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How To Save Seed
Love what you're growing? Learn how to save seed, the right way
Why spend $3.50 on a pack of marigolds AGAIN next year, when you have hundreds of seeds at your fingertips? I’m a homesteader at heart, and this is how I think. But saving seed is not only economical, it's a good self-education on a plants biology.
When we save seed, we are saving the genetic imprint of the plants lifecycle. To save seed is to purposefully select only the best plants to grow. If something doesn’t taste good to you, ripens late, bolts quickly, don’t save the seed. Choose only the most vigorous plants with the best-tasting fruit as parents for the next year's crop.
Because seeds have a genetic imprint, you will also be saving seed that is adapting to your very specific micro-climate. If you save the seed of the same plant year after year, it gets more and more conditioned. Pretty cool, right?!
As a general rule of thumb, for fruiting plants I save the FIRST most delicious of the fruit. Your first, best, juiciest tomato is a prime candidate for seed saving. Your early-to-mature lettuces are keepers.
OPEN-POLLINATED vs HYBRID SEED
Heirloom plants are open-pollinated - they will produce the same plant from seed. Only open-pollinated plants will do this. Open-pollinated varieties may self-pollinate or cross-pollinate with other plants of the same variety, but they set seed that grow into a plant that is very similar to the parent plant. Seeds saved from these plants will continue to produce in this way, with consistency, across the years.
A hybrid plant is one that has already been crossed between two varities, combining traits. Hybrid plants are bred for disease resistence, productivity, climate or a handful of other traits. They are not guaranteed to produce plants that are identical to the plant you’re saving seed from. Because of this inconsistency, no one (that I’m aware of) recommends saving hybrid seed.
It’s good to note that some open-pollinated plants cross-pollinate and therefore don’t make for good seed-saving candidates. Plants in the cucurbit family - cucumbers, melons, squashes, pumpkins - can be cross pollinated by insects, leaving the potential for a seed that will not be identical to the parent plant. This may not sound like a big deal, but the result at worst is inferior flavor and may also have other potentially undesirable characteristics. If you absolutely LOVE what you’ve grown and have a lot of space to experiment, I would support you in saving the seed and giving it a try. If, like most people, you’re growing in a smaller, urban plot and already struggling to plant everything you’d like then this sort of experiment is what I would consider risky.
As a rule of thumb, all plants with separate male and female flowers (corn, too!) may cross-pollinate. It is difficult to keep the seed strain pure.
SAVING TOMATO SEED
Let me start this simply by saying I do not think this is a good year to save tomato seeds. (Which is why I didn’t send a newsletter telling you to do it!)
It was super hot during flower production (July) and cold during fruit production (August) and all in all, I would not personally want to save any traits from this year. That said, tomatoes are a great example of seed-saving techniques AND my casual observation over the years is that people consistently save tomato seed, so we’ll start here.
Using what you’ve just learned about seed disposition, if you save seed from the last juicy tomato you harvest in September, guess when that seed will be conditioned to harvest? Late SEPTEMBER. Do you want your tomatoes to ripen in late September?
Ideally, we save seed from the first, most delicious juicy fruits. This ensures that next years plants will also be conditioned to ripen early.
Sadly, in the gardens that I tend across the city, the tomatoes are JUST coming in. In general, it has been a pretty crummy year for tomatoes. And while I’ve heard from some of you and you have had early, awesome harvest, I’m assuming that most of you are like me and don’t have strong production.
If you’re hellbent on saving seed this year, do it now. You can save seed over the next week, but I wouldn’t recommend to push it any later than this weekend.
Sorry pals. Just not a great year for it.
HOW TO SAVE SEED
To dry seed, lay seed in a single layer on a sheet pan for several days. Label & store in a cool, dark place till next year.
If you have a dehydrator, you may dry seed on the lowest setting, overnight. Do not use a low oven to dry seed - you may toast/cook them instead.
In order to save seed that keeps, you must make sure it is 100% free of moisture. Water = mold.
Here, some common seeds and how to save them:
Beans - Let bean pods dry and turn brown on the plant. Remove the seeds (ie the actual bean or pea) from the pod, and dry them completely.
Lettuces - If you let lettuces bolt and flower (and I know you do!), they will eventually grow little pods full of seeds. It's a beautiful thing, and people are always surprised to see it. To save seed, cut off the stalk just before the pods start to dry. Hang the stalks to dry, and once the pods are brown and dry, you can rub them between your palms to release the seed.
Flowers - pretty simple here. Dead head your plant, and instead of tossing the head, save it for seed! I always leave my flowers out on a drying rack for several days to be sure that they are, in fact, dry. You can split open the buds to speed this up, or leave them intact for easy storage. Be careful when you first take them in to the house, as they may have little teeny bugs inside. When seeds are completely dry, store them in small envelopes - these make a great hostess gift, if you make a fancy label!
Tomatoes - Select the best tomato fruits. Split open and scoop out all the seed onto a paper towel or clean, linen cloth, spreading into a single layer. Let dry for several days.
Most seeds will do well in a small paper envelope, stored in a cool place. A garage or cellar is perfect. Finally, all seeds have variable viability, meaning that some seed keeps for years, and some won't last too long. I could go on for days on how to check germination rates and what crop stores longer than others.........but that's a conversation for another day.
Seed Saving-ly Yours, amyp