“Flowers and Fruit are only the beginning. In the seed lies the life of the future.”
-Marion Zimmer Bradley
I’m starting to feel it, are you? It hit me a few weeks ago like a lightning bolt. I was going about my everyday maintenance chores, you know the ones you have to do just to take care of what you have already created that you have to get out of the way before the day can really begin… as I was watering and looking around I started to see dried flower heads and seedpods ready to be gathered. It went fast this summer, and there was no time to sit and contemplate the mysteries of time. In fact some of the sweet pea pods were so mature they had already corkscrewed open releasing next year’s progeny.
It was time to get my seed saving stuff together and begin monitoring other plants as they matured their seed. I use pretty much whatever we have lying around to collect the seeds. Mostly it’s used plastic containers of varying sizes, sometimes I use paper bags, lots of times all I can do is jam the seeds in my pocket because there is nothing around and leaving them even one more minute could mean losing them to the wind or a critter. I save seed from all the annual flowers regardless of whether they are open pollinated or not, they’re flowers for goodness sake, they don’t have to be perfect and I love surprises in the garden.
Saving seeds of veggies is different though because you want the seed saved to produce something edible in the coming year. So saving seed of veggies requires a bit of knowledge. The first thing you want to know is whether the plant is open pollinated or a hybrid. Hybrid seed will not come true, that is it won’t look like the parent plant, you may get something edible and then again you may not. Open pollinated plants are those plants that will replicate themselves, they come true.
The next thing you need to know is if the plant is an out-breeder or an in-breeder. An in-breeder is a plant that self-pollinates passing all its genes onto its offspring. These are the easiest plants to save seed from and are great for beginning seed savers. Tomatoes, peas, lettuce, beans and wheat are all strong in breeders.
Out breeders require two different plants of the same species for pollination. The sperm from one plant fertilizes the ovules of another. The offspring are genetically different than the parent plants. Strong out breeders are corn, beets, broccoli and spinach. To save seeds from out breeders requires some planning to keep the seed true. I know this stuff can be confusing so here’s an example. You planted two varieties of corn at the same time and both varieties have similar maturation dates. This means that both varieties will be flowering and shedding pollen at the same time. Since all varieties of corn belong to the same species, the pollen from one variety can fertilize all other varieties. If they are both sweet corn varieties this isn’t too much of a problem. If however, you planted a sweet corn variety and a popcorn variety, what you get may not pop nor will it be the sweet corn you were hoping for.
Unless out breeders are grown by themselves or are separated by maturation time, distance or physical barriers, it is best to start your seed saving adventure with known in-breeders (tomatoes, peas, lettuce, beans and wheat) and flowers.
You want to make sure you save seed from a number of your best plants just to make sure the genetic diversity stays high. I will sometimes tag the plants I want to save seed from. I look for healthy, fast growing plants, plants that set fruit early or plants that have especially tasty fruits. Sometimes bugs like certain plants and not others, or disease attacks one plant but not the one next to it so you would want to save seed from the plant that isn’t hosting bugs and disease. It’s all about observation! In this way we get to participate in creating next year’s plants.
When to collect seed is crucial to its future viability. The seed should be fully mature in the pod. Pods of different plants will turn dry and brittle with a brown, tan, grey, and sometimes black color when they are fully mature. It’s important to check in on them daily. Some plants have developed clever ways of dispersing their ripe seed once the pods are mature. Many at the slightest touch, even a good gust of wind will burst open their protective pods scattering seed, some can even project their seed several feet.
Once you have determined the pods are mature it’s time to harvest. I take a container and a pair of scissors to the plant, place the container under the seed head or pod and snip them off into the container. Then, just to be sure they are fully dry I will set the container is a cool well ventilated room for a few days before threshing, winnowing and screening them.
Threshing is breaking the seedpods open and separating the seed. I mostly do this by gently crumbling them in my hands. Next you need to winnow out all the debris. If it’s a nice breezy day all you may need to do is go outside with two bowls and carefully pour the seeds from one bowl into another bowl placed just beneath it. The breeze will carry the lighter chaff away and the heavy seeds will fall into the second bowl. It takes some trial and error to know exactly how far apart to hold the bowl. Typically smaller lighter seed will require a shorter distance between bowls. If there is no breeze or its too breezy then setting up a fan may be an option. Again figuring out how far to be from the fan will take a bit of practice. Sometimes all I do is put the seeds in a shallow bowl and gently blow the chaff away.
Most of the time I can clean the seeds sufficiently just by winnowing, on occasion though it is helpful to use a set of screens. You can buy fancy seed saving screens or make your own with hardware cloth. Small seed will require 1/8-inch cloth. A set made from 1/8”, 1/4", 1/2", 3/8” cloth should cover all the seed sizes. Make a 12 “ X 12” frame and attach the hardware cloth.
Once the seeds are cleaned I like to spread them out to dry a bit more before I package them up. Use plywood, a plate, screen or cookie sheet in a cool well-ventilated area out of direct sun. When you package and store them think cool and dry. Most seeds will remain viable for 3-5 years. Exceptions are onions, leeks and parsnips, which only last a year.