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Saving Seeds from Your Garden

Saving seeds at the end of the gardening season is economical and can ensure access to your favorite plant varieties. Here are steps to help you get started.

Why would anybody go to the trouble of saving seeds? Sometimes seeds are in short supply, such as they were in spring 2020 when many more people decided to try gardening for the first time due to COVID-19 restrictions. Or maybe there is one particular variety you like, but you have trouble finding it each year. Saving seed is easy and you will always have a supply of your favorite flower and vegetable varieties.

It is important to know that not all vegetable varieties are suitable for seed saving. If the variety you want to save is a hybrid, seeds from that plant will not produce genetically true fruits. Most likely, the plant will produce a fruit that resembles one of the plants used to create that hybrid. To avoid this, choose heirloom varieties, ones that have been around since grandma’s time or earlier. These include varieties such as Brandywine or Amish Paste tomatoes (both developed in Pennsylvania), Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake green beans (both date back to the mid-1800s), Green Arrow peas, and Danvers Half-Long carrots. Heirlooms will produce offspring that are identical to the parent.

To harvest seeds, wait until the fruit is ripe and the seeds are mature. Tomatoes are easy—everybody knows when they are ripe. But fruits of some vegetables are enjoyed before they are fully ripe. For example, we eat cucumbers when they are green, but to harvest seeds, let them turn yellow. Most peppers tend to turn red when they are fully ripe. Be selective about which fruit you use to save seed. It will be tempting to eat that big, juicy tomato but that is the best candidate for seed saving. That jalapeno plant that keeps producing no matter how many peppers you pick is another prime candidate. Save seeds from only the best plants or fruits.

For dry fruiting plants, such as peas and beans, preparing the seeds for saving is simply a matter of separating the seed from the fruit and letting them dry. When I first started saving seeds, I would spread the seeds on a couple of sheets of folded newspaper or paper plates. However, I noticed that I lost some seed to mold because moisture was retained by the newspaper under the seed. Now, I dry my seeds on small frames with nylon mesh screen. The screen allows air to circulate freely around the seeds. Let the seeds sit in a cool, dry area for about one week before storing.

What I call “wet seeds” require slightly more work. Fruit such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons have wet seeds. These seeds have to be separated from the gelatinous medium in which they are encased. That medium contains germination inhibitors that prevent the seed from sprouting. The method that I use to do this is a mild fermentation. Place the gel and seeds into a small jar about half full of water. Swish the seeds and water around for a minute or two, then place the jar in a cool location to settle. Continue to shake the jar a few times a day for three to four days. (You are not on a schedule here, just swish it whenever you happen to walk by.) After three to four days, strain the solution through a fine mesh, leaving the seeds. Rinse to wash away any remaining gel. “Wet seeds” should then dry for at least one week.

To store seeds after they are dry, package them in paper envelopes and label them. Some sources recommend saving the seeds in plastic bags but personally, I do not recommend this method. Any moisture that is trapped inside the bag when you close it can foster mold or even induce germination. I have found paper works better because it breathes. In addition to labeling the seeds with the variety name, you may include the harvest date, sow date, or days to harvest if you know them. If you keep a garden journal, which I highly recommend, you will know things like that from your notes.

As you are wrapping up your summer garden, try saving a few seeds. You will save money, preserve favorite heirloom varieties, and enjoy the satisfaction of growing plants entirely on your own!

 

This educational blog is a series of informative articles from the Penn State Master Gardeners volunteers plus news concerning the group and their activities. For more information, click here.

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