How to Save Seed From Your Garden

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
How long the seed will take to form varies from one crop to another and depends especially on whether the plants need one season or two for full development.

I’ve saved flower and vegetable seed from my garden for
many years and every summer, as the tomatoes redden on the
vines and the bean pods plump out, I look forward to the
satisfying ritual that hands the qualities of my best
plants on from year to year.

I find this seed-keeping project rewarding for several
reasons. First, of course, it’s a big help in the money
department. Now that commercial seeds are priced at 35 cents to
75 cents per packet, my budget is healthier because I can save seed and sow at
least part of my plot without a trip to the garden supply
store. Second, the garden is healthier too since each
successive crop is descended from plants that flourished
right here on my place, and the offspring of those vigorous
specimens are especially well suited to my particular
growing conditions. Third, it’s also good to know that part
of my seed — which assures me of food for the future — can
double as extra rations during the winter months. (Potatoes
are always potatoes, whether you put them in the ground or
in the cooking pot.) And to tell the truth, even if my
hobby didn’t offer the above practical benefits, I’d go
ahead with it anyway just for the fun of it all.

How to Save Seed from Your Garden

My seed gathering project, of course, began with an
original supply of plants which I grew from store-bought
seed “way back when”. If you decide to follow this example,
purchase your stock from a reliable firm and take care to
pick the most suitable varieties (standards, not hybrids)
for your purpose and locality. When the vegetables are well
grown, select the best specimens of each and let them
mature instead of using them for food. (Mark the chosen
individuals in some way by tying strings to them, for
instance so that they won’t be harvested by mistake.)

How long the seed will take to form varies from one crop to
another and depends especially on whether the plants need
one season or two for full development. The former group —
the annuals — includes such garden favorites as beans, peas,
radishes, mustard, lettuce, spinach, corn, cantaloupes,
pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and
tomatoes. The seed of all these annuals is easily
collected.

Any radishes you leave in the ground, for instance, will
send up tall stalks with flowering tops that attract
honeybees. Later on, seed pods will form, ripen, and dry.

Harvest the pods by breaking them off the stalks, and then
shake them as a test for dryness. Any that don’t rattle
should be hung (out of the hot sun) for further drying.
Those that have reached the rattling stage can be opened
and their contents placed in a saucer to dispel any
remaining moisture. The seeds can then be packed in an
envelope. Seal the container, mark it with the name of the
vegetable and the date, and file it in a dry place until
the following season.

Lettuce and spinach, if not picked at the leaf stage, will
“bolt”, that is, send up stalks from which the fully matured
tops can later be cut. You probably won’t need to leave a
whole row of either plant for seed production, but it’s
better to have too much than too little.

Beans and peas to be saved for seed (or soup) are allowed
to remain on the vine until thoroughly dry. The plants can
then be pulled and the dry pods picked.

One easy method of shelling legumes is to put the pods in a
tightly woven cloth bag, lay the sack on the floor, and
walk on it to break open the seed containers (or just dump
the harvest into a tub and tramp on it). Then pour the
mixture of beans and pods from one large pan to another in
a moderate wind to blow away the debris. The cleaned seed
can be stored in bags in a dry place.

Another popular group of annuals — the vine crops — are easily
cross pollinated by insects and must not be planted near
one another if you want predictable results in the next
generation. This need for separation is the only problem
you’re likely to find with cucumbers, cantaloupes,
pumpkins, and squash since the seeds themselves are large
and easily collected from the ripe fruit. (Make sure
cucumbers really are ripe. They’ll let you know by turning
a golden color.) When such a fruit or vegetable is ready,
simply cut it in half and scrape the contents of the cavity
into a wooden or porcelain container (never use tin or
iron). Add some water and let the mixture ferment a day or
two to separate the seeds from the mucilaginous material.
Then pour in more liquid and stir the mess. The good seed
will sink to the bottom, while the pulp and immature seed
float on top. Pour off the waste and wash the solids with
fresh water until only the desired product remains to be
dried and stored in bags in a moisture-free place.

Other fleshy crops can be treated in the same way. just be
sure such vegetables are thoroughly ripe before picking.
Peppers, for instance, ought to be red and rather soft,
while eggplant should be left on the bush as long as
possible — until its seeds are brown — and gathered just before
frost.

Tomatoes come in many varieties: red, pink, and yellow,
large and small. If you raise hybrids, don’t attempt to
save their seed (which is infertile). Stick to the
standards for that purpose, and remember to leave your
chosen specimens on the vine until they’re overripe for
table use. just one or two tomatoes might furnish enough
offspring to stock a small garden, and can be handled in
the same manner as squash and cucumbers. If you want larger
amounts of seed, cut a number of fruit in half and squeeze
the insides into a wooden or earthenware receptacle. Or,
for real mass production, just toss the whole tomatoes into
a barrel and crush them with the square end of a wooden
post (gently, so as not to injure the seed). Then add water
and proceed with the fermentation process described above.

Corn (sweet, field, and pop) must also be chosen from
standard varieties, not hybrids, if seed is to be saved.
The ears should be left on the stalk until they’re rather
dry, and then picked and stored in an airy place to
dehydrate still more.

Potato plants grow from the eyes of tubers formed the
previous year and kept in cool storage over the winter.
Since one potato may have more potential sprouts than are
needed for a single hill, it can be cut into two, three, or
more pieces as long as there are several good eyes on each
chunk. The segments are allowed to stand a couple of days
until the fresh surfaces darken and partially dry. This
process of “healing over” is necessary because a newly cut
potato tends to rot in the ground instead of growing.

Some folks just skip the business of cutting seed potatoes,
plant the whole tuber regardless of how many eyes it has,
and still get a good yield. Like many gardening practices,
this seems to be a matter of preference.

All the crops I’ve discussed so far are annuals and seed
collection procedures are quite different for biennials,
which don’t mature until their second year. This group
includes cabbage, carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabagas,
turnips, and parsley.

To obtain carrot seed, for example, select good-sized roots
within the fall and break or twist off the tops (leaving
about half an inch of stem so that the crown of the
vegetable won’t be injured). Store the carrots in the
earth, covered deeply enough to prevent freezing. In the
spring, set the roots in rows — just as they grew originally,
with the crown of each one level with the surface of the
ground — and leave them until seed stalks form and the seeds
ripen.

Carrot seeds are produced in brown clusters at the end of
the stalk’s branches, and ripen unevenly. As each bunch
darkens and dries, it can be cut with scissors and laid on
a sheet to dehydrate further. The seed can then be rubbed
out of the clusters by hand and the rough material and
chaff removed by raking. Final cleaning can be done by
winnowing (dropping the vegetation from a height of five or
six feet in the open — over a piece of canvas or sheeting —
when a light wind is blowing). The heavy seed will fall on
the ground cover while the breeze carries away the light
chaff. Next year’s sowing is then stored in paper or cloth
bags, in a room of uniform temperature.

The principle is the same for other biennials: First season
roots or plants are kept in cool storage over the winter,
replanted the following spring, and allowed to mature and
bear seed.

One blessing of home-grown seed is that you can save all
you want, far more than you could afford to buy. In the case
of some crops, there’s no such thing as “too much” because
any surplus you may have is useful as food. Extra corn can
be ground in a mill for use in many delicious cornmeal
dishes, and you can’t beat snowy mounds of popcorn for
winter evening nibbling. Dried navy beans are another good
cold-weather dish (and are worth raising just for that
purpose if you have garden space). Pumpkins, squash, and
sunflower seeds can be salted and roasted for a nutritious
snack: And everyone has a favorite use for the overflow
from the seed potato bin.

You can also save flower seeds, as an economy and for the
interest of studying the varied forms of propagation. Old
fashioned poppies, for instance, bear seed vessels that
look like tiny cups with little holes around their upper
rims. The containers are designed to tip out the seed when
the wind blows the stalk, but you can do the tipping
yourself, and catch the contents in an envelope.

Petunias produce tiny seeds in small pods which can be
picked, dried, and opened. The hard, black “pebbles” that
will someday be morning glories are also borne in pods. In
zinnias, however, the seed is formed at the base of the
petals and the whole flower head is gathered and dried.
Even geraniums grown outdoors in summer will yield the
makings of future plants.

Whatever seeds you save should be dated, and used
(preferably) the following year. The power to germinate
decreases rapidly with age, and — while keeping times differ
in various crops — older seeds generally don’t perform as
well as fresh.

It’s important to remember that no seed — whatever its
origin — will germinate 100 percent. Fifty percent is a more
realistic expectation. Even the packets you order from
leading suppliers will contain a number of duds, and you
should allow for such failures by planting each row of your
garden rather thickly. If you must thin later, the extras
can be discarded or transplanted to a fresh space.

The fact is that seeds — like other living things — won’t
always behave just as you expect. Nevertheless, a program
like mine is well worth the trouble and can eventually give
you a good supply of reliable strains that thrive in your
garden’s special conditions. I hope you’ll enjoy this
fascinating activity as much as I have, and continue to do!.