I was doing a little tidying up in my garage the other day, and came upon a cache of opened seed packets. I frequently find forgotten seed packets stashed in my garage, a storage cabinet and other odd corners in my house. I don’t have much space to garden in my small yard and my grandiose ideas for planting are rarely realized. So I tend to have lots of seed packs with lots of seeds left over. But it gave me a thought: rather than spending money buying more seeds, how about saving my own? Seed saving can be pretty easy, and you can preserve those varieties you love but which may be hard to find. I recently paid 25 cents per seed for a special, “determinant” cherry tomato (most cherry tomatoes available are “indeterminate,” meaning they continue growing upward, making them a challenge in a small garden or patio container). With a little knowledge, you can successfully save seeds of some of your garden favorites.
Here are a few tips for successful seed saving. First, know your vegetable. Is it a hybrid or an open-pollinated variety (like an heirloom varieties)? Hybrids are developed from two specific parents to achieve a desirable genetic mix of traits (usually achieved through traditional breeding practices, but sometimes through genetic modification). If a hybrid, this vegetable may not be a good candidate for seed saving, as they will often develop other characteristics different from the vegetable saved. Open pollinated vegetables come back true to variety from saved seed. Heirloom tomatoes are good candidates to save — seeds can be expensive (as noted above), and only a few plants are needed to satisfy most people’s needs. Another important consideration is that some open pollinated vegetables, such as cucumbers, have a pretty wide ability to cross pollinate with close relatives — squash, melons, etc. If growing only one member of that family at a time, all should be fine, but if you’re growing varieties that can cross pollinate, the next generation may be off.
Once you decide which vegetables you want to keep, how to save the seed? First, save seed from the best specimen you have, whether it’s the biggest size, best taste, etc. Do not save seed from diseased plants, as some diseases may be transferred through seed. Seeds must be mature before they should be collected for saving. Watermelons and pumpkins are easy to grow from seed, as the seed inside is mature when the fruit is ready to eat. Is it dry or wet seed? Tomatoes are a “wet” seed. The seeds reside in a gelatinous tissue which has chemicals that prevent the seeds from germinating when they aren’t supposed to. So when seed saving tomatoes, squeeze the seeds and juice into a jar and let sit for a few days. The juice will ferment, breaking down the natural germination inhibitors. Seeds that float in the liquid aren’t viable, so remove them and rinse the good seeds. Make sure seeds are dry before storing. Greens such as collards, kale, and lettuce can be grown from saved seed.
There is a farm in Scotland County, Morris farm, where they have been saving seed for 100 years for a special collard they developed called the Morris Heading collard. Arugula, a spicy, somewhat bitter green, is quick and easy to use for seed saving. When the plant matures and goes to flower, it sends up a shoot with edible white flowers (that can be a spicy salad addition). But don’t eat all the flowers; soon they’ll go to seed and the dried stems with seed filled pods can be collected and stored. Storing seed in the freezer is a great way to keep seed viable, but the seed must be absolutely dry before storage, or they will freeze. If not in a freezer, seed can be stored in the refrigerator or any cool, dark place. Seed can also be stored in jars with the silica packs (save those packs that come in vitamins), or even with a little powdered milk at the bottom of the jar to absorb moisture, according to an Oregon Extension publication. Heat and moisture are the enemy of seeds, so reducing those problems will improve seed longevity.
Using your saved seed: seeds have varying viability over time, even when saved under the best conditions. Onions and leeks may be viable for just one year; spinach, peppers, corn, and okra will be good two years. Other common vegetables have a longer seed life: watermelon and tomatoes, four years; collards, cucumbers, and melons, five years. If the seed saving conditions have been sub-optimal (you’ve been keeping them in your garage, for example), try a little germination test to see if they are still viable. Place 10 seeds equally spaced without touching on a damp paper towel. Roll up the towel and seal in a plastic bag. Check back after a few days and see how many seeds have germinated. Eight seeds germinated? Then likely 80 percent of your seeds are viable.
This year, I’ll be saving some of those Elfin cherry tomato seeds. They will definitely be worth the effort. What will you save for next year’s garden? For more information on how to get started with seed saving, visit: http://www.seedsave.org/issi/904/beginner.html.