Seed-Saving Tips for the Garden

Saving seeds involves learning when and how a crop forms its seeds, as well as how to collect, clean and store them. Here’s some good advice for beginning seed savers, as well as a few tips worth reviewing by the veterans among us.

By Fern Marshall Bradley | Photos By Jamie Cole

Save the strongest seeds, and when it comes time to plant next spring, you’ll have a great start.

Save the strongest seeds, and when it comes time to plant next spring, you’ll have a great start.

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Start with Easy Crops. Generally speaking, it’s easy to save seeds from self-pollinating crops, such as home-garden beans, lettuce, peas and peppers, as well as dill and cilantro in the herb category. These crops are self-contained—the pollen (sperm) and eggs that form the seeds usually come from the same plant—and genetics don’t change much from one generation to the next. When you plant saved seeds from a self-pollinating crop, chances are good the resulting plants will have the same characteristics (appearance, flavor, disease resistance, etc.) as the parent variety you started with.

Add Challenge with Cross-Pollinators. Incorporate more of nature’s wonder by working with cross-pollinating varieties of such crops as squashes, pumpkins and cabbage. With cross-pollinators, bees and other insects transfer pollen from flowers on one plant to flowers on another plant. Here’s the challenging part: If you grow two different varieties of summer squash, for example, you’ll need to hand-pollinate individual blossoms using pollen of the same variety. Plus, you’ll need to tape or clip those blossoms closed to prevent busy bees from accidentally introducing pollen from the second variety. Although this sounds complicated, it’s a fun project, and with a little practice, you’ll get good results.

Avoid Hybrids. Hybrid vegetable varieties are produced by deliberately cross-pollinating two different parent plants. While it’s fine to continue growing your favorite hybrid varieties for eating, for seed-saving purposes, choose open-pollinated (OP) varieties (which, incidentally, can be self-pollinated or cross-pollinated). When you save seeds from hybrids, the offspring usually won’t resemble the original variety, and they may be much less productive or not taste as good. Seed packet and seed catalog descriptions should tell you whether a variety is OP or a hybrid.

Seek Out the Strongest Seeds. Healthy plants produce healthy seeds and stressed plants produce weak seeds. Collect seeds only from plants that haven’t suffered from moisture stress or pest and disease problems. You can also sort strong seeds from the weak as you clean them. Believe it or not, weak seeds float in water and healthy seeds sink because they’re heavier.

Keep Stored Seeds Dry. As a seed saver, your goal is to prevent seeds from germinating before you’re ready to plant them, which could be months (or years) after you first collect them. Always dry seeds thoroughly before you package them. Store them in a cool, dry spot.

The Web is a great place to research information on how to grow, harvest and clean seed, as well as find organizations that help seed savers worldwide connect and share seeds. See below for a sampling of these resources.

Web Exclusive: Resources for Open-Pollinated Seed

Many seed companies specialize in open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. Click below to open websites for these providers:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Bountiful Gardens

Fedco Seeds

High Mowing Seeds

Renee’s Garden Seeds

Territorial Seed Company

For an extensive listing of Canadian companies that offer heirloom seeds, check the Seeds of Diversity Resource List (seeds.ca/rl/rl.php).

Web Exclusive: Equipment

Seed saving doesn’t require fancy equipment. You will need plenty of labels, containers for collecting seeds, an electric fan and/or screens for separating seeds from chaff. (You can make your own screens or buy ones especially designed for seed cleaning.)

Web Exclusive: Connecting with Other Seed Savers

Organizations that promote seed saving are growing in numbers and impact every year. These organizations offer in-depth seed saving information through their publications, blogs, videos and webinars, as well as at in-person workshops and conferences.

Some of them maintain a seed exchange, which includes listings of information about seeds that members of the seed exchange have saved and are willing to share. Members can request seeds from one another, usually with a minimal fee paid to cover the cost of shipping the seed. Joining a seed exchange is an amazing way to discover new and unusual varieties that you’ll never find in typical commercial seed catalogs.

The International Seed Saving Institute (seedsave.org) offers online instructions for saving seeds of a wide range of crops, as well as a list of small seed companies started by graduates of the Institute’s seed-saving school.

The Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) gives webinars on seed-saving topics and has many other resources. Its members share their home-saved seeds through the organization’s Yearbook and online seed exchange.

Seeds of Diversity (seeds.ca), based in Canada, offers a seed exchange as well.