Saving Your Own Seed
Fall is the perfect time to save seed and annual vegetables and flowers are an easy place to start. With a little attention to detail, you can harvest many of your seeds for next year.
When saving seed, make sure you are collecting from open pollinated varieties. These varieties will be listed as heirloom or bear the designation “OP” on the seed packet or plant description. Hybrid varieties (often designated as “hybrid” or “F1”) are the intentional cross between two or more varieties. Because of their diverse parentage, hybrid plants will not produce consistent, reliable offspring when you save their seed. If you grow more than one variety of a crop (say two or more varieties of tomatoes), you will need to take some precautions to prevent crosspollination between varieties. Cross-pollination will result in unexpected characteristics in your plants in subsequent generations.
In the vegetable garden, beans, peas and lettuce are good options for the aspiring seed saver because they self-pollinate. Separate different varieties by at least 10 feet to prevent accidental cross-pollination by insects. Let the beans and peas mature on the vine until the pods start to dry out. Collect pods before they split and allow them to further dry for one to two weeks before shelling out the seeds.
You can also save seed from many tomatoes and peppers. Tomatoes and peppers often self-pollinate but insects like bees can carry pollen from one variety to the next. Separate different varieties by 20-30 feet in the garden if possible. Pick fruits when fully ripe (they should turn their full mature color – often red or yellow). For tomatoes, cut the fruit and squeeze the pulp into a container. Add a little water and let the pulp ferment at room temperature for 3-4 days, stirring daily. When the seeds settle out, pour off the pulp, rinse the seeds and spread them in a thin layer to dry thoroughly. Peppers are easier – simply cut the pepper in half and scrape the seeds out on to a paper towel to dry. Be aware that if you are growing hot and sweet peppers in the garden, accidental cross-pollination can result in hotness in subsequent generations.
Cucumbers, squash, and melons are all cross-pollinated by insects. Plant only one variety of each species if you want to easily save seed. Let the fruits hang on the vine until fully mature. For cucumbers and summer squash, this is well past the stage that we harvest for eating. The skin will become yellow and hard. Since we harvest winter squash at full maturity, simply harvest as usual and collect the seeds when you prepare the crop for eating. Scrub the seeds gently against the side of a sieve to remove the flesh or treat the same as tomato seeds.
Many varieties of flowers and herbs will cross-pollinate so plant only one variety of each crop or enjoy the variety that comes in your offspring generations. Allow seeds to mature on the plant. Collect mature seed heads before the seeds fall and place them in a paper bag to continue drying them. Once they are fully dry, crush or rub the flower stalks to release the seeds. Separate the seeds from the chafe using a sieve or by winnowing them lightly in front of a fan. Zinnias, echinacea, black-eyed susan, basil, cilantro and dill are good candidates.
Many seeds will remain viable for three to five years if stored correctly. Place thoroughly dried seeds in a tightly closed glass jar, label with the crop and date, and store in the refrigerator.
Clemson has an excellent publication entitled Heirloom Vegetables that includes directions on saving seed: http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/gardening/hgic1255.html
To learn more about saving seed, check out the Seed Saving Resources on the Seed Savers Exchange website, http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Resources/, or look for the book, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.