As fall approaches, and winter not far behind, avid gardeners may feel a bit disappointed about the prospect of not being able to putter in the garden for several months. But for many gardeners, the garden season never actually ends. Ambitious gardeners keep themselves busy year round by saving seeds from their gardens and by planning and preparing for the next growing season.
For many gardeners, the garden begins in January when the first seed catalogs arrive in their mailbox. While the cold winds howl outdoors, they retire to a cozy chair and leaf through each catalog, carefully notating new varieties and deciding which to plant in their garden come spring. Have you ever wondered where your great-grandparents acquired the seeds for their gardens, before the days of seed catalogs and fancy garden centers? They were adept at saving seeds from their own garden, perhaps even sharing those seeds with their friends and neighbors.
Saving seeds from your own flowers or vegetables not only saves money, but it is also a wonderful way to fully experience the cycle of plant growth. In addition, saving seeds from your own plants ensures that they will grow into plants that are well suited to the peculiarities of your own garden’s growing conditions.
Saving seeds is quite a simple yet satisfying process. Seeds should be saved only from vigorous, healthy plants. Some plant diseases may be harbored in the seed where it will then be passed on to the next generation of plants. Do not save seeds from a plant that is obviously diseased nor from a plant that has struggled all season.
Gardeners who are saving seeds will collect the seeds from plants that have desirable characteristics, such as height, hardiness, early or late ripening, vigor or good flavor.
Do not begin saving seeds from hybrid plants. Seeds saved from hybrid plants will grow into plants that do not have the same characteristics as the parent plant. Hybrids are the result of crossing two genetically different parent plants, both of which have been severely inbred to concentrate the desirable characteristics of each one. The first generation of seedlings produced by these parent plants is referred to as an F1 hybrid and it will be superior to the parents. When you purchase hybrid seeds, you are buying F1 hybrids. But if seeds are saved from plants grown from F1 hybrid seeds, the plants grown from those seeds will tend to randomly revert to various characteristics of the original inbred ancestor plants.
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It is best to begin saving seeds from open pollinated plants. Open pollinated refers to plants that are not hybrid crosses. Many seed catalogs will identify which of their seeds are hybrids or open pollinated. Open pollinated seeds may also be identified as heirloom seeds. Heirloom varieties have been passed down for generations, often saved within one family for many years before becoming available to the general public.
Cross pollination is another concern for gardeners who are saving seeds. Cross pollination often results in seeds which have a different genetic makeup than that of the parent plant. Pumpkins, squash and small gourds may cross pollinate with each other, resulting in seeds that will produce rather odd and picturesque fruit. Sweet corn will cross pollinate with field corn or popcorn, and your row of 6-inch tall marigolds will cross pollinate with the neighbor’s 18-inch tall pompon marigolds. However, crossing will only occur within a species. Cucumbers won’t cross with squash, beans won’t cross with tomatoes, and cosmos won’t cross with pansies.
To avoid cross pollination when saving seeds, keep two varieties of the same species of plants separated by as much space as possible. Plants that are wind-pollinated, such as corn, can exchange pollen with other plants across a great distance. When saving seeds, these plants must be pollinated by hand and kept isolated from other varieties of their species. This can be done with corn, for example, by tying a small paper bag over selected ears before the silk emerges. Once the silk emerges, it is hand pollinated with pollen from either the same plant or from one of its healthy neighbors of the same variety.
Seeds should be collected on a dry, sunny day after any dew has dried. Frost doesn’t damage most seed as long as the seed remains dry. When saving seeds from vegetables such as cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, the vegetable should be allowed to become slightly overripe before collecting the seeds. Flower seeds and vegetable seeds from plants such as lettuce or radishes should be collected after the seedheads have become dry. But don’t wait too long, as many of these seedpods will shatter, meaning they will be dropped from the seedpod or seedhead if they remain on the plant too long.
The seeds of juicy or pulpy vegetables such as cucumber, squash and tomatoes require additional steps before they are ready for storage. First the seeds must be separated from the pulp, then dried.
When saving seeds from these vegetables, scoop the seeds from the ripe vegetable, pulp and all. Place the whole mess in a container of water and give it a good stir, then let it settle overnight. The pulp will rise to the top while the seeds will sink to the bottom. Carefully pour off the pulp, add more water and pour it off again until most of the pulp has been poured off. Then strain out the seeds and spread them on newspapers or paper plates to dry.
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I like to use paper plates for drying seeds, because each plate can be labeled with the name of whatever seed variety is on the plate.
A key to properly saving seeds is to make sure the seeds go into storage as dry as possible. Give all seeds a post-harvest drying period of at least a week, just to be sure they’re dry. While they are spread out on a paper plate or newspaper, keep them in a warm area out of direct sunlight.
It is also very important to keep the seed dry during storage. Store your dry seeds in tightly sealed jars, film containers or old vitamin bottles. To save space, smaller quantities of several seed varieties can be stored in individual envelopes inside a jar. Multi-compartment plastic boxes, found at craft stores in the beading department, are also excellent for storing several varieties of seeds.
A cool but never freezing garage, closed-off spare room or cool, dry basement can all be good places for storing your saved seeds until spring. The refrigerator is another good seed-storage area. When saving seeds for any amount of time, temperatures between 32 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal.
Be sure to label each variety of seed in their jars or envelopes so when spring comes around again you’ll know which flower and vegetable seeds you are planting, and also include the date the seeds were collected. Some seeds will remain viable for several years, but most will grow best if planted right away the following spring.
Try saving seeds from your own flowers or vegetables and grow them out next spring. Experiencing this endless cycle of life can allow you and your children to realize the endless joy of gardening, through all the seasons and all the stages of a plant’s life.