Become More Self-Sufficient by Saving Seeds

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw

I really like saving seeds from one year’s harvest so they can be the seeds for next year’s garden. Of course it’s important to save seeds that are difficult to come by in order to help preserve their genetics. Many types of fruits and vegetables are disappearing, and we can do our part to save them for the future.

A more immediate reason for seed-saving is to have the seeds we want next spring. I’ve noticed that it’s getting more difficult to get some seeds because demand is increasing. It’s good news to know that the interest in gardening is growing, but it’s also reassuring to have our own little stash of seeds from the previous year.

It is a bit presumptive to take a complex topic like seed-saving and fit it into one column. However, I find that I’m more likely to dive in and get things done if the instructions are simple. If things sound too complex, I may falter and never begin. That happened to me when I first read Suzanne Ashworth’s beautiful book on seed-saving, called Seed to Seed. It was too much information for me to begin with, but I have since found it very helpful. I’d like this column to be the “primer” version of what she offers.

What Seeds Can Be Saved: Let’s begin with the fact that seeds from some plants will not grow offspring like their parent plant. Don’t save seeds from hybrid plants if you want to grow the same plant. Only heirloom plants will breed true.

Secondly, plants whose flowers have both the male and female parts (called “perfect flowers”) are able to pollinate themselves, so their seeds can be saved. “Imperfect flowers” (containing just the male or female parts) need cross-pollination. When a flower is cross-pollinated, it won’t breed true unless there’s nothing around it but the same plant. Their produce this year will be like the parent, but the seeds from this produce won’t breed true the following year. Peppers and all vine plants like zucchini, squash and pumpkins have imperfect flowers and so fall into this group.

If you do want to save seeds from your summer or winter squashes, then you’ll have to get as sophisticated as the Seed to Seed book. You’ll actually tape shut the female flowers and open them only when fertilizing them with an “anther” from a male flower. That’s one way to isolate them. As crazy as this procedure sounds, it’s both possible and fun to do.

Lettuce is a plant that offers another way of saving seeds even though it cross-pollinates. We don’t like lettuce to “bolt” because it doesn’t taste good, but if you allow only one type to go to seed, you can save that seed. Choose a different type of lettuce each year so you can keep several in stock.

Now it’s time to talk about what seeds can be saved because they naturally breed true. Heirloom plants breed true if they have perfect flowers. If they don’t, bees will cross-pollinate them. Fortunately, tomatoes have these “perfect” flowers, and so their seeds can be saved. There’s only one exception — potato-leaved tomatoes have protruding female parts (styles), and can therefore be cross-pollinated. You can keep life simpler by not planting more than one potato-leaved tomato plant each year, because having just one will allow it to breed true!

How to Save Seed: Now that we have that straight, the procedure for saving seeds is not difficult. Choose large, well-shaped and fully ripened fruit of each type of tomato you want to save. You only want the genetics from your best produce. For years I saved tomato seeds by putting a dozen or so seeds on a labeled paper towel. They stick to the paper when dry and I then fold the towel and keep it in a cool and dry place — usually in a zip-lock plastic bag in the refrigerator. If I’m sharing seeds with friends, I have a variety on one square of paper towel, each type bordered off with their name.

This is where reading Seed to Seed complicated my life. In nature, a tomato falls to the ground and rots. This fermentation process allows the seed to sprout more readily the next year. Mimicking that step shouldn’t have overwhelmed me, and now I put water in small paper cups (with the type of seed written on it), for about three days or until the liquid appears “frothy.” I then pour the concoction into a small strainer, rinse, and then transfer the seeds to a paper towel. However, I seem to get good germination with or without this fermentation step.

Beans are another easy-to-save seed. They will always breed true for you. Let them fully mature and dry on the plant. If it’s a wet autumn, cut or pull out the plants and take them to a protected area so the beans won’t mildew. You can later sit with friends and shell and talk, and you’ll have beautiful beans for cooking in the winter and for planting in the spring.

After shelling, I put beans indoors on labeled paper towels covering cookie sheets to let them fully dry. I gradually pick out any shriveled beans and debris. Then, before putting the beans in glass jars for winter use, I pick through them like jewels and choose the prettiest ones to be planted in next year’s garden. As with all the seeds you save, choose the ones that are the largest and healthiest looking. In this way you can actually choose the genetics you want to grow, and improve your seed stock each year. 

If seed saving sounds overwhelming, then pat yourself on the back when you get some tomato seeds saved this year. However, if you find saving seeds interesting, then Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed book will be worth your $25 investment.

Photos by Mary Lou Shaw