Seed saving is what has made farming possible over the course of the 12,000 years humans have been farming. Over time, we’ve bred plants to become more resistant to certain pests and diseases. Now, many countries have passed laws allowing private companies to copyright or patent plant genetics, such that saving seeds from plants with proprietary genetics can have legal consequences. So when you’re saving your seeds, it must be from genetics you yourself have developed (less likely), or from an open-pollinated plant whose genetics are not proprietary and which you’re sure has not been cross-pollinated with a plant of unknown genetics (more likely).
When saving seeds, it’s important to keep in mind the differences between self-pollinated and cross-pollinated plants. Self-pollinated plants are great choices for saving seeds, since they require little or no special treatment before storage. Cross-pollinated crops, on the other hand, are harder to keep their genetic strains pure, because of their tendency to breed with any other nearby plants from the same genus. So for example, if you grow popcorn near sweet corn, the two will breed with each other, and the seeds you save from them will end up being a cross between the two, which will be neither sweet nor good for popping. It takes some engineering skills to figure out how to stop wind, rain, and insects from cross-pollinating two different varieties of a plant in order to get a pure strain of both plants. But in general, it’s safer to save
seeds from self-pollinated plants than cross-pollinated ones.
Another distinction to take into account when saving seeds is the difference between open-pollinated and hybrid plants. Open-pollinated plants are self- or cross-pollinated plants whose offspring is very similar to the parent plant with nearly identical fruit. As such, they are the best option for saving seeds. Hybrids, on the other hand, are a cross between two different varieties of a particular crop that were cross-bred for a particular purpose, like being hardier, more disease-resistant, etc. It’s technically possible to save seeds from hybrids, but doing so may bring out traits in the offspring that weren’t apparent in the previous generation, some of which may or may not be desirable. Therefore, it’s much safer to save open-pollinated seeds than hybrid ones.
In order to obtain enough genetic diversity to choose desirable traits in the next generation of plants, you will need to save a lot of seeds. If you only save five seeds of a certain crop, that probably won’t be enough genetic diversity. Also, you want to save seeds from plants that have traits you want. If you’re trying to breed the sweetest possible peas, you’ll need to save seeds from whichever pea plants produced the sweetest peas. Also, if appearance is important to you, then you’ll need to save whichever seeds come from the plants that have the appearance you want.
You should save seeds in an airtight glass jar. You can keep different kinds of seeds separate by putting them in different plastic or paper wraps, but they should be in an airtight glass jar.
Store them in a cool place around 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (between 0 and roughly 7.2 degrees Celsius). Your fridge is a good place for them, or if you have a cellar, you can put them there as well. If you put them in your fridge, be sure to put them in the back, so that they’re less exposed to warmer air from outside the fridge. Also, be sure to use your seeds within one year if possible, because seeds’ viability decreases after each year they aren’t planted. You will want to treat your seeds before you plant them to help reduce the risk of disease. Note, however, that certain methods of treating seeds (such as bleach water treatment or hot water treatment) may reduce their germination rate.
There are two methods of saving seeds: saving them from the fruit itself, or saving them from packets. Saving seeds from the fruit is more labor-intense and can have varying degrees of success, whereas saving them from the packet expedites the process and guarantees dried seeds.
Some crops it’s easy to save seeds from include tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, lettuce, and herbs. It’s best to wait until the fruit is fully mature before saving the seeds from it. In some cases, that may mean waiting until the fruit is dry and wrinkly (but in the case of tomatoes, the tomato will spoil instead of getting dry, so you’ll want to save seeds from tomato fruits that are fully ripe.)
Vine crops, biennials, and sweet corn are among the more difficult crops to save. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but you need to carefully research how to grow difficult crops in order to grow these three kinds of crops.
When saving seeds, you need to make sure they’re completely dry, to the point where they snap rather than bend when you try to break them. Once your seeds are dry enough, then store them in airtight containers that don’t allow moisture to enter. Also, make sure they’re stored in a place with constant temperature, because fluctuations in temperature will reduce the viability of your seeds. Also be sure not to move your seeds too much, because each time they’re moved, it can interfere with the seeds’ viability.
Saving seeds from flowers is pretty similar to saving seeds from crops with fruits or edible seeds. Allow the seeds to completely mature and dry while still on the plant. Then, collect the heads of dried flowers and put them in a brown paper bag to let them dry for about a week. Then, gently break apart the flower pods and look for seeds. The most viable seeds will be the ones that look the firmest, largest, and thickest, and they’ll usually be in the middle of the flower.
You can also save bulbs from certain species of flowers as well. Hardy plants like crocuses or daffodils can be left in the ground all year; all you need to do is replant them after you divide the plant. But less hardy plants like begonias or dahlias will need to be stored each winter. Gently dig out the bulbs, being careful not to damage them, and then allow them to dry for a few weeks. After you clean off the bulbs, store them in unsealed paper bags or in nylon stockings with peat moss, and keep the bags in a cool, dry place like a garage, basement, or cellar. It’s best to store them between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit (between 1.7 and 7.2 degrees Celsius).
Certain seeds will need to be stratified, in particular ones with a hard outer shell. Stratification essentially means tricking the seeds into thinking they’ve been through winter. This will help coax them into germinating sooner. To stratify the seeds, you’ll need to wrap them in a moist paper towel and place in a sealed resealable plastic bag, and place them in a cool area like a fridge, and leave them in there for about a month. So it’s somewhat similar to the germination test, except you seal the plastic bag instead of leaving it open, and you leave them in the bag for a month instead of a week or so.
Hopefully some of these techniques might help you with your seed saving. We’d love to hear how your seed saving goes!
- Chris Tidmarsh