How to Save Seeds from your Garden
by Judy Gaunt
reproduce through natural means tend to adapt to local conditions over time, and
evolve as reliable performers in that locale. The modern trend to rely on
hybridized and cloned plants negates these evolutionary processes and thousands
of varieties of vegetables and flowers are being lost, due to the reliance on
commercial hybrid seed. This erodes the gene pool, resulting in less hardy, more
vulnerable plants. If you’d like to join the growing movement of organic
gardeners and farmers who save their own seeds, here’s what you need to know.
Since I've been saving seeds for over ten years now, I'd
like to pass on some of the knowledge I've gathered about the subject to help
you along the way.
First of all, it's necessary to know how to keep varieties pure and this
varies with each type of plant. Then, you need to know how to prepare, clean and
store the resulting seeds.
The nightshade family contains tomatoes, eggplants,
peppers and potatoes as well as garden huckleberries, tomatillos and various
The tomato is grown by more home gardeners than any other vegetable. Since
many tomatoes commonly grown are hybrids it must be remembered that while hybrid
seed will grow, you can't be sure what the result will be. The new tomatoes may
resemble their grandparents or great grandparents rather than the plants you
started with. This is true of all hybrid seed.
But if you're starting with an open-pollinated (non hybrid) variety you can
save tomato seed by cutting the fruits in half, scraping the seeds and the
juices around them into a container and letting it ferment for three days at
room temperature. This removes the gel coating from around the seeds and also
prevents the transmission of some seed-borne diseases.
After fermenting, rinse the seeds under running water in a strainer and then
put them on a small plate to dry. The seeds should be stirred occasionally the
first few days to keep them from sticking together. Let them dry thoroughly
Regarding cross-pollination, the newer varieties are much less apt to cross
as the pistil is covered in the flower and not exposed to passing bees. Older,
heirloom varieties are more likely to be crossed because of the flower
structure. Separate these varieties from other tomatoes as much as possible.
Peppers are self pollinating but can be crossed by
insects so different varieties must be either caged or separated by 500 feet to
Let the fruit mature before removing seeds. Remember that when working with
hot peppers, rubber gloves should be worn. Also don't rub your eyes at this time
as the hot pepper oil can be extremely irritating.
Eggplant usually self pollinates but insects can
sometimes be a problem so to be sure, different varieties should be separated by
50 feet, or caged.
To obtain seeds, first let the fruit ripen, then grate or blend the bottom
part of the fruit which contains most of the seeds. Put the pulp in a bowl, fill
with water and squeeze the gratings with your fingers, separating the seeds from
the pulp. The pulp will rise and good seeds will sink to the bottom.
While usually propagated vegetatively, the potato can
be grown from seeds which occasionally form on the plants. Let the seed balls
mature, then squeeze the seeds into a bowl. Add water and pour off the floating
debris, saving the seeds which sink to the bottom. Grow the same as tomato
Some of the smaller nightshades, such as cherry and currant tomatoes,
tomatillos, ground cherries etc., can be processed in a blender and treated the
same as potato seeds.
The usual families of beans and peas are common bean,
pea, lima bean, fava bean, soybean and runner bean.
While the families do not cross, different varieties within the same family
will cross. The amount of crossing varies in different locations. Here in
Eastern Ontario where I live, I have had some crossing between bean varieties
but in an area with fewer wild bees perhaps there would be less. So I would
recommend separating varieties as much as possible. To be absolutely sure,
plants can be grown in cages or blossoms bagged with spun polyester until the
pods begin to form.
The way I deal with legumes is to wait until the pods are quite dry and the
plant is drying up and leaves falling off. Then I cut the whole plant and place
in the carport or shed to dry further. Later, I either pick off the pods and
shell them by hand or else put the whole plants in a feed sack or on a large
sheet of plastic and beat them with a stick until the seeds fall out. They have
to be quite dry for this though and sometimes in a damp fall they never get to
the right stage and have to be shelled by hand.
Pods can also be picked while still in the garden, as long as they are
beginning to dry up and becoming flexible rather than stiff. Make sure all seeds
are placed in an airy, dry place once shelled to continue to dry. Mould is the
enemy of seed savers.
Lettuce seeds are quite easy to produce
although they are difficult to clean. Just let the plants go to seed. They grow
two or three feet tall and are covered with small yellow flowers. Eventually,
small seed pods form which are ready when dried up and brown. The pods can be
individually picked by hand and opened up, which is time consuming but the best
way to get clean seed. The heads can also be shaken over a paper bag, which is
easier but results in a lot of chaff with the seeds. The seeds are so light that
they're difficult to separate but if just for your own use the whole mixture can
be planted and the seeds will still grow.
One bonus from producing your own lettuce seed is that early next spring you'll get
lots of volunteer lettuce plants which you can transplant where you wish. You'll
have early lettuce without much trouble.
Lettuce is self-pollinating generally but occasionally can cross with wild
lettuce, a common weed. Any growing nearby should be removed.
The squash and melon family is a large and varied group
of plants. As with legumes, crossing can only take place between different
varieties in the same family, not between members of different families.
Different varieties of cucumbers will cross with
each other. However, Armenian cucumbers, West Indian gherkins and serpent
gourds belong to other families and will not cross. Separate varieties by
one half mile or else just grow one variety. Otherwise hand pollination is
necessary. Space does not allow a description of this, perhaps in another
To save cucumber seeds, the fruits must be allowed to mature far past the
stage they're usually eaten – until they're ripe and have turned orange or
yellow. Remove the seeds and let them ferment in a pail for three days the
same as tomato seeds to remove the gel around them. Then they can be cleaned
by repeatedly filling the pail with water and pouring off the top layer. The
good seeds will remain on the bottom while the debris will float and can be
poured off. Dry the seeds thoroughly before storing.
The rest of the cucurbits are easier to do as the seeds don't have the
gel coating and don't need fermenting.
All melons will cross with each other so must be either
grown in isolation or hand pollinated. The seeds are easily removed and
dried. Remember that hybrid melons may not come true.
These will only cross with other watermelons or citrons.
Once again, the seeds are easily processed.
These are rather complicated in that there are four
different families of squash commonly grown here. As usual, the families
don't cross but members of the same family will and it's necessary to know
which family a particular variety is in. One member of each family can be
grown together without crossing, which is the method I use. Otherwise, hand
pollination is necessary.
Examples of the most common members of each family are:
Cucurbita maxima: Atlantic Giant, Banana, Buttercup, Golden
Delicious, Hubbards, Turbans.
Cucurbita mixta: Crooknecks, Cushaws, Tennessee Sweet Potato
Cucurbita moschata: Butterbush, Butternut.
Cucurbita pepo: Acorn, Crookneck, Delicata, Pumpkins, Scallops,
Spaghetti squash, Zucchini.
Let the fruits mature fully before harvesting for seeds, even those
usually eaten when immature such as zucchini. The seeds are easily removed
although you may need an axe to chop the squash open. Germination is better
if fruits are allowed to age for at least three weeks after harvesting
before removing seeds. As usual, let seeds dry thoroughly before storing.
Corn is difficult for the seed saver as in many
areas, acres of field corn are grown that can be crossed with your
open-pollinated corn by the wind.
Most corn grown these days is hybrid so the seeds will not come pure if
grown. An open-pollinated variety must be either hand pollinated or grown in
isolation to maintain its purity.
Now that you know all about saving the seeds of
many annual vegetables, it's time to learn about another group, the
biennials. These plants have seeds which are more complicated to produce
although it's not necessarily more difficult.
The biennials consist of all the root vegetables, from onions to turnips
as well as some members of the cabbage family.
Onions, carrots, beets, parsnips, salsify, turnips and rutabagas are all
treated in much the same way. They're harvested in the fall, stored over the
winter and replanted in the spring. The second year they flower and produce
For winter storage, I'm lucky to have an unheated basement, which keeps
the root crops cool enough. I store them in large plastic pails with lids.
You could also use a root cellar, either indoor or out, or maybe even store
them where they grew in the ground if you covered them with enough bags of
leaves or other insulating material. Those growers in the milder areas can
leave these plants outside to winter over.
The only plant you would not want to store this way is onions, which
require a drier storage area. We keep onions in an unheated room in the
In early spring the roots are planted out. Again, remember to keep
everything labeled, both while being stored and once planted. It's amazing
how easy it is to forget vital information after a few months, even if you
told yourself you'd remember.
Some people worry about carrots crossing with the wild carrots so
prevalent in many areas, but I have found that my carrots bloom earlier than
the wild carrots and it doesn't seem to be a problem. As with the other
vegetables, if you plant more than one variety you may have some crossing.
The plants will grow quite tall – taller than they were the first year –
and eventually seeds will form. I usually cut the seed heads and hang them
up to dry or keep in a paper bag until they're dry enough to remove the
The other biennials are in the cabbage family. This is a rather
complicated family as there are a few annuals in it and there are many
members which will cross pollinate with each other.
Chinese cabbage, mustards and some radishes are the annual family members
and saving seeds from them is easy. Just let them flower and go to seed and
then collect the seed when dry.
One group – Brassica oleracea – contains broccoli, Brussels
sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi. These will all cross so
it's best to only try to save seeds from one member or else separate them by
a half mile.
Another group – Brassica rapa – consists of turnip, Chinese
cabbage, and Chinese mustard so only grow seed from one of these.
Rutabaga (Brassica napus) – the large winter turnips – don't cross
with the small summer turnip (B. rapa) but will cross with Siberian
kale and rape.
Since these plants are insect pollinated and not self-fertile, caging
them is difficult. Another thing to remember is that it's necessary to grow
several plants for seed to maintain vigor in the variety. Six plants is the
bare minimum but more would be better.
The whole plant including the roots has to be dug up and brought in for
the winter, if in a cold winter area. If planted several to a pail, (turnips
don't have to be planted) they usually survive the winter although they look
quite pale and yellowish by spring. Then plant them outside and hope they
have the vigor to survive and begin growing. If they do, they'll produce
lots of yellow flowers, which the bees love, and then lots of seeds.
Brassicas produce an abundance of long seed pods which can be harvested
after drying out. Dry them further under shelter and then beat them in a
plastic bag or feed sack or on a sheet of plastic until the seeds fly out.
Again, make sure the seeds are thoroughly dry before storing.
Cleaning and Storing Tips
Now I'd like to tell you of some ways I've found
suitable for cleaning and storing the many kinds of seeds it's possible to
Freeing them from their seed pods or whatever other covering nature
provided them is the first step.
Small quantities of seed can be simply rubbed between the hands. Some
tougher types of seed pods can be rubbed against a piece of screening with
the sole of a running shoe to separate the seeds from their stems or pods.
Grains are one kind I do this way. I've already mentioned beating dry,
brittle seed pods with a stick over a sheet of plastic. And I find it rather
relaxing to shell some seeds such as beans or peas by hand while watching TV
in the evening.
Then you have to clean all the chaff from them. I have a series of six
screens, each a different size which are helpful in sifting some kinds of
An ancient method I use a lot is to pour the seeds back and forth between
two large bowls outside on a breezy day, which will blow away most of the
chaff. Just be sure that you don't also let many of the seeds blow away!
Another method is to pour the seeds onto a sheet spread in front of a
fan. The heavier, best quality seeds will fall onto one area of the sheet.
Remember to keep the seeds dry and exposed to the air at all times until
they're ready to store. Mould will quickly kill them. The top of the
refrigerator is a warm, dry place in most homes. I use baskets – of which I
have a large collection – for many of them. Baskets enable air to circulate
all around the seeds. Small plates or bowls are useful for the small seeds
that are not suitable for baskets.
When the seeds are thoroughly dry they can be stored. Larger seeds are
ready when they will break rather than bend. I sometimes use the bite test
for beans and peas. When they are too hard to be bitten they're ready.
For storage, airtight containers are best. Glass jars are ideal and can
be used in all sizes, from baby food jars to gallon bottles.
During storage, it's important to keep the seeds as dry and cool as
possible. A collection of seeds in paper envelopes could be placed in a
gallon bottle. The freezer is good for long time storage if the seeds are in
an air-tight container.
I hope I have given you the encouragement and help you need in order to
begin saving seeds. Maybe I should warn you that once you begin working with
nature in this way, it may become a compulsion as it did with me and you'll
find yourself with the same large hoards of seeds. Good luck with it anyway!