Eight Things to Consider When Saving Vegetable Seeds

seed saving

The directions for seed saving in our last book, Making It, almost got cut. Perhaps we should have just changed those directions to “Why it’s OK to buy seeds.” The fact is that it’s not easy to save the seeds of many vegetables thanks to the hard work of our bee friends.

That being said, Shannon Carmody of Seed Saver’s Exchange gave a lecture at this year’s Heirloom Exposition with some tips for ambitious gardeners who want to take up seed saving. Here’s some of her suggestions:

1. Maintaining varietal purity
Is the vegetable open pollinated or hybrid? Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to type. You can’t save and regrow the seeds of hybrids, at least not without a lot of complicated multi-generational outcrossing in order to create a new variety that produces true to type. [I'll note that I'm not anti-hybrid. The increased vigor of hybrids can be advantageous if you're having trouble in your garden.]

2. Know how the vegetable is pollinated
It’s much easier to save the seeds of self-pollinating vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes. Remember that bees can fly for miles–anything pollinated by insects have to be isolated or caged to prevent cross-pollination. And many vegetables have weedy cousins. Try to save the seeds of carrots without caging and you may get a carrot/Queen Anne’s lace hybrid that won’t taste good. And some supposedly self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes have rogue varieties that can be cross pollinated by insects.

3. Consider your climate
Bienneals require two years of growth in order to set seeds. If you live in a cold climate that could be a problem.

4. Population size
Serious plant breeders often plant a minimum of sixty plants so that they can choose the most vigorous for seed saving. And they’ll often plant just one variety to reduce the risk of crossing. One way around the population size requirement is to crowd source the problem and get a bunch of friends to grow the same vegetable.

5. Space requirements
Some biennials get really big in the second year. You’ll need to make sure they have space and won’t shade out other plants.

6. When to harvest
Fruits harvested for seed may need to stay on the plant for a long time. For example, eggplants that you want to save seed from need to be harvested well past when they’re still edible.

7. Prepping seeds
In general, seeds harvested when dry, such as lettuce need to be air dried before storing. Seeds harvested wet, such as watermelons, need to be washed with water before drying and storing. Tomato seeds need to be fermented in water for a few days before drying.

8. Storage
Moisture is the enemy of seed storage. Those packs of desiccant that come with electronic gadgets can be recycled and used in your seed storage boxes.

There’s no shame in buying seeds

In our small garden it would be nearly impossible to save the seeds of readily pollinated vegetables such as members of the Cucurbitaceae family. But it would be great to have varieties of vegetables adapted to our dry Mediterranean climate. Most seed saving operations use lots of fertilizer and water and the result is vegetables that are adapted, unsurprisingly, to requiring tons of fertilizer and water. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a notable exception. But we need more regional seed saving groups run by trained horticulturalists. In the meantime I buy seeds and stick to saving just the easy ones–beans, peas and tomatoes.

If you want more information about seed saving the bible of the subject is Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed.

How have your seed saving endeavors gone? What seeds do you save? Have you ever gone through the trouble of bagging seed heads or caging plants and hand-pollinating?

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17 Comments

  1. This year I saved a few handfuls of scarlet runner bean seeds, but threw them in the freezer for a day or two before socking them away in the cupboard. Last year those darn little beetles hatched out of my bean seeds and ate shotgun holes through each one of them! Hopefully the 24hr freeze will do the trick…?

    • I’ve heard that it’s more like a 3 day freeze to kill the little buggies in pantry goods, so this should be the same. Do be sure the beans are bone dry before freezing, though.

    • Yep, it is! You make a screen box that fits over the whole plant to keep the bees (&etc) out. That’s what the pros do.

  2. Do you make a screen box for each plant if you have 50 plants or just make a screen house? Does the screen box keep flying pests out? If so, the labor and cost might be worth it. Or, would the caterpillars just crawl under and become a flying pest?

  3. For what it’s worth, you don’t have to ferment tomato seeds to save them. I’ve used the baking soda scour method for 3 years, and I haven’t had any problem with viability.

    • Another way I have saved tomato seeds is to leave one tomato on the vine waaaaay past ripe. All the stuff the seed books say about fermenting tomato seeds is mostly to kick in a natural protection from fungus, not necessarily about changing the ripening or viability of the seed. With my leave-it-alone method, the abandoned tomato will tend to get all gushy and rotted inside like a leathery sack of goo, after which the whole thing shrivels up and starts to dry out on its own. Then you take the shriveled thing, and pick the seeds out of it. Has worked nicely for saving tomato seeds without the rotting-ferment bother.

  4. Saving biennials in a cold climate isn’t all that hard. Here’s what we do: we bury a Rubbermaid-type box with snap-on lid up to its neck in the ground (ours is about 15 gallon size). When the weather gets really cold, we harvest our biennials and wrap them individually in a sheet of newspaper, line the bottom of the box with shredded DRY leaves and put in the veggies, then another layer of leaves, etc. Put the lid on and then insulate the container by piling a couple of big, black plastic bags of shredded leaves on top. It’s a kind of root cellar for those who have no other root cellar option. I also use one of these for the root vegetables we’ll be eating in the winter.

    In the spring, open the box, take out the vegetables and plant them in the garden.

    We did try overwintering our biennials – well insulated beneath mulch – in the garden, but small, hungry mammals dug them up and ate them before spring. The only thing they never touch is the parsnips.

    • Thanks for info. Please chime in anytime with cold climate advice–having grown up in LA I’m pretty clueless when it comes to winter.

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  7. Yard long beans that have been in my family for many generations. Yes. I freeze them at least 48 hours. I often forget them for a week or two. One bad batch of seeds can manage to destroy all the other seeds stored in the same area. So, it’s really important to kill the larvae.

  8. For caging plants – in our small gardens, I usually only cage a few plants at a time. I have some wooden frames that a friend built and I staple row cover material to them place over the plant and bury a the bottoms in the soil. This is a cheap way of caging without having to buy screen material. It doesn’t last all that long, but does last a season. Hope this helps someone.

  9. I find it hard to believe that you would write an article that would deters people from saving seeds and becoming as self sufficient as possible.

    It is true some seeds are harder to save than others but lets teach saving techniques and the value of growing heirloom plants verses being dependent on seed manufactures for our home gardens every year. Growing our own food should be mostly free and easy with proper techniques like permiculture and seed swaps among neighbors.

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