The beautiful part of utilizing amazing heirloom seed varieties we all drool over in the winter seed catalogues is, you can save them to plant next year.
While the act of seed saving isn’t near as popular as it once was, it’s a great way to reduce gardening costs and improve your crops year after year.
Instead of needing to constantly go through a catalogue and find the varieties you want, you will have your own personal seed bank full of amazing varieties that you and your family have come to love. Pretty awesome way to become a little more self-sufficient and like the food you grow, if you ask me.
I love reading old stories about how heirloom seeds were passed down through families, through generations. Brought from overseas and carried with them. Those heirloom seeds were important and I love that we are able to keep those varieties alive and enjoyed. Saving seeds from them just helps the process.
How to Save Seeds for Next Years Garden
1. Grow the Right Varieties
You need open pollinated or heirloom varieties in order to save them. These varieties generally have a history of being passed down from generation to generation. They will “breed true” to their parents.
Hybrid varieties, on the other hand, do not typically breed true. Anything with an f1 on the packaging, is a hybrid. The problem with these varieties for seed saving is that they are bred by cross-pollinating two varieties to get a third type with the desirable traits the gardener is looking for. But, when you save seed from the plants produced from these seeds, they often only select some of the traits from the gene pool resulting in less than stellar plants.
We stick with heirloom seeds on our homestead, the varieties are amazing and I feel awesome knowing I am planting a piece of history every time I dig down in the dirt.
2. Know Whether the are Annuals, Biennials, or Perennials
Not all plants go to seed their first growing season. Annuals like lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes are all annuals. They seed and their seed can be saved during the first year. Biennials are plants that do not seed until their second growing season after winter. Carrots, onions, beets, cabbage, and onions are all biennial. You will have to overwinter these plants, generally with a hoop house) to save seed from them.
And then you have your perennials. These come back year after year for many years. Asparagus is a very popular garden perennial. Which is why we generally start asparagus from crowns (aside from it’s hard as heck to start from seed). Perennials are generally propagated.
3. Avoid Cross Pollinating Varieties
Many plants in the same species can, and often will, cross pollinate with one another. In order to avoid this, you need to know if the seeds you are saving can cross pollinate with other seeds you have planted in your garden.
Cucumbers, melons, squash, corn, and other plants that require either pollination by wind or insect from another, neighboring plant all fall into this category. The problem with planting several varieties that can cross pollinate (say, zucchini and spaghetti squash) is that the resulting seeds will likely be a hybrid variety of the two plants, not a pure seed.
There are ways to avoid this the easiest being not planting two of the same variety or planting them on opposite sides of your property. Some breeders go to extreme measures to avoid this by covering plants and pollinating the covered plants by hand.
4. Pick from the Best
I know sometimes it is difficult to give up the best looking produce for seed, but it’s worth it. Whatever you save is going to be what the next plant produces. So, if you want an earlier producing plant, save seed from the first blooms. Want big, vigorously producing plants? Save from your largest, most vigorous plants. Want disease resistance?? Don’t save from diseased plants or fruit.
Of course, we could get deep into the specifics of it, but for arguments sake (and not making you read 3,000 words on the science of plant genetics) we will just say save from your best, biggest, most productive, earliest, disease free plants. And eventually you’ll build up to all of your plants being the best, biggest, earliest, most productive, disease free plants.
5. Wait Until They’re Mature
Unlike waiting until produce is visibly ripe to eat it, produce is generally overripe, dried out, and or old and bitter by the time you can save seeds. Not exactly the same as waiting until it’s ripe to eat.
Beans, corn and peas are left on the plant to dry before cutting them off. Biennials must be overwintered, with a hoop house or other cover through the winter, and allowed to flower the following spring to save seed. Things like lettuce have to go to flower which makes the lettuce bitter and dried out by the time you can save seeds from it. Fleshy fruits are typically left to overripe on the plant in order to ensure viable seed.
6. Fleshy Fruit Seeds Need to Ferment
Gross, I know. But, fleshy fruits like cucumbers and tomatoes have a gooey cover over their seeds that needs removed in order to dry them out and save them. To save seeds from fleshy fruits, you’ll squeeze the juices and seeds into a small jar to about half full. You want to make sure to have enough liquid so that the seeds to not dry out before the fermentation process is complete. You can add some water if you need to.
I lightly cover my jar with a towel and leave it in a cupboard to ferment for about three days. You’ll know they are ready once the jelly-like seed coatings are floating on the surface of the liquid. Once that happens, add a little more water and allow the mature seeds to sink to the bottom of the jar.
Pour the contents through some cheesecloth and rinse. Spread the seeds out and allow them to completely dry.
7. Start Simple
Saving seeds from things like carrots and broccoli can be difficult and time consuming. One, carrots and broccoli are both biennials. Two the seeds from these plants are tiny and can be difficult to remove.
However, seeds from beans, peas and corn? Super easy. You dry them on the plant, they’re very large, and they are all very easy to remove from the pods and cobs once ready for storage.
Don’t make this too complicated for yourself your first few times. Save some bean seeds, corn, and/or peas. Next year move on to fleshy fruits like tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons. Save those tiny, difficult seeds for after you have a little practice under your belt. You’ll be glad you did.
8. Dry The Seed Completely
Dry seed is viable seed. If it’s wet, even a little bit, it will likely rot before you are ready to plant it next year. To dry seeds, put them on a breathable, mesh rack in a dry, warm place. In other words, don’t put them in your bathroom :P. You can put them out on the porch to dry in the autumn sun during the day, you can just sit them on a table where they won’t be disturbed. Whatever you have available. Just make sure they are dry.
To check the seed for dryness, just stick a fingernail into it. If it gives, it’s not dry enough yet.
The same is true for seeds from dry fruits like beans and peas. Even though it was dried on the plant, if you had any moisture, it may not be dry enough. Make sure it is dry before putting it up into proper storage.
9. Store the Seed Properly
Seeds like dry, cool storage. Most of us put seeds up for storage in little paper envelops. They don’t take up a ton of space and they’re easy to label. Make sure you label the storage container with the variety and the date harvested. The longer seeds are in storage, the less viable they become and their germination rates decrease year after year. So, try to use up the seed you save the following gardening season.
While the average life of most seeds is anywhere from two to ten years, some will last longer, some less. The conditions in which you store your seeds will have an impact on their longevity. A cool, dark place is best. A lot of people store them in their refrigerator, some in their garden shed, and some of us are lucky enough to have a root cellar (perfect). Wherever you choose, just make sure it’s cool and dark and not prone to extreme temperature swings.
Saving seeds isn’t really difficult, but it can be time consuming and a little messy. It’s worth it to be able to have your own, personal seed vault of robust producing varieties that you and your family love, though. Plus, you can pass on the tradition year after year to improve your self sufficiency and learn a skill that is becoming lost.
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