Saving Vegetable Seeds

If you are an intense gardener, like me, you will see the benefits of saving seeds from your own garden to plant the next spring. 
- Its cheaper, of course, (seed packets get more and more expensive every year!), 
- There's no doubt what it will grow, as long as you kept the seed pure on varieties that easily cross pollinate, 
- You know it will grow in your climate, 
- If its heirloom seed, then its not GMO, 
- Its rewarding. Being self sufficient is always rewarding! 

Donating seed to a community seed library is a great idea too. Share those seeds with your community!

While there are differences in seed collecting, depending on the fruit/veggie from which you are collecting them, there are some seed collecting rules that are a constant for all seeds. 

Rule #1 - Keep the Seed Pure: If you are saving seed for next year or giving it to a seed bank or a friend, you will need to know that what you plant is what you get. Some seeds will cross, not affecting that same year's fruit, but will affect what grows from that seed planted the following spring. What grows from crossed seed will not be the same as the vegetable the seed came out of. Sometimes this is easy with things that self pollinate, like tomatoes and peppers. If you plant them touching, they will cross but it doesn't take much space to keep them from doing so. Squash-pumpkins, on the other hand, are pollinated by bees and will cross if planted within 500 meters of another one in the same family. 

Squash-pumpkins come in four families: maxima, moschata, pepo, mixta. Two squash plants from different families will not cross. If you plant two squash plants from the same family, you can bet they will cross pollinate unless you take steps to prevent it. You can see how to prevent squash/pumpkins from crossing in a post called "Hand Pollinating Squash". Maximas are the buttercup, turbin, kobocha, hubbard. Moschata is the butternut, mostly, also the Hopi black and the sweet-potato squash. Pepos are the pumpkins, zucchini, acorn, pepper squash, sweet dumpling squash, spaghetti squash and gourds. Mixtas are the cushaws, which don't grow up here due to the long season needed. If your squash is not mentioned here, you can usually look it up on the package or the internet and see what family it belongs to.

Please be aware: if you grow zucchini and pumpkins together on your small town lot, you cannot give your zucchini seeds to the seed bank, unless you have taken sure steps to keep the seed pure. What grows from that seed the following year will not be zucchini. Usually what grows from a squash-pumpkin cross is not very good for eating, either. Please don't give seed to a seed bank that will not grow true!

Corn is pollinated by the wind and will cross with a different corn across the highway from you. There's nothing you can do about that, but what will grow from that seed will still be edible corn, of a type. Popcorn is an exception. Crossed seed will not likely "pop". 

Beans will cross with other beans if they are very close together, especially if they are touching, as will peas. They are safe if grown in separate rows or sections. 

The brassicas will cross with each other if you grow them in close proximity. The brassica family consist of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, turnip, kale, mustard and collard greens and rutabaga. The result may possibly be edible, as in rutabagas, a cabbage-turnip cross or it may be something entire unusable. If you are going to let them flower and go to seed, separate them to different areas of the garden.That wild mustard with the yellow flowers that grows everywhere, will cross with brassicas you grow on purpose. Keep it out of the garden area! 

Rule #2 -  Collect Only Mature Seed: Wait until the fruit/veggie is fully ripe before picking and cutting it to save the seeds. Leave that veggie on the bush/vine until it rots or dries out hard. Immature seed will not germinate. If you are collecting flower seeds, you have to leave those finished, brown, dead flowers on the plant in the garden or they won't grow seed pods with seeds. Rose hips are seed pods. 

A good example of this is green bell pepper seeds. Green bell peppers are coloured peppers that are picked unripe and they won't often ripen off the plant. Seeds from a green bell pepper will not germinate. If you want to save bell pepper seeds, you have to save them from very ripe coloured peppers, any colour. Any coloured pepper seed will grow green peppers. They are all green on the bush before they ripen. You can buy a very ripe red pepper from the grocery store and grow green bell peppers. In our short season up here, even started early, we only get green peppers from the garden, since there is just not time for them to ripen,  unless they are in a heated greenhouse. I'm ok with that, as we like green bell peppers and eat a lot of them!

Another good example are green beans and peas. If you want the beans for seed, leave those pods on the plant until the pods are paper brown and the beans or peas inside are hard. I know its a hard thing to do when you could be eating them. You have to set aside a certain amount of your garden produce for collecting seed and not for eating. Plant enough seeds for both. 

Let the cabbage or broccoli or kohlrabi flower and go to seed. Let the lettuce and spinach bolt, flower and go to seed. I have left spinach too long and had baby spinach volunteers all over the garden.  I have had baby green onions and cilantro seedlings all over the garden too! I like garden volunteers! Leave those plants alone in the garden. Let them flower and they will reward you with seed.

Corn has to be left on the stalk until its hard. Far too hard to eat, if you want it for seed. 

Most root vegetables won't go to seed the same season they are planted. They usually have to be left in the ground until the next season, when they will flower and go to seed. 

Rule #3 -  Seed Drying: Once you have collected the seed, make sure it is thoroughly dry before storing it. I like to keep large screens to use as shelves for drying seeds and herbs, either indoors with a little ventilation or outdoors in an enclosed porch. If the seeds are too fine for screens, use curtain sheers on the screens for drying. (NOTE:  Solid curtain sheers also make good row covers.) 
If you just have a few seeds, you can spread them out on paper towels to dry. You can dry larger seed with a paper towel before putting on a screen to dry, if they are very wet. 

Once you think those seeds are very dry, store them in paper envelopes, not plastic. Write the seed info on the envelope and put it away in storage with your other paper envelopes of saved and dried seed. Write all the information you have for that seed on the envelope, i.e. name, variety, where you got the seeds, year grown and saved, date started and date harvested, etc. I couldn't possibly remember that information when planting time comes around again. I put them in alphabetical order so I can find them easily next year. At one point I had an entire eight drawer dresser devoted to nothing but seed storage, drawers full of envelopes in alphabetical order, labelled on the outside of the drawer. I had an online seed store that was busy in the spring, so I had an excuse. 

Rule #4: Keep Your Seed Cool and Dry in Storage. This means you cannot keep them over the fridge or in the freezer or outside where it freezes in the winter. Some seeds will be fine frozen and others will have a lower germination rate if you freeze them. Dark is good too. The basement or a bathroom/kitchen is too humid. The top of a bedroom closet where its cool is a good place or a hall linen closet. Store them in a cardboard box in envelopes. They don't need to be stored in plastic if kept in a cool, dry, and dark place. That way you know they will not mold or rot. After a few months it will be safe to put them in plastic or glass for long term, safe storage. Keep in mind that seeds are a good meal for a mouse. Keep them out of rodent reach. A good thing to keep in mind when drying them too. I have lost good seed to mice, squirrels and chipmunks before! 

How to Save Seed: 

Saving seeds from tomatoes and cucumbers: Pick only very ripe fruits from the vine for seed
saving. Honestly, wait until the tomato is soft and over ripe. Wait until the cucumbers have gone from green to yellow to red. Cucumbers are orange or red when fully ripe. We just usually pick them before they get there. Cut and remove the seeds into a container with the juice and maybe a bit of water. Leave it at room temp to ferment and mold. (I put mine outside. It stinks and attract fruit flies.) After a week, go through this stinky, disgusting mess and remove the seeds, usually on the bottom under the mold. Wash them with cold water in a fine sieve, like a tea strainer. Spread out to dry. NOTE: I have read that you can remove this need to ferment by washing the seeds with Comet cleanser in a tea strainer. I do both: ferment for a week or two, then wash gently with Comet cleanser in a tea strainer before drying, just to make sure. My tomato seeds always grow. :)

Saving seeds from berries: Remove the seeds from the berries, wash by rubbing gently in cold water and spread out on a paper towel to dry. Its important to wash them first, as some berries have a substance on the seeds that will prevent the seeds from germinating until it ferments. These can also benefit by washing with Comet cleanser in a tea strainer. 

Saving seeds from squash-pumpkins is easy! Wait until it is fully ripe to pick if you want to save the seeds for planting. Sometimes a squash will ripen even more over the next few months after it is picked, which will make for more mature seed. When its ready, cut it open and remove the seeds. Give them a quick rinse in cold water, dry them off with paper towels immediately and spread out on dry paper towels or screen. Do not leave them wet very long. I label the paper towels they are drying on with the variety. Squash-pumpkin seeds all look very similar. These seeds can be roasted and eaten for a snack, if you have more saved than you will need for next year's garden. 

Saving seeds from brassicas (cabbage family): Cabbages have to be left in the ground until they bolt, flower and then they go to seed. Broccoli florets have to be left to bloom and then go to seed. Turnips/rutabagas have to be left in the ground until they flower and go to seed. (Rutabagas are a cabbage/turnip cross.) Kohlrabi has to grow until it flowers and goes to seed. These are easy if you have the time in the season for them to flower and produce mature seed. 

Saving seeds from peppers: Let the peppers get completely, fully ripe on the plant before you pick them. Cut open and remove seeds. Dry seeds on screen or paper towel. Place into envelope. Easy! 

Not if they are hot peppers! I have grown peppers so hot I had to wear a veil over my entire face, safety glasses and gloves to keep my skin and eyes from burning. I don't grow hot peppers anymore. We don't eat them. They were just for the seed store. Bell peppers are the only peppers we grow now. 

Saving seed from root vegetables: Most root vegetables, i.e. carrots, beets, turnips, onions, garlic, have to be left in the ground over the winter before they will flower and go to seed. This usually happens in their second season of growth, or they can be replanted in the spring. Try planting an onion from the store in the spring. It will grow, flower and make seeds. It will take another two seasons for those onion seeds to make harvest size onions. They will make the little baby onions, like the "sets" you can buy, the first year. Dig those up, dry and replant in spring for the big onions. You can try leaving them in the ground over the winter. I don't know if they will survive and return for their second year of growth up here. 

If you grow carrots for seed, keep in mind that Queen's Annes Lace is wild carrot and will cross with the carrots you grow for seed. Keep it pulled near the garden. 

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