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Seed Saving Basics

Page history last edited by Ruth 9 months, 2 weeks ago

 

Below are some basic guidelines for and some of the science behind saving seeds, but if you want to just give it a try before getting too involved, here is a foolproof first step into saving seeds.

 

Foolproof First Step


Almost everybody starts their seed saving with beans or peas.  It's virtually foolproof.  If you've ever grown dry bean plants then you've already saved seeds.  You may just have eaten them before you planted them in the garden the following spring.  If you've grown snap or shell beans or any kind of pea for food, then you've done almost everything you need to save the seed for the following season. 
 
Here's what you can do.  On each of your bean plants or your pea vines, leave one pod to reach full maturity instead of picking it to eat.  You can eat all the rest on the plant.  Leave that one pod until the end of the season when it turns leathery, then crisp.  Then pick the dried pods off each of your plants.  (Don't worry at this point about how many plants you have.)  Remove the seeds and leave them in a dry spot until they're hard enough that your thumb nail won't dent them.  Put the seeds for each variety in an envelope labelled with the name and date.  Put the envelopes in a jar and store it in a cool, dark dry spot.

 

 

 

Basic Seed Saving Guidelines  

The books and websites on the resource page will give you many more details about specific crops and processes, and you’ll learn a lot as you go along. You can also use our Glossary of Seed Saving Terms for definitions of words you may not be familiar with. Look at the bottom of the page for a list of easy to save seeds that might be a good place to start.

 

1.  What You Need to Know First

Is the variety you are growing for seed an annual or a biennial? Find out the family, genus, and species.  What is the flower structure and means of pollination?

Make sure you are growing open-pollinated (OP) varieties. Seed saved from open-pollinated plants will grow true to type. Seed saved from hybrids (F1) will not grow true to type.

 

Annual vs. Biennial

Annual plants grow through their whole life cycle in one year, from seed to seed. You plant the seed, it grows, flowers, and makes seed all in one growing season. (lettuce, tomatoes, squash)

 

Biennials grow vegetatively the first year while storing food (usually in a hefty root) to produce seed in the second year. They need to be kept alive over the winter in the ground or in a root cellar. (carrots, beets, cabbage, onions)

 

Flower Structure and Pollination

Inbreeders, or selfers, are the easiest to save seed of. They have perfect flowers with both female and male parts. The flowers generally self-pollinate before they even open, so you don’t have to worry about crossing. Examples: lettuce, tomatoes, peas, and beans (usually).

 

Outbreeders, or crossers, need more planning and attention when growing for seed because they will cross-pollinate. They generally are pollinated by wind or insects. They can have perfect flowers (broccoli, carrots), male and female flowers on the same plant (squash), or female plants and male plants (spinach).

 

2.  Ways to Maintain Varietal Purity - How do I keep them from crossing?

In order to keep outbreeding varieties from crossing, you need to isolate them in one of three ways:

  • Time - Plant only one variety OR stagger plantings so they bloom at different times

  • Distance - Observe required separation distances for varieties that will cross

  • Mechanical - Use cages, row cover, or bags to isolate, or hand-pollinate.

Just to be safe, avoid growing inbreeders right next to each other.

 

3.  Population Size - How many plants should I grow?

Ideal (for commercial seed) - 20 inbreeding plants and 100 outbreeding plants, except for corn, which needs 200. The reason for this is to maintain genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding depression, or loss of desired traits.

Practically speaking (for home gardeners & homesteaders) - Grow out as many as you can in the space you have. Corn is one that you shouldn’t skimp on, though.

 

4.  Planting - When do I plant?  Do I need to start them early?

Think about when the seed will be ripe. Is it at the eating stage (tomatoes, melons, winter squash...), or will you need to let it grow longer (eggplant, lettuce, spinach, beans, cukes...)? Find out the requirements for different species and varieties, so you can start plants so they will have time to go to seed and time for the seed to ripen. This may mean starting some annuals earlier than you are used to or biennials a bit later. Plant extra just in case.

 

5.  Spacing - How much room do they need?

This is another reason you need to get to know your plants throughout their whole lives. Some biennials get really big when they are going to seed, so they need extra space (parsnips, beets, brassicas). Some don’t need much if any more space than when you grow them for food (onions, tomatoes, peppers).

Plant overwintered biennials at the same depth they would be growing naturally.

 

6.  Care - Any special treatment while growing?

  • Stake plants if they are going to get big and fall over. Stake them early, before they fall.

  • Protect from rain, birds, and critters as much as possible when seed is ripening.

  • Rogue out any diseased or “off-type” plants.

 

7.  Harvest - When and how?

Harvesting Seeds

This is yet another reason to get to know your plants. There are guidelines, but with experience you will develop a feel for when to harvest. Gather dry seed in buckets or big paper bags, or gather bit by bit into a small container, or pull the whole plant and hang to dry. It all depends.

 

Harvesting First Year Biennials to Store

Choose firm and perfect roots to store for replanting the following spring. Always store more than you need, to allow for spoilage. Alternatively, leave a row in the ground covered with mulch (carrots and beets). This is easier, but you won’t be choosing the best to save, if that is what you want to do.

 

8.  Drying, Cleaning, and Curing

  • Dry seed on trays or beer flats in a warm, airy, dry place away from direct sun and critters.
  • Clean the seed to remove chaff, immature seeds, and bugs. Use sieves, gentle fan, flat pans, etc.
  • Some wet seeds benefit from a brief fermentation (tomatoes, cucumbers).

 

9.  Seed storage - Where and for how long?

  • Make sure seeds are thoroughly dry before storing.
  • Label packets with year of harvest, variety name, and source of original seed.  
  • Store in a cool, dark, and dry place, in airtight containers. The length of time seeds remain viable depends on species and conditions.

          Refrigerator is good; freezer only for very long term when you won’t be taking them in and out.

 

10.  Record Keeping - When did I plant those beets last year?

What to record:

  • Variety name (spelled correctly)

  • Original seed source

  • Planting/harvest dates

  • The story or history that goes with the variety

  • Notes, comments, observations, things to do different, etc.

   

How or where to keep records:

  • Calendar

  • Charts or spreadsheets to record data

  • Field observations / journal / log

  • Garden map

No matter how you do it, keep accurate and complete records, for your own sake and for the sake of those with whom you share seed.

 

 

Easy Seed Saving

beans

peas

lettuce

tomatoes

peppers (easy to save but can cross-pollinate)

cilantro/coriander

dill

 

Intermediate Seed Saving

corn

cucumber, squash, melon

spinach

 

Advanced Seed Saving

biennials - beets, carrots, chard, onions

brassicas - the cabbage family

 

 

 

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