There are two main premises for homesteading (outside of growing your own food) and they are sustainability/self-sufficiency and saving money. Luckily, saving seeds is a great way to hit both those nails on the head. On top of that, there is just a sense of pride in planning for and being able to grow next year’s harvest with an action taken today. It also makes you a part of an age-old tradition of perpetuating the seeds from this year’s harvest to ensure next year’s harvest. Which is key, because that’s how heirlooms became heirlooms! It’s not hard and anyone can do it, you just need to know a few key things to ensure your success.
What seeds should I save?
While you can save just about any seed, some are going to be easier than others. Especially for the newbie seed saver. Some of the ones I would recommend when first dipping your toes into this age-old practice are beans, tomatoes, peas, and peppers
Let them grow to maturity
The key to saving seeds is to let the fruit fully mature. If you take seeds from immature fruit then you are not going to have much luck growing them. Things like summer squash (aka zucchinis among other ones) we eat when they are immature. If we leave them (or they hide as zucchinis are prone to do) they will grow much bigger and develop tough skin like the winter squash. The same thing goes for peppers, leave them on the plant until they are fully ripe and then you are good to go!
Make sure you use heirlooms
Another key factor in successfully saving seeds is to make sure that you are using heirloom plants. Why? Well, heirloom plants will always grow true to form (baring any cross-pollination) in the subsequent year. That said you can totally save seeds from a hybrid plant. Another benefit to saving your own seeds, Is that they will increase your yields over time as you will essentially be saving and growing plants that have adapted to your local conditions!
Only the strong survive
You do want to make sure that you are saving seeds only from the strongest and most “perfect” looking fruit. I put prefect in quotes as an important thing to learn about growing your own food is that perfect rarely happens in the garden.
Those veggies you are used to from the grocery store are NOT representative of what will likely come out of your garden. So that said choose the best fruit, from the strongest plants. We want to make sure we move the best genes onto future generations.
Some of them need to Ferment
It is important to let the seeds of pulpy fruits and vegetables ferment. Why you may ask? Well, think about how things go down in nature. Let’s look at a tomato. Typically the fruit gets overripe and falls to the ground and rots. The rotting time is key as it causes the pulp to separate from the seeds. Again, that is not to say the seeds won’t grow if you don’t do this step. I just like to do as much as possible to increase my chances of great germination for next season.
How to ferment seeds for saving
This really is easy. All you need to do is collect up your tomato, cucumber or melon seeds, grab a mason jar and ring (but not lid), a piece of paper towel and a pen. Remove the seeds and place them into a mason jar.
At this point, you can add a little bit of water. The water helps you tell the good seeds from the bad ones. The bad ones will typically float, you can do this right away if you see any floating. Then you can write the type and date on the toilet paper/paper towel, put it over the top and secure with the mason jar ring.
Leave them for 7-10 days, making sure to skim off any mold as you see it and then give them a quick swirl. After the fermenting period is complete, check for any new seeds that have floated to the top and remove those.
Then you can dump them into a mesh strainer and give them a good rinse with some clean, cold water.
Then you can just carefully lay them out on a clean paper towel, you should also write what type they are onto the paper towel so you don’t get them mixed up. Leave them in a warm, well-ventilated location and move them about daily to make sure all sides are drying properly. Do this for about a week, until they are fully dry. When this is done then you can move them into a dark and airtight storage container. Moisture must be avoided at all costs as we don’t want the seeds to get moldy.
Saving seed from annual plants
You will get annual seeds with no need to ferment them from such varieties as: lettuce, spinach, peppers, beans, peas, arugula and radishes. You just need to make sure the plants stay in the ground until the seed pods have fully dried. This ensures you get the best quality of seeds. While they will continue to dry if you remove them early, it’s not what I would recommend. Just leave them in place and let them do their thing. Then you can crack open the dried pods and store them away for next season.
How do we save pepper seeds? All you need to do is wait until the plants are fully mature and are starting to wrinkle. Then you can harvest the pepper, remove the seeds and lay them out on a paper towel to dry. That’s it!
Saving seeds from biennial plants
What plants produce biennial seeds? Well, these are things like parsnips, celery, cabbage, carrots and beets. It is important to note that biennial plants are going to take a bit more planning and can’t be done easily everywhere. Why? Well, if those puppies need to stay in the ground for two years then having them smack dab in the middle of your raised bed may not be the best idea! On top of that, if you have cold winters (as I do) then chances are good that the plants won’t survive the winter. That said leeks and parsnips can tolerate temperatures down to about -20C (-4F).
If you live in an area with a cold winter climate but are determined to save seed from biennial plants good on you! Assuming this is the case, let’s look at what this is going to entail. Firstly, you will need to keep the plants cool and humid until the spring. To do this you will need to carefully remove them from the garden and store them in slightly moist sand or sawdust. Just make sure you don’t bang them about as we don’t want to damage them as they could just end up rotting. The second thing you are going to ideally need is an old school earthen cold cellar. Why? Storing them in the garage will most likely be too cold. Storing them in an indoor cold cellar with likely be too dry and they tend to warm up too soon in the spring.
My plant looks weird!
So you dutifully saved your seeds and proudly grew them the next season. Only to end up with some weird type of plants. And now you’re wondering what you did wrong. If you are in this boat then I am going to hazard a guess that the plant you saved as a type of melon or squash. What most likely happened is that your female flower was cross-pollinated with the pollen of another type.
While this can happen with other types of seeds like tomatoes or peppers etc it is much less likely in those varieties it is much less common as they are self-pollinating. The issue is much more prevalent in varieties that have both male and female flowers.
The key is in having control, that said, you are most likely going to need to get up early. Why? You are going to have to beat the bees and other pollinators to the female flowers. So you are going to have to get out there bright and early and hand pollinate those female flowers with the pollen from the male flowers of the same type. Then you can tie up the female flowers to make sure no other pollen gets in. Also, you should do this more than once.
Protect self-pollinating plants from cross-pollination
You may be wondering why you would even need to do this. Cross-pollination is very likely in monoecious plants (ie: those with male and female flowers) which is obviously not the case with self-pollinating varieties. While cross-pollination is much less likely in self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas it can still happen. I mean the bees and other pollinators still visit those flowers so there is the chance other pollen is introduced.
Luckily this is very easy to prevent in self-pollinating varieties. All you need are some blossom bags. They are just little draw-string bags that you put around some blossoms before they open. That way you know 100% that they will not have any other pollen coming into contact with the flowers. This also means you can be sure that the seeds from those fruits will be true to type. Just give those branches a little wiggle/shake when you walk by. to encourage pollination.
There you have it, an easy way to save seeds and money!