How to Save Seeds, Part 2

Saving seeds from the garden is easy, very cost effective, and allows you to selectively grow quality plants. There are many activities that gardeners consider standard tasks for a successful garden, like soil preparation, irrigation, fertilization, weeding, and fall clean up. I don’t put my garden to rest at the end of the season until I’ve added “collecting seeds” to my chore list.

Vetch pods with seeds

The first step in saving seeds is to let the plant do what it is programmed to do. Let the plant develop seeds. Many gardeners snip off the flowers of their herbs, pull up cool season plants that have started to bolt, and harvest root vegetables in their first year. These are normal gardening practices and there is nothing wrong with them, but they eliminate an opportunity to continue growing the same plants in the next year with free seeds.

All plants will produce seeds. Identifying the part of the plant that contains the seed is usually elementary, but varies by plant. Look for the seed in or near the flower. For flowers that turn into edible fruit, (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, tree fruit, peas, beans), look for the seed inside the fruit. For plants that offer up another part to eat, (like roots, stems, leaves), look for the seed to develop in the flower itself; carrots, beets, radishes, celery, rhubarb, chard, spinach, lettuce, and kale all produce seeds in their flowers. Ornamental perennials usually produce seeds in flowers too.

Sunflowers develop obvious seeds

Collecting the seeds is simple, but determining when to collect them may not be. For a seed to be viable and able to grow into a plant, it needs to be fully formed. Just because a seed looks like a seed doesn’t mean it is ready to sow. The key is knowing when it should be collected. Basically, let the seed or fruit that contains the seed remain on the plant as long as possible to help it mature appropriately.

Green beans drying on the plant

Seeds will be either wet or dry at maturity. Wet seeds are the ones surrounded by fleshy or pulpy plant material of a fully mature fruit. These are the fruit parts that we often eat, including the seeds. Seeds in tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and many squashes are wet and usually require effort to separate them from the flesh or pulp. A completely ripe fruit will provide viable seeds.

Though some seeds are the goal of the harvest, like peas and beans, they are not suitable for saving and sowing in their young, edible phase. These are actually dry seeds from a collecting perspective. For them to be fully formed and ready for sowing, they should be left on the plant until the pod dries out and the seed begins to dry.

Pea pods drying on the plant

Seeds that develop directly from a flower are dry seeds too. They should remain on the plant until the pod or husk that forms is completely dry. Many seeds can be collected slightly early, before completely drying, and they’ll continue to mature, but some, like plants in the mustard family, will not. It is best to leave developing seeds on the plants as long as possible.

While wet seeds are gathered wet, the key to dry seeds is that they dry on the plant and remain dry until sowing later. If sustained rain, snow, or fog threatens when it’s time to collect seeds, it’s better to gather them while dry, or in a stage of drying, than to run the risk of mold and rot setting in. Dry seeds can be damaged or ruined if moisture permeates them at maturity.

Collecting seeds isn’t much different than harvesting fruit and vegetables. I enter my garden with a paper bag already marked with the type of seed I’m collecting. Then I snip, pluck, or break off the seed cluster into the bag. I focus on one plant and try to harvest all of the seeds before moving on to another.

Collecting radish seeds

Some seeds, particularly large ones, can be easy to collect. Pea and bean pods are easy to grab and break off from the plant; radishes offer up nice little pods too. Corn cobs are one of the biggest seed containers you’ll gather.

Seeds that develop in clusters from little flowers are slightly more effort. Cutting off the entire cluster is usually the easiest way. Dill, parsnip, and cilantro produce little umbrellas of seeds that are easy to cut off. Spinach, basil, and thyme produce little seeds along the stem and are easiest to gather by cutting off that part of the plant. Onions and leeks produce globes of seeds and the entire ball can be cut off.

Leek flowers with seeds at the tips

After I’ve collected dry seeds, whether in pods or clusters, I fold over the top of the paper bag and store it along with the others in a cool, dry place. In my case that’s on shelves in my garage. I’ll leave them in the bags to finish drying completely. When they’re ready, the seeds will need to be separated from the protective coverings.

Bags of seeds

For the wet seeds, it’s a similar process, with a few key differences. The seeds are still collected from their pod or cluster, but it’s in a moist, robust form like a cucumber, tomato, or squash. If you attempt to let the fruit dry out to collect the seeds you’ll end up with a stinky, mushy goo before the seeds are ready. Wet seeds are best separated from the fruit and allowed to dry individually.

Most of these fruits will change color as a sign that the seeds are ready to harvest; they will no longer be green. Tomatoes will be a deep red (or orange, yellow, or purple depending on the type). Peppers will turn red. Pumpkins will turn orange. Cucumbers will turn orange. Eggplant will be a deep purple (or white). The point is that when the fruit reaches its zenith of color, it’s usually the right time to collect seeds. Often the fruit loses its best flavor and texture at the same time.

At that point cut open the fruit and scoop out the seeds to remove them from the fruit. The seeds will usually need to be scrubbed, rinsed, or fermented to completely separate them from the pulp. You want to get individual seeds that can be dried and saved.

Scooping out cucumber seeds

You can expect that all seeds will need to be separated from some type of covering. Whether it’s a pod, husk, cluster, or pulpy fruit, the covering needs to go so only the seed remains. Depending on the plant and seed type this process will vary. I’ll cover the different ways for isolating the seeds and preparing them for saving in my next article.

Collecting seeds involves just a few steps. Let the plant produce seeds, allow the seeds to mature, remove the seed and its covering from the plant, then separate the seed from its covering. Most of the work is done by the plant while you wait and do other gardening chores. When the process is complete you’re left with seeds ready to sow the next season or share with fellow gardeners. A saved or shared seed has a definable history that you may not discover in anonymous seed from a retail package.

Knowing where my seed comes from and being part of the process brings me even more in touch with the plants I grow. For an avid gardener, collecting seeds is as much a part of the gardening experience as amending soil with my own compost, using reclaimed organic mulch, practicing integrated pest management, or any of the many other beneficial garden practices available.

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