Why save seeds?
Gardeners might choose to save seeds from a particular plant for reasons ranging from economy, to the love of a special shade of flower, to a concern for the genetic biodiversity of our food system. All are significant, and given how simple (and fun!) seed saving is, it’s worth the few extra steps at the end of the growing season.
Seed saving begins with the plants you select for your garden: Open Pollinated vegetables are just what they sound like – they’re the plant varieties that reproduce from year to year as nature intended. They share their pollen (and therefore genetics) with neighboring plants, and stronger plants thrive in response to local conditions and subsequent seed selection by the propagator. The term “heirloom” is loosely used to describe plant varietals developed in this way which are known to be more than 50 years old; however, a more specific understanding of heirlooms is as varietals that have reproduced and been maintained through open pollination, generation after generation.
Hybrid vegetables are what we’ve grown accustomed to finding in our grocery stores and garden centers. They’re the varieties of plants whose traits were deemed desirable and thus were isolated and reproduced by seclusion – no “intermingling” of pollen (or genetics) in this process.
All this say, since hybrids must reproduce in a controlled environment, they will not grow “true” from seeds captured in your own garden. Variances will pop up, and you could find yourself with a very different crop from year to year! For most of us, the important first step in seed saving is to begin with sowing open-pollinated heirloom plants in our own gardens (you can verify this on the seed packet when purchasing).
Select seeds from your healthiest, most vigorous plants each season, and be sure that the fruit, vegetable, or seed is fully mature (and disease free) before harvesting. The largest seeds will have the greatest food supply when they regrow next year.
Once you’ve removed the seeds, rinse them in a sieve or colander (some fruits contain a substance that prevents seeds from germinating, and you’ll want to be sure it’s removed completely).
Place clean seeds on a plate or other hard surface to dry (paper towels are not recommended – your seeds will stick fast!). Store them in a location with good air circulation, a gentle fan helps, and out of direct sunlight. Allow them to dry completely (they’ll crack instead of bending) and then store in a cool, dry location. That’s it!
Special note: plants like cucumber, eggplant and summer squash will need to grow beyond when one would normally harvest for consumption in order to produce fully-matured seeds. We recommend that you allow your best plant to continue growing and harvest those fruits and veggies for seeds at the end of the season.
Tomatoes deserve a special note – not only are they the most popular vegetable in our country, their seeds require a few extra steps to regrow. To save your tomato seeds from year to year, you’ll need to simulate the conditions that they’d germinate in naturally. Squeeze the seeds from your favorite plants’ ripest tomato at the end of summer, and add them to a glass (pulp and all) – add a small amount of water to make a tomato “juice-like” concoction. Cover the glass with a paper towel and rubber band to keep out pests, and allow the jar to ferment for approximately 3 days, stirring occasionally. Your brew will bubble and possibly mold; these are both good things! (The fermentation process is mimicking fallen, rotting fruit, which neutralizes natural germination inhibitors.) After a few days have passed, pour the scum and any floating seeds off the top of the liquid, and then strain and rinse the seeds from the bottom of the glass. (Floating seeds are usually empty and not viable.) Now dry tomato seeds as you would any other – pass the joy on by sharing with your friends and enjoy next year!