Some of the best lessons for survival come from people who have lived close to the edge of existence for many years. The first pioneers are a good example. Many of these pioneers arrived in the country penniless. Few, however, arrived seedless.
I wonder how much most average American gardeners could produce if they were suddenly cut off from seed catalogs and the local garden centers? Very little, I suspect. Most don’t bother saving garden seeds at all. Yet with only a little extra time and knowledge of seed saving techniques, they could be much closer to self-sufficiency in food production.
The advantages of saving garden seeds
Besides saving the expense of buying all of their seeds every year, they would have a seed “bank” as insurance against hard times. A sad bank will have an inestimable value when intensive gardening is your only chance of providing food for your family.
In the 80s, when I visited the gardens of Vietnamese immigrants in Biloxi, Mississippi, I was impressed by the fact that these thrifty folk grew gardens almost entirely from saving garden seeds from the previous years. Most of the seeds are heirloom varieties. Asian vegetables are grown from seeds brought to the U.S. with the immigrants.
Bringing their own seeds served several purposes. First, most of their favorite vegetables simply weren’t available in the U.S.
Second, with their seeds in hand, they avoided the expense of purchasing seed — an important consideration for people struggling to get an economic foothold in a land where barriers of language and custom initially made it difficult to get a good job. Also, the familiar crops helped make a new country seem a little less strange and alienating.
The rest of us can also enjoy a pleasing continuity with our gardening past by saving garden seeds from year to year. Imagine the satisfaction of growing the same variety, say some Country Gentle-man corn seeds originally given to you by a favorite uncle, for 20, 30, 40 years.
Growing the same variety year after year refines your gardening skills, as you learn more each year about the best cultivation techniques, times to start seed, and methods to control inserts on that specific variety.
It’s much more beneficial than jumping from one variety to another year after year, never knowing if a poor crop stems from the weather, insects, bad seeds, or other factors.
One benefit of saving garden seed is that you can select for the qualities you desire — size, flavor, earliness, hardiness, disease and drought resistance, being slow to bolt, etc. You’ll only want to select seeds from hardy plants and look at the overall vigor of the plant instead of just one factor. It’s a good idea to save the seeds from five or more plants, rather than just one.
And, especially if you’re working with a rare variety, don’t ever plant all the seeds at one time. Always save a few as insurance against crop failure caused by weather, birds eating the seeds, disease, or other calamities.
It’s usually a good idea to stagger plantings anyhow so that you have a harvest that lasts over weeks or months, providing fresh food over a longer period of time
The first step on the path to seed self-sufficiency is learning which types of vegetable seeds can be saved. When saving garden seeds, there are a few things you should learn about the various types of seeds you can encounter. As you will see in this article, not storing the proper seeds can lead to disaster.
Hybrid plants, seeds bred from genetically different parents, won’t produce seeds worth saving. So you’ll want to concentrate on growing open-pollinated plants which produce seeds true to the parents. These are often referred to as “heirloom” varieties because they can be passed down from generation to generation.
Often — but not always — the seed catalogs or seed package will tell you if a variety is hybrid. If it doesn’t say it’s hybrid, it usually isn’t. One way to be certain is buying from sources that deal only with open-pollinated varieties.
I’d recommend joining a non-profit organization called the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) just in order to get their catalog of open-pollinated varieties and learn more about saving garden seeds. Even if you don’t order through the organization, which is dedicated to maintaining valuable genetic diversity in seed stocks by preserving heirloom varieties, the catalog can be used to determine if the varieties of seeds you get from the local garden store or through mail order are open-pollinated.
One primary reason members of the Seed Savers Exchange and others are saving heirlooms varieties is that they see a great danger in depending on only a few crop varieties to produce the bulk of the nation’s food. Too much homogeneity in crops leaves us vulnerable to total crop failure from disease epidemics. The Irish potato famine is an infamous example of the foolishness of relying too much on one genetically uniform crop
Most gardeners won’t want to go to the trouble of saving garden seeds needed for next year’s crop. But, it doesn’t take much time to save the seeds that are little trouble. You’ll probably still want to buy a few of your favorite hybrids, but saving your non-hybrid varieties will give you confidence in your ability to grow enough food for your family even if cut off from normal seed sources.
Rules for saving garden seeds
Some fundamental rules about saving seeds:
Make sure that the seeds you save are mature, which usually means letting the plants continue growing past the time when you would normally pick the crop to eat. For example, beans should be left for about six weeks after they’d be picked to eat fresh. The pods should be so hard that you can hardly stick your fingernail through them.
Mature, dried seeds should break instead of bend. This is one trick you can use when saving garden seeds to make sure you are storing mature, dried seeds.
Next to getting mature seeds, the next most important step is making sure that the seeds are dried properly. Moist seeds in storage will quickly mold and deteriorate. Seeds can be dried by placing them on a screen or newspaper. They can be dried in the sun, but if left exposed too long will suffer sun damage.
A safer bet is to dry them inside, either by hanging them up as with entire bean plants or heads of sun-flowers/ or spreading them to dry. Even after seeds appear dry, they should be allowed to air dry an additional week.
If you live in a humid climate, air drying may not be enough. But don’t resort to the oven, because it’s too easy to destroy the seeds with heat. My preference is to air dry the sends, and then place them in an airtight container — a desiccator — containing silica gel or desiccant packages.
Some people use silica gel for packaging the seeds with.
What I do is less expensive. I dry the seeds for a couple of days in my desiccator, which is a large glass container, then place the dry seeds into airtight storage containers. I reheat the desiccator and silica gel in the oven to remove the excess moisture and then reuse it to dry more seeds.
For those interested in saving garden seeds, there are many companies offering various seed-saver supplies. Items such as heat-sealable pouches for saving garden seeds, heat sealers and plastic bags. You can find all the supplies you need on Amazon or eBay.
You can also use a food dehydrator to dry seeds. Just set the control lower, and make sure the heat doesn’t get above about 95 degrees F. No matter what you use to keep seeds dry, it helps to package the seeds in clear containers that can be eyeballed occasionally to check for mold.
When saving garden seeds, you’ll also want to make sure your seed is free of insects and debris. It’s easy to get egg cases in with seeds, and then end up with pests such as weevils that destroy the seeds. If the seed is thoroughly dry, it can be frozen to destroy bugs. But if the seed isn’t completely dry, freezing can cause ice crystals to expand end destroy the seed.
Packaging materials can vary according to what you have on hand, as long as they are airtight. I prefer canning jars for larger quantities of seeds, and zip- lock type bags for smaller amounts.
Make sure that all seed containers are labeled, and include the date harvested. Plantings in the garden, likewise, should be plainly marked to keep track of varieties to be used to save seed. Seeds should be stored in a cool, dry place.
If you’ve got the room, refrigerated or frozen seeds will last longer. But that’s not necessary for saving garden seeds less than a year old. When removing seeds from refrigeration, allow the container to warm to room temperature before opening to prevent moisture condensation on the seeds.
It’s always the best policy to use seeds that are only one year old, but properly stored, they should last several years or longer — depending on the type of seed. Frozen seeds can last up to five times longer than non-refrigerated seeds.
If you’re just starting out saving garden seeds, then concentrate on the easiest seeds. Luckily, some of the least fussy seeds for saving are also stapled crops that could provide the bulk of your family’s diet, if necessary.
These include beans, a very important protein source, wheat, peas, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, and sunflowers. These plants are usually self-pollinating, meaning that they pollinate themselves without the help of insects or wind.
Self-pollinated plants normally don’t have to be separated to prevent crossing, which will leave you with un-planned — and probably undesirable — progeny. Still, it doesn’t hurt to separate varieties a bit if you’ve got the room.
There are also other advantages to separating plants. For example, I’ve seen bacterial wilt hit one tomato plant, and then go down the entire row, knocking out every last plant. But tomatoes planted a short distance sway managed to escape the disease, which can be spread by insects. Staggering plantings around the garden can help confuse insects, instead of giving them one big target.
Cross-pollinated crops, however, do require special precautions to breed seeds true to the parent. Cross-pollinated plants are fertilized by pollen from other plants transferred by wind or insects. They include corn, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kale, and cucurbits: cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash.
To keep cross-pollinated crops pure, you have several options. Plant only one variety, or time plantings so that one variety has finished fertilization before another begins. If you have the room, you can separate varieties by about a quarter-mile.
The last option is pollinating by hand, which is time-consuming but worth the effort if you like wide variety in the vegetable patch. Pollination techniques differ depending on the type of vegetable.
Here are some specifies on saving some of the more common types of vegetables:
Beans and Fie
Seldom any problem with crossing, except with runner beans, which have to be separated by a quarter-mile. Harvest for seed when most of the leaves have dried up and fallen off. Shell and remove chaff by winnowing. Weevils are a big problem with beans, so dry seed and freeze them for a couple of days to kill the weevils.
Plant one variety, stagger plantings, so the stalks don’t tassel at the same time, or separate by a quarter-mile to prevent crossing. Save seed from a number of ears instead of just one to avoid interbreeding that can lead to weaknesses. Leave the ears on the corn until the husk turns brown, and then hang them up to dry. When kernels are dry, remove from the ear by twisting
Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and watermelon are cross-pollinated, so grow only one variety of each unless you hand-pollinate or separate varieties widely. Except for muskmelons, most of these are relatively easy to hand pollinate.
For more information on hand pollinating cucurbits, see the SSE seed-saver guide. Different varieties of squash and pumpkins within the same four species of cucurbits listed below will cross easily, but there won’t be crossing between species.
Only one variety can be grown from each of the four following groups if you want to save garden seeds:
- Cucurbita pepo. – Small sugar and Connecticut field pumpkins, and acorn, crookneck, scallop, spaghetti, and zucchini squash.
- C. maxima. – Hubbard, banana, delicious, buttercup, turban, and Marblehead squash.
- C. moschata. – Butternut, cheese, Golden cushaw, and melon squash.
- C. mixta. – Tennessee sweet potato. Japanese pie and mixta gold.
Allow all cucurbits to remain on the vine until the skin hardens and seeds are mature. This will be several weeks alter you would normally harvest. Wash seeds to remove the pulp before drying. Allow the cucumber seeds to ferment for several days with the same technique used for fermenting tomatoes (see tomatoes below).
Kill any wild lettuce nearby, which can cross with domesticated lettuce and cause bitterness. Make sure to separate plant varieties by 10 feet. Wait until seeds are fully developed before harvesting, and don’t pick the first seeds that appear. Those are from the early bolters. Instead, select seeds from lettuce plants that are last to bolt.
These are usually self-pollinating, but can be crossed by insects, so either grows under a cover such as Reemay that keeps out insects, or plant different varieties an eighth of a mile apart. Be cautious when removing seeds from hot peppers to avoid getting burned. Anything you touch after handling the seeds — like your eyes — can end up burning painfully.
Select for late bolting. This is cross-pollinating, so plant only one variety or separate by a quarter-mile.
Tomato varieties need only be separated by about six feet to prevent cross-pollination. This most popular of garden vegetables is also among the easiest to save. Pick fruit from the best plants, scrape out meaty pulp containing seeds, and place in a container with water.
Allow fermenting in a warm place for five days. The odor can be nasty, so you’ll want to do this in an outdoor shed, if possible.
The fermentation helps destroy diseases and is used to separate good seeds from the Junk. After five days, pour off the bud seed and pulp at the top. The good seed will have settled to the bottom. Wash the seeds in a strainer, dry, and label.
Vegetables that take two years to produce seeds include beets, members of the cabbage family (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, and kale), carrots, celery, parsnips, salsify, turnips, celery, onions, and Swiss chard. Most of these are cross-pollinating, and thus only one variety can be grown for seed saving purposes unless you separate or hand pollinates.
With broccoli and cauliflower, don’t harvest for eating if you’re planning on saving the seeds as the plants won’t have enough energy left for adequate seed production.
Let biennials overwinter in the garden. If your climate is too cold, dig them up and store them for spring re-planting.
All this information may seem a bit much to start out with, but the experience will teach you that saving garden seeds does not have to be all that difficult. After all, it’s how mankind survived through the countless generations before the arrival of seed catalogs and garden supply centers. If primitive man could do it, surely his modern counterpart shouldn’t find it that tough to follow suit.