Saving seeds from this year’s crops for planting in future years is a practice that dates back to ancient times.
Our forefathers used seed-saving as a way to not only grow, but increase the size of their crops each year, since the vegetables grown from a single seed can produce numerous seeds that can be used for subsequent planting. And the best part about seed-saving is it’s easy and will saving you money when planting next year’s garden. You can even save seeds from the vegetables you buy at the market.
A lot of scientific research has been done on the best practices for harvesting and saving seeds to insure the seeds saved have the highest vigor, longevity and germination rates. These best practices range from drying the seeds to the proper moisture content to storing them in precise temperature ranges.
But if you’re new to seed saving and want to try saving some seeds this year so you won’t have to buy them next year, all you need to know right now is that there are research-based best practices if you want to improve your seed-saving knowledge and skill in the future. You can begin saving seeds now with just some basic information.
Before you start saving seeds, there are just a couple of things you should know. The first concerns hybrid seeds. You should not save seeds from vegetables or plants grown from hybrid seeds. The reason is that hybrids are the result of scientifically controlled crosses between two plant lines, done to produce specific desired outcomes such as disease-resistant plants, a higher yield, a better taste or a longer shelf life.
The seeds from hybrid plants and vegetables might not germinate, but if they do, the plants produced will not have the same original genetic mix of materials. So what results will not be the same as the original hybrid plant or vegetable that the seed came from, i.e. they will not be “true to type.” So be aware of this if you are thinking of saving the seeds from that delicious melon you bought at the market and are unsure if it’s a hybrid or not.
The second thing you need to know is not to save seeds from vegetables that may have been unintentionally cross-pollinated. For example, different types of squash plants (like zucchini and yellow squash) grown close to one another will frequently cross-pollinate, resulting in vegetables that are a cross between the two (for example yellow squash with green spots) or unintentional hybrids. You don’t want any unexpected surprises to grow from the seeds you save.
The seeds in mature vegetables are the most vigorous and viable. Collecting seeds from only mature vegetables increases your likelihood that the seeds will germinate when planted the following years. The seeds will also store better.
Remove the seeds from the vegetables and wash them in clean water to remove any debris or mucilage from them. This helps remove any pathogens on the seeds and also prevents the seeds from sticking together. Once you’ve cleaned them, they need to be dried, preferably on a mesh screen outdoors in the shade where the air will dry them.
Place the seeds in an envelope and label them with the name of the vegetable and the date. Don’t mix different types or varieties of seeds in the same envelopes. Place the envelopes in a moisture-proof container like a clean coffee can or any jar with a good tight lid seal. Store the seeds away from the sun at either room temperature or cooler.
The viability of the seeds depends upon the type of the seed, its moisture content and how it was stored. In general, most seeds start losing some of their vigor after a year, but are still viable for planting for three or more years. Some exceptions are parsnip seeds, that are generally only good for a year, and onion seeds for two years.
If you want to learn more, your local public library has many books on the topic.
Kathy Low is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.