Saving seeds is an integral part of sustainable gardening. It’s also a great way to save money and ensure that you’re growing what you think you’re growing and not some genetically-modified version. Learning the finer points of seed saving is easy, once you understand a few basics of how seeds are formed.
Depending on the plant, its seeds are formed and mature in different ways. Some seeds are formed on the inside of fruit like squash while others are formed in the flowers of a plant like carrots and broccoli. To a botanist, a “fruit” is the structure that bears the seeds of a plant. It is formed in the plant's flower. Remember, squash form from the flower of the plant. In nature, seeds are at the heart of reproduction which serves as a plant’s entire focus. In essence, a plant’s job is to propagate its species.
Lost? No worries! All you need to know is that once you plant a seed, it germinates into a beautiful seedling that captures the sunlight using the process of photosynthesis and grows into a lush bounty—one you can harvest and consume.
Harvesting Seeds from Fruits
For seed collection, it’s crucial we know where to look for the seeds we want to save. Examples of seeds found inside the fruit include squash, cucumbers, watermelons, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, legumes, and the like. Seeds harvested from the flower include carrots, broccoli, lettuce, and the like. In a home vegetable garden, it’s interesting to note that in some cases, we’re actually eating the seeds, as is the case with beans. Other times, we’re eating the leaves or roots of the plant, as in lettuce and carrots. And then there are those situations where we’re eating the “stem” of the plant as in celery and potatoes.
Collecting legume seeds is easy. They’re of good size and you can easily pluck them from a mature pod. Allow them to dry and you’re done. The key here is a “mature pod.” If you try to save seeds from a bean or pea pod that hasn’t fully matured, your seeds won’t be viable. A good rule of thumb is to allow them to turn brown and dried on the plant, then collect them for your very own.
Pepper seeds work the same way, though you can remove them from the plant before they turn brown but after they fully ripen. For example, harvest a jalapeno pepper when it turns red, one stage after its familiar green stage of maturity. Next, you slice your pepper in half, scoop out the seeds and set them on a plate layered with a paper towel. Allow them to dry to the point where they are no longer flexible but will break easily; a process that may take a few days.
Tomatoes are a bit different in that you can save them via the above means, but fermentation produces better results and can reduce seed-borne diseases. To ferment, cut a ripe tomato open and squeeze the pulp, seeds, and juice into a glass container. You may add some water, then close lid and allow the jar to sit undisturbed for about three days. I like a glass container, so I can see the action taking place inside the jar. Seal closed with lid or sealing paper and set by a sunny window. When a white mold begins to form over the seeds, scoop it out and any seeds that go with it. The seeds left on the bottom of your glass are the ones you want—floating seeds are duds. Drain water from glass through a fine sieve so you don’t lose any of the precious gems, then rinse your seeds with cold water. Like peppers, you’ll now place them on a paper towel and allow to dry completely.
Harvesting Seeds from Flowers
Broccoli, lettuce, and carrot seeds form in the flowers that grow once the plant “bolts,” or turns to flower. You’ll have to allow the flowers to fully mature, drying up on the stem and forming seed pods before you harvest the seeds. Because these seeds are so tiny, you’ll want to take caution when removing the brown blooms, else you lose all your seeds! Carefully cut the flower head off and place in a paper bag. Shake to separate the seeds from blooms, then slowly empty them out onto a white piece of paper. Working on a tray will help reduce loss to the “scatter” effect.
Caveat: harvesting carrot, beet and onion seeds takes longer because they are biennials and will not produce seed until their second year. Otherwise, you’ll follow the same process.
But what about potatoes? Have you ever purchased potato seeds from a store? I haven’t. Potatoes produce flowers and produce berries (with seeds inside them), but most home gardeners will purchase the potato “seeds,” which are actually potatoes, and cut them into two-inch pieces. Each piece should contain an “eye” from which a sprout will grow and form a new potato plant.
Sweet potatoes differ in that they are usually rooted in water like cuttings, then planted in the garden once roots and leaves emerge.
Heirloom versus Hybrid
An important distinction when it comes to saving seeds is heirloom vs. hybrid. Heirlooms are considered plants in their natural state, saved for their desirable characteristics, then passed on from generation to generation with no scientific meddling involved. Because they are open-pollinated, cross-pollination can occur.
Hybrids are intentionally crossed between varieties to produce high yielding, disease and/or pest resistant plants. When it comes to seed-saving, the key difference is their offspring. For example, collecting seeds from a hybrid tomato plant harvest will not reproduce the original fruit which forces the gardener to continually purchase new seeds to replicate original results. Heirloom varieties will remain more consistent with the original plant, allowing for sustainable gardening practices.
Whichever seeds you’re saving, be sure to label them by variety and date harvested. Store seeds in an airtight container in a cool place—refrigerators work well—and they’ll remain viable for years to come. Happy gardening!
Award-winning author and blogger D.S. Venetta lives in Central Florida with her husband and two children. It was volunteering in her children’s Montessori school garden that gave rise to her new series Wild Tales & Garden Thrills, stories bursting with the real-life experiences of young gardeners. Children see the world from a totally different perspective than adults and Venetta knows their adventures will surely inspire a new generation to get outside and get digging.