Photo by Rachael Brugger
Pepper seeds are among the easiest for beginning seed savers to save because the plants are self-pollinating.
Seed saving sounds like a terrific idea and terribly easy, doesn’t it? Not only can you save money on buying plants for your garden, but you get the satisfaction of continuing the legacy of your favorite heirloom vegetables. But while saving seeds is indeed important, special attention needs to be given to ensure the seeds you package up this year result in the fruits and vegetables you love next year. Believe it or not, seed saving doesn’t begin at harvest—it starts in January when you begin planning your garden. Before you make the noble—and somewhat scientific—leap into seed saving, keep these concerns in mind.
If you’re a beginning seed saver, especially one with a backyard garden or small acreage, you’ll get better results if you focus on a select group of vegetables. The International Seed Saving Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to seed saving and permaculture, recommends starting with tomatoes, lettuce, peas, peppers and beans because most of these plants are self-pollinated.
"We always recommend that beginning seed savers start with plants that are self-pollinated, as you won’t have to worry about varieties getting crossed or worry about maintaining healthy genetic populations,” says Rowen White, director of Sierra Seed Cooperative, a cooperative in California whose mission is to build a regional seed library and educate the public on seed-saving practices.
Cross-pollinating plants, like melon, need to be isolated from other varieties so that what you see is what you get. Planting two different melon varieties next to each other in the garden, for example, have the potential of producing hybrid seeds that produce unexpected fruit. FEDCO’s "Seed Saving For Beginners” guide recommends planting melons and other cross-pollinating plants like onions, radishes and carrots 1,500 feet from other varieties in its family. It also has advice for your other favorite crops. You can find this guide and others, including the Organic Seed Alliance’s seed-saving guide, online to help with your planting strategy.
Room to Grow
When planning a seed garden, White reminds gardeners of three things they should keep in mind: space, time and numbers. First, keep in mind you will need more room per plant than when growing for food.
"For example, when you plant lettuce for food, you can plant at 6- to 8-inch spacing in rows; yet when you allow lettuce to go to seed, the plant easily needs 18 to 24 inches spacing, as it grows up and out to make seeds,” White explains.
Also remember that seed crops will be in the ground much longer than food crops—perhaps for many months—so don’t count on that garden space giving you anything for your dinner table until much later in the season, if at all.
Finally, if you decide to go with cross-pollinated plants, ensure you have enough plants to provide healthy genetic diversity.
"If you only save seed from a few plants that are cross-pollinated, the next generations of your seed will likely suffer from inbreeding depression and will produce plants that are week and susceptible to diseases,” White says.
Be methodical when selecting fruit for seeds. It’s important to select according to traits that you want to see in your future plants, such as growth type (vines, bushes, thick stalks, etc.), flavor, color, shape, disease resistance and ripening. Do not pick from plants that look small, weak, diseased or otherwise unfavorable.
"You want the ripest, least damaged and most true-to-type fruits from as many plants as you have growing,” says edible-garden advocate John Walker, who has been saving seeds for 10 years.
Cull any plants from your garden that don’t meet your criteria.
Not all seeds that you harvest will be viable, so it’s important to save as many as possible. Most seeds will keep for two to three years, White says, but she recommends a simple germination test if you’re not sure:
"Get a paper towel damp, and lay it out on a flat surface. Count out 100 seeds, and lay them evenly spaced on top of the damp paper towel. Fold up the paper towel so that the seeds are inside, and put that inside of a zipper-seal plastic bag, and place in a warm area. Make sure towel stays moist and check back in a few days to see how many seeds have sprouted. Your number of seeds sprouted will be your percentage viability.”
Before storing seeds, allow them to dry out. This is easy for bean plants: Simply dry out the pods and remove the beans. The process is a little more delicate for plants, like tomatoes, that have smaller seeds. Here’s how Walker recommends handling tomato seeds:
- Scoop out seeds into a cup of water and store in the refrigerator for four to five days. A mold will form, acting as an antibiotic that will break up the gel surrounding the seeds. The seeds that sink will be viable, and the seeds that float can be scooped out and thrown away.
- After four to five days, pour seeds into a sieve to drain the water. You might have to repeat the process several times to completely rid the seeds of the gel.
- Lay the seeds on a paper plate or paper bag to dry. Avoid using paper towels, as the seeds will stick.
Put your dried seeds in a properly labeled paper bag or airtight container, and store them a cool, dry place, such as the refrigerator or freezer. The seeds should be used within two to three years, but according to the University of Illinois Extension, the lower the temperature and humidity of the location where they’re kept, the longer they will be viable.
Is Seed Saving For You?
A desire to preserve heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties has sparked a national seed-saving movement. Seed-saving cooperatives and seed libraries are being started across the country. While you might be content saving seeds for next year’s garden, you might want to be part of a larger community helping to preserve heirloom-plant genetics, and with this comes a big responsibility.
"In order to ensure a high-quality seed product, we screen our potential growers, making sure they have the competent seed-saving knowledge to produce good seed,” White says. "Depending on the state that you live in, you may have to apply for a seed sale license if you are offering garden seed up for resale.”
When growing in small spaces, like a backyard garden, Walker recommends focusing on saving one kind of seed and saving it well will yield the best results.
"We don’t grow big gardens, so the number of plants and separation distance can be compromised,” he says. "Saving one type of variety allows you to really work on knowing that variety and selecting the best examples rather than what is available at the end of the season.”
For more information on saving seeds or becoming part of a larger seed-saving community, check out these resources: