The joy of diving into an annual seed catalog hasn’t faded. But since I started saving the seeds of my veggie plants, it’s become more of a magazine than a place to source seeds. I consider it an avenue to diversify my garden and leave buying seeds for more difficult plants.
In the process, I’ve saved money and learned much about my plants’ botanical structure. I’ve also learned about garden hygiene by cleaning the seeds, drying them, and preparing them for storage. It’s been a great learning experience!
But why would someone go through all that effort in the first place? Isn’t it easier to just buy more next year or even let your plants go to seed and grow next season? Yes and no. Sometimes, removing seeds from the garden is a great way to control the spread of certain plants and save room for even more to be planted.
Saving your seeds has multiple benefits, and we will outline those here. From saving time to becoming an expert breeder, you’ll get something out of this practice. Adding seed saving into your harvesting and storing routines is a lot of fun, too!
Save Money and Resources
Selecting plants that thrive in your garden reduces the time and effort expended.
The obvious benefit is not having to fork over the cash to buy more. Additionally, growing plants you know will work in your garden adds another level of conserving time and energy. In a season where you know what works, you’re not wasting time experimenting with new varieties that may or may not do well in your region.
By saving seeds, you don’t have to wait for seeds to arrive in the mail; you can start yours as soon as time allows. You create less waste, as you don’t have to store seed packets, nor are you throwing them away. You’re also less likely to use up seed starting mix trying and failing with unfamiliar plants.
Learn More About the Plants You Grow
Growing the same plants every year offers valuable insights into their preferences, habits, and aversions.
As you grow the same plants year after year, you learn their habits, likes, and dislikes. You’ll know which plants prefer more or less water, fertilizer, and pruning. This helps you determine how to prepare your soil for your plants ahead of time.
You’ll also get to know the pollinators that like certain plants, and you can modify your garden to better attract them. You may even find certain crops have an affinity for other plants, prompting you to plant them together. All of these things make your life in the garden much easier.
One incredibly important thing to know is how a plant reproduces. When you grow for seed rather than fruit, you get a sense of the entire life cycle of a plant. You see the botanical structures the plant grows to continue producing next season. In this light, the garden becomes a space for gathering botanical information.
Strengthen Plant Genetics
If you’re up for experimentation, there’s no harm in attempting propagation.
There’s a caveat we should address regarding genetics and seed saving. For self-pollinating plants, you’ll have better luck saving non-hybrids. Those that are hybrid may not reproduce true to their original form. Some may even be sterile. Of course, if you feel like experimenting, it doesn’t hurt to try propagating them.
Another caveat is that self-pollinating varieties have better genetic diversity when at least 20 plants’ seeds are saved. Otherwise, you risk narrowing the variation that can occur in one generation. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll fail, just that your chances for success might be less.
If you know that your specific hybrid can be reproduced via seed, or you know a self-pollinating plant already has a good germination rate, saving its seed will strengthen the legacy of the plant. That’s why knowing how to save seeds is so important.
Breed New Plants
Collect and store seeds from each plant to propagate new plants.
Plants in the same genus are more likely to cross genetically via pollination. This can result in really cool hybrids, like the yellow pear/black cherry tomato plant I accidentally created by planting the two varieties next to one another. In this case, I saved the seeds to try to grow that same plant again next spring.
If you are interested in developing new plants, the only way to do that is to save the seeds from each home-hybridized plant. The more you save, the more likely you’ll be able to produce the same plant. The only exception to this rule is when a hybrid is sterile. In that case, no new plants will grow from them.
How to Save Vegetable Seeds
We’ll start with a basic overview of seed saving, but there are some basic tenets no matter what seed you’re working with. Here, we’ll concentrate on veggie seeds and the processes related to removing, cleaning, and storing them.
Separating Seed from Plant Matter
Removing the seeds from the plant enables proper cleaning, drying, and storage.
You have to extract your seeds before you can save them. The seeds may be encased in pulp in fleshy vegetables like tomatoes and squash. In some cases (like radishes), you have to remove them from pods; in others, you have to remove papery layers that protect those that would naturally be scattered in the wild.
Removing the seeds from the plant ensures proper cleaning, drying, and storing can be done without germination and disease or without preventing germination due to casings inhibiting the process.
Cleaning and Fermentation
It’s important to note that not all seed types should undergo fermentation.
After removing the seeds from the fleshier fruit, wash them before drying and storing them. For those with papery casings, cleaning may involve winnowing, separating fruit from chaff, and similar processes. Carrot seeds must be rubbed to remove their casings and then sifted.
Tomatoes and peppers benefit from a process of fermentation, which ensures no diseases infect your stock. Fermenting also removes any remaining pulp and softens any harder seed coats that can inhibit germination. To do this, immerse them in water in a mason jar for a week, swishing each day. Then, dry them.
However, this is not a process for every seed type. Seeds that develop a gel-like casing around them once moistened should not be fermented, for instance. For example, chia seeds and basil seeds use that mucilage to stay hydrated as they germinate.
If you’re drying on paper towels or other moisture-retentive paper, periodically shift the seeds to prevent sticking during drying.
Before storing, fermented seeds and those washed with water should be dried on cheesecloth, parchment paper, or a paper towel. If you’re drying on a surface that can break apart easily when moisture gets in, move them around during the drying process to keep them from adhering. Then, store away!
How to Save Flower Seeds
Saving flower seeds tends to require a higher learning curve when compared to many of our vegetables, which are bred for their ease of cultivation, flavor, and desirable aesthetic. Knowing how to harvest and store them is just as important and has all the same benefits.
Dry Seed Heads
Lower the risk of fungal and bacterial infections by removing heads exposed to damp conditions.
You can dry seed heads on the plant and remove them, or deadhead your plants and dry the removed heads. This is a good practice for those living in areas that are rainy or humid.
Removing heads exposed to moist weather reduces the risk of fungal and bacterial infection. Clip off the heads and spread them on newspaper, paper bags, or cardboard. Then, put the sheet in a cool, dry place for a couple of weeks. Some, like sunflowers, make tasty snacks, too!
If you begin to remove seeds from a flower head, and they won’t easily detach from the rest of the flower anatomy, most likely, it’s not dry enough yet. Use this drying process whenever that occurs as well.
Remove From Plant Matter
For plants with pods or capsules, break them open to access the seeds.
After adequately drying the seed heads, you must extract the seed. For coneflowers and those with similar spiky heads, you’ll want to wear gloves and simply bend the sections of the head. Then, extract the seed from the papery casing.
For those with more minute flowers, like mistflower, oregano, or yarrow, it may be better to keep the heads intact and simply plant an entire section. Often, they have such a low germination rate that this is your best bet.
For those with pods or capsules, simply break them open and remove the seeds for storage. For poisonous flowering plants like datura, removing the large seed pod when it’s green and keeping it in a paper bag or small box until it pops open limits the amount of time you have to handle the seeds. Always wear gloves if you touch the pods and seeds of poisonous plants.
How Long Do They Last?
Store in paper envelopes or their original packets. Plastic bags are good for temporary storage but not long-term.
Most common vegetable seeds can be stored in good condition for one to five years. Onions and spinach are on the lower end of that scale, and brassicas, melons, and chicory tend to be on the higher end.
Flower seeds are a bit easier. Annuals are typically intact and maintain their initial germination rate for one to three years. Perennials retain integrity for two to four. All of this, however, relies on proper storage. Put them in containers that can’t get damaged and aren’t exposed to moisture or light.
Keeping most types in paper envelopes or their original packets seems to be the best option for storage. If you’re like Kevin and Jacques, and you manage to come into an old library catalog, you can store your seeds there. Opaque photo boxes are another great option for those with less space.
Seed saving has so many benefits! Not only will you have seeds for the next growing season, but you’ll learn much about the plants they came from and have the opportunity to cross-breed your own.
If you give those seeds proper conditions, they’ll keep for years, and you’ll have a regular supply of seeds to grow from. Of course, there are stipulations to this, but there’s no disadvantage to saving your own seeds.