Saving seeds from your garden can be intimidating, especially to a new gardener. Even an experienced gardener who hasn’t saved a particular seed before has to learn how. With good information, some trial, and, of course, some error anyone can save their own. Learn how to save seeds from your favorite garden plants.
Why You Should Be Saving Seeds From Your Garden
To the old-timers, saving seeds wasn’t an option, it was what you did so you could plant your garden the following year. As the boomers fled the farm and country life, a whole generation lost this knowledge, and much more.
We save most of our own seeds. I’m learning about saving little ones like lettuce and carrot. It’s not something we have traditionally done. But with the economic crisis in the world and the difficulty in finding some seeds, we’re trying to increase our seed supply.
Every year we add at least one new plant that is a rare or unusual variety to the farm. We buy these and any other seeds we might need from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and/or Wood Prairie Farm.
We buy from these because we are non-GMO, organic, sustenance farmers. We support their efforts, and we get quality, non-GMO seeds from them.
Plant Families and Seed Saving
Peas and Beans
These two are some of the easiest to save. Once peas/beans are up and blooming, we pick the healthiest row to be our seed row. We mark the row with brightly colored string and don’t pick any peas from it. Our rows are almost 50′ long, so one row provides all the seed we need.
We plant all our bean varieties in half-rows on the square. We save the healthiest of these half rows as our seed row.
- Your peas/beans are bearing, and you’ve decided which rows are your seed rows.
- Now, just leave them alone. Let them dry in the field.
- Watch them to be sure they don’t turn moldy or otherwise suffer from the elements. Seed pods will mold when exposed to excessive moisture with no sun to dry them.
- When they are good and dry, pick them. You will know they are dry because the seed pod will be brown, and it will crunch in your hands.
- Green seeds will ruin so be sure to let them ripen and dry thoroughly
We store our seeds in a burlap bag and hang it from the rafters in the feed shed. I have an old ax handle that I beat the bag with several times a week.
This removes the peas from the pods. In the spring, when we’re ready to plant, we winnow the seeds to remove the debris and pods from them. We do it this way because this is how my grandmother taught me to do it and it has proven to work great for us.
You can remove the seeds from the pods and store them in seed envelopes or in a glass jar with a lid on it. Store them away from heat and out of direct sunlight. They will be viable for 5-7 years.
Okra is another easy plant to get seed from. Just like with the peas and beans, once the plants are up and blooming, we pick the three largest, healthiest plants for seeds.
We tie a brightly colored piece of string around the bush so it doesn’t get picked.
As pods dry and turn brown on the stalk, we cut them and bring them inside to dry a little more.
We are in gardening zone 8 so by late September or early October we’ve harvested all the seed pods. After they’ve dried inside for a week or so, shuck the pods and remove the seeds.
We store them in glass jars with tight-fitting lids and keep them in our storage room. You can also use seed envelopes to store them. Keep them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
The Gourd Family
We don’t raise gourds as you may think, but squash, melons, and cucumbers are a part of this family. All these seeds are saved basically the same way.
- Choose the healthiest plant and the hardiest fruit on that plant for seed.
- Usually, one piece of fruit will provide all the seed you need, however, we usually pick the two healthiest on our choice plant just to be sure.
- Let the ones you choose for seed develop on the vine until they are mature. Like a gourd, they will turn yellow or brown, depending on the plant, and the stem will be dry. These are signs to tell you the seeds are ready.
- The seeds attach to the fruit by the pulp (that slimy stuff). Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds, pulp and all.
- I put mine into a quart or half-gallon jar so they’ll have plenty of separation room.
- Add enough water so there is some floating room and cover the top with a rag or towel.
- Let them sit in the jar at room temperature for 2-4 days.
- Be sure to stir them twice a day to allow seeds to separate from the pulp.
- Don’t skip this fermentation process. It’s vital to destroying seed borne diseases and in removing the pulp covering from the seed.
- The seeds that are viable will sink to the bottom.
- At the end of the process, the seeds floating on top are not fertile. Scoop the pulp and dead seeds from the top of the jar.
- Rinse the good seeds by adding clean water to the jar.
- Let the seeds settle again and pour off any floaters. Repeat this washing several times until you see all the remaining seeds are “sinkers.”
- Spread the seeds in a single layer on a clean towel or dishtowel to dry.
- Be sure they are not layered.
- It’s best to let them sit for at least 2 days and flip or stir them around once a day. I put mine in the sunshine.
- If your climate is cooler or you experience rain, or you simply prefer this method, you can dry them in a dehydrator on the lowest setting.
- If you choose to use a dehydrator to dry your seeds, DO NOT use a temperature above 118 degrees F. Any temperature higher than that will kill the live enzymes in your seeds. I’ve done this and it works fine.
Tomato seeds are saved pretty much this same way.
- Let the fruit you choose for seed stay on the vine way past ripe.
- We pick three from each variety we grow. It’s better to have more seeds than you need rather than not enough.
You will get hundreds of seeds from a single tomato! These stay viable for 4-5 years. I prescribe to the old-timers’ notion my grandfather taught me, “Get ‘um while you can.”
- To remove the seeds, cut the tomatoes open and squeeze the seeds into a glass container.
- Follow the same fermentation steps as you did for the gourd family.
- Dry the tomato seeds the same way also. It’s a little harder to be sure they aren’t layered, but the extra time is worth the reward.
Peppers of all varieties are easy to save seed from.
- Leave the hardiest, healthiest fruit on the plant until past ripened, maybe even to the point of shriveling.
- Cut the pepper in half and remove the seeds.
- Allow them to thoroughly dry for 2-3 days in a warm, dry place and then store in a cool, dry place.
- I like to lay them in the sun. If I can’t, I use the dehydrator being sure to not heat above 118 degrees F for the reasons we discussed in the gourd section.
- If you are saving seeds from hot peppers, don’t make the same mistake I did! Please use disposable gloves when handling the peppers and the seeds.
Many, many moons ago, when I saved hot seeds for the first time, I burnt my hands and face by not wearing gloves!
If you should get any of the oils in your eyes or on your face, wash with milk or, even better, with yogurt. These will cut the burn almost immediately.
Brassica or Cabbage Family
This family includes Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbages, Cauliflower, and a few others. These may seem more difficult to save seeds from, but they aren’t.
- Choose your healthiest plant and let it go to seed.
- I harvest the center heads of my Broccoli and leave the side shoots to go to seed.
- As the plant matures, it will send out shoots that will flower. Bees love these and will pollinate them for you.
- Members of this family which are planted in fall will produce seeds in spring. Spring plantings will produce seeds the following spring.
- From the flowers, seed pods will develop. Once these pods have dried in the garden, bring them in and allow them a week or so in a dry place to continue drying.
- When they’re ready, shell the seeds from the pods and store them in an airtight glass container or seed-saving envelope.
This is only a beginning guide to saving seeds. You can use these methods to save seeds from almost any plant.
Don’t be intimidated by the process. Move past your uncertainty and own the responsibility for your seeds. You will gain the freedom and peace of mind of knowing what we are planting, where it came from, and how it was grown.
Remember, no one ever gets to the place where they know it all. As my Papa Ford taught me, “There’s as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’s farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.”
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