containers to overwinter. False sunflowers can also be moved indoors to encourage it to continue blooming to bring an element of color to your interior design. The seeds of both of these perennial plants can be harvested at any time while they spend the winter indoors, so enjoy the blooms as long as you want and harvest the seeds at the end of the season when you are close to being ready to plant them in the garden again.
Some of the easiest perennial flowers to collect seeds from include: Coneflower, False sunflower, Black-eyed Susan, Meadow rue, Veronica, Perennial sweet pea, Blackberry lily, Obedient plant, and Perennial sunflower. The process for harvesting and storing perennial seeds is the exact same process that was outlined in the previous section for harvesting and saving annual seeds.
How To Save Fruit and Vegetable Seeds
The seeds of beans, peas, onions, mustard, and lettuce plants (as well as certain flowers like zinnias, calendulas, California poppies, cosmos, and marigold) can easily be saved using the dry harvesting method. The trick is to catch the seed pods once they are fully mature, but before they have a chance to bust open and rain their seeds all over the earth.
An easy way to dry harvest these crops is to tie a paper bag over the seed pod clusters when they are beginning to brown but before they dry. Once they dry, simply snip the stem off of the plant leaving the bag in place. Then, turn it upside down so that the bag catches the seeds, and, if necessary, gently encourage the seed pods to open, spilling out the seeds into the bag.
Harvest the seeds of fruits like melons, cucumbers, and tomatoes by letting the fruits mature on the plant far past the time in which you would normally harvest the fruit, so that the seeds have fully matured. Allowing the fruits to become overmature often kills the plant, so wait until the end of the season and use the last fruit the plant produces to harvest the seeds. Wait to harvest tomato seeds until the fruit starts to rot. Cucumbers should be oversized, with large, tough, fibrous skins at harvest time.
Harvesting the seeds of pepper plants is a relatively easy task. Just wait until the pepper turns red and starts to shrivel, then slice it open and scoop out the seeds inside. Lay the seeds out on a piece of paper to dry. If harvesting hot peppers, don’t forget to wear gloves whilst harvesting and avoid touching your eyes or face with the pepper juice covered gloves. There are few mistakes more menacing than getting pepper juice in your eye.
Drying Your Seeds
If you’re gathering and saving seeds from your own plants, spread the seeds on newspaper and let them air-dry for about a week. Write seed names on the newspaper so there’s no mix-up. Pack the air-dried seeds in small paper packets or envelopes and label with the plant name and other pertinent information. Remember, if you want to save your own seeds, you’ll need to plant open-pollinated varieties. They’ll come back true; hybrids won’t.
You can also dry saved seeds on paper towels. They’ll stick to the towels when dry, so roll them up right in the towel to store them. When you’re ready to plant, just tear off bits of the towel, one seed at a time, and plant seed and towel right in the soil.
Storing Your Seeds
Seeds of all types should be stored in airtight containers. Put well-labeled envelopes into plastic food storage bags, mason jars, or any other airtight storage option. To keep your seeds dry during storage, toss a packet of silica gel in the containers with your seeds, or make your own drying agents using powdered milk. To make your own powdered milk drying agents, place two tablespoons of powdered milk into four pieces of kleenex and hold packets together with a rubber band. Whether using powdered milk or silica gel, it is best to replace the drying agent packets every six months.
Keep your airtight seed containers stored in cool, dry, preferably dark locations. Avoid exposing them to humidity or warmth. If you don’t have a cool, drafty basement, store them in the refrigerator. However, if you are storing your seeds in the fridge, keep them away from the coldest areas of the fridge, away from the fan and far away from the freezer.
Keep an eye on the age of your seeds and check the labels to see if any need to be tossed out. Store your seeds together grouped by year. Seeds typically expire in three years. Learn more about storing seeds here.
Getting Ready To Plant The Seeds You Saved
When you are ready to plant your stored seeds, pull them out of the fridge and keep the containers sealed until everything warms to room temperature. If you open the containers before they warm to room temperature, the moisture from the air will damage the seeds.
No matter how careful you are, or how well you follow protocol when storing your seeds, just about every batch of seeds that you save will contain a few misfires. Some will germinate as expected, some won’t germinate until the second year, and others, simply won’t germinate at all. Most plant’s seeds will remain viable for three years, though some species only store for one to two years. Some plant species have seeds with low germination rates (ex. sweet corn and parsnips).
Saving seeds is a fun way to save money on growing plants in your home garden. Not only will you be able to collect an abundance of seed options for planting in the upcoming growing seasons, but you will also likely harvest enough seeds to share with friends and family too. If you can convince a few family members, or gardening friends to start saving seeds as well, you could start up a co-op and trade seeds with fellow members for a larger arsenal for each growing season.