Saving seeds from this year’s plants, which have acclimated to your local weather and soil conditions, will help to guarantee a successful crop next year. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to save seeds.
One of the most joyous feelings for a gardener is to see that first ripe pepper or tomato on the vine. Excitement boils over, as you can’t wait to taste the fruits of your labor. But if you’re planning to save seeds from this year’s harvest, let that tomato or pepper, squash or cucumber, ripen to the point of near bursting. That first-to-ripen fruit or vegetable is the earliest product of the hardiest plant and that’s exactly the best seed to save for next year’s garden. That first-to-ripen seed will be most likely to produce the most robust plants, able to survive pest attacks and weather extremes better than its brothers and sisters.
But that’s not to say that the seeds from late season fruits and vegetables will produce inferior plants next year. These will perform well also. In either case, only save seed from the highest quality produce from your garden.
If you want to save seeds from a flower, find the best looking plant – sturdy, beautiful foliage and flower, best color, best growth pattern – and harvest the seeds from that specimen. Sunflowers are an excellent choice to start with, as the time to harvest the seeds is very obvious (when the flower head points towards the ground and starts to brown), the seeds are easy to see and remove, and their germination rate is high. But be warned that wildlife knows when the seeds are good, too. Place a paper bag over the flower head to protect it from birds and squirrels as it gets close to maturity.
The seed saving methods for individual plants are considerably different. If you’re saving seeds from a plant more complex than beans or peppers (open fruit, pull out the seed, let it dry), it’s worth your while to spend a little time researching the techniques specific to the seeds you want to save. The book that introduced me to seed saving and one I highly recommend is: Saving Seeds: The Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Saving Vegetable and Flower Seeds. There’s also some excellent information from the International Seed Saving Institute.
Preparing the seeds for storing
Once you’ve harvested the seeds, allow them to dry for a few days at room temperature on a ceramic plate, paper towel, or newspaper. Do not store them damp, as they’ll rot. When dry, put the seeds in a standard white paper envelope, roll the top down and mark the envelope with information as specific as possible: The plant the seed came from, including specific cultivar if known; date it bloomed or fruited; company that produced the seed; and the month and year you harvested the seed.
Tips on storing seeds
To store the seeds, use mason jars, the same kind used for canning. Mason jars are airtight, with metal tops that lock. To insure dryness in the jar, add a small packet of silica gel or wrap a little milk powder in a paper towel and put it in the bottom of the jar. Replace milk powder every 6 months. Adding the silica gel or milk powder is not a critical step, but it might allow your seeds to last an additional season.
Most seeds can be stored up to three years if you keep them in a mason jar in a refrigerator. Be sure to keep them away from the freezer side, as you don’t want the seeds to come anywhere near freezing.
In my experience, after two years (depending on the plant-some store longer than others), the percentage of seeds that will germinate drops pretty quickly, so it’s best to use the seeds the first year and harvest new seeds from your strongest plant yet again.
When you save seeds, it isn’t about saving money, as a packet of seeds is relatively inexpensive. What it’s really about is saving the DNA from a plant that performs really well for you and bringing it back to your garden year after year. It’s also about preserving heirloom plants, the seeds of which are passed down through generations of gardeners.
Note: If your seed packet indicates that the seed is F1 , don’t save the seeds from the fruit of that plant, because the offspring from those seeds may not look like what you were expecting. An F1 seed is the first generation of a hybrid, the cross of two distinctly different parents. The seed from an F1 may produce a plant that looks like one of the parent plants, but the fruit may appear very different in shape, texture and/or taste.