The key to saving seeds


Like most home gardeners, you have probably been busy harvesting and preserving all those summer vegetables from this gardening season. Many gardeners have asked me about saving the seeds produced in your garden. 

Saving seeds was once more important than it is today. In fact, saving garden seeds and swapping them with neighbors used to be the only way to make sure we had a garden for the next year. Many heirloom varieties have been lost and forgotten because gardeners have failed to save seeds. 

Seed companies may have stopped selling your favorite variety or it may have even been replaced by a more recent variety introduction, probably a hybrid variety.

The key to successfully saving seeds lies in knowing which crops and varieties bear seeds that will produce plants similar to the parent plants. After all, the idea behind saving tomato seeds is to get high quality tomatoes or other flowers or vegetables for next year’s growing season. Understanding a few terms will be helpful in determining which seeds to save.

Hybrid seed is produced through controlled pollination using two specific varieties that have been inbred, or self-pollinated for many generations to produce certain traits such as disease resistance. The parent plants may have weak growth or other poor characteristics, but when they are crossed, their seed produces desirable plants or fruit.

This characteristic of hybrids is what makes it possible to go to the store and purchase seeds to grow “seedless” watermelons. Have you ever wondered about that?  Many people have asked me over the years. Two parent varieties are crossed and the seed is harvested. It is these seed that, while producing a watermelon with desirable traits from both parents, also produces a fruit that is for all intents and purposes sterile. You will occasionally find seeds even in seedless watermelons but they will usually be small white immature seeds that cannot be used for planting.

Only the first generation of seed resulting from the cross of the parent plants will produce the desired combination of traits. Future generations will probably revert back to the undesirable traits of the parent plants. Hence, the first rule of seed saving is never ever save seeds from a hybrid plant.

This does not mean that seed from all non-hybrid plants can be saved and planted with good results.  If the non-hybrid is self-pollinated, the seed will produce plants similar to itself and will be good candidates for seed saving. Some popular garden plants that are self-pollinating include tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and lettuce.

If the plant is pollinated by neighboring plants of a different variety, such as cucumbers, corn, and squash; any seed produced will be of mixed parentage and will produce mixed results. Since pollen can be carried long distances by insects or wind, limit your seed saving efforts to self pollinated, non-hybrid vegetable varieties.

Many people also ask me about saving seed from fruit and nut producing trees such as apples, pears, pecans, and others.  Actually it is entirely possible, and fun, with a little care to save the seed and get them to germinate and grow into a tree that will produce fruit or nuts. Here is where the problem lies though.  Remember that many fruit and nut producing trees are cross pollinated so the offspring from the seed you plant probably will more than likely not be like the parent tree from which you harvested the fruit or nuts.  It takes several years for a seed to grow and get mature enough to produce fruit, so after several years you may be somewhat disappointed with a tree that produces inferior fruit or nuts or at least a tree that produces fruit that is different from what you wanted.

Gourds are a crop that I make an exception for.  Remember that gourds are open pollinated so that if you save their seeds the resulting crop may not be exactly like the original parent crop. Then again that’s half the fun if you are raising gourds just for decoration or for the enjoyment of it. As a kid I used to save gourd seed from year to year and had some pretty interesting combinations!

Once you determine that you have plants with seed worth saving, harvest your seed properly. Fruit must be fully ripe; for tomatoes, that means riper than you would prefer for eating. Peppers may begin to shrivel when they are completely ripe, but don’t wait until the fruit begins to rot. Remove the seed from the flesh and allow it to air dry. 

Seeds such as beans and peas that grow in pods are easy to process.  Pick the pods as they dry, but before they shatter. Allow the seeds to dry thoroughly in a warm spot out of direct sunlight (this usually takes two to three weeks), then package the seeds in envelopes or jars and store them in a cool dry spot. If you are using glass jars for storage, check the sides of the jars for condensation after a few days in storage.  If condensation is present, remove the seeds from the jar and allow them some extra time to dry before long term storage.

Many of our summer annual flowers are also producing seeds this time of year. Just this week, I collected seeds from my zinnias as well as some cleome (needle and thread as they are commonly called) and just for good measure I also collected the last of my cosmos seeds. Many other annual flowers also produce viable seeds that can be collected, saved, and planted next spring (my main problem is forgetting exactly where I stored them).  Have you ever wondered where all the little marigold sprouts that always seem to come up in late summer and early fall in your patio containers and raised beds…these sprouts are actually from the viable seeds that are produced by the early flowers. Another of my all time favorites to save seed from and re-plant are the sunflowers which will be maturing and drying from now through fall.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A & M University and Auburn University) is an equal opportunity educator and employer.  Everyone is welcomed.