As our summer vegetable and flower gardens are winding down, why not get a head start for next year? Seed saving is a great way to preserve those hard-to-find varieties and it can also be a lot of fun.
The first step in successful seed saving is knowing if your plants are hybrids. If they are, then saving seeds will be fruitless (pun intended). Seeds saved from hybrid varieties will not produce the same plants as the ones from which it was collected.
Open-pollinated varieties are the plants of choice for saving seed. What does this term mean? Plants that are pollinated by insects, wind or other natural processes are classified as open pollinated.
Generally speaking, these plants will render seeds that, when planted, will produce the same desirable traits as the parent plant. The one caveat is the potential of cross-pollination, the process in which genetic material from one variety crosses with that of another closely related variety resulting in offspring with extremely unpredictable traits.
Cross-pollination can occur with plants that are pollinated by insects or wind. Some examples are cucumbers, melons, corn and squash. To prevent cross-pollination, only grow one variety in a single growing season.
The easiest plants for seed saving are those that are self-pollinating, as they rarely cross. Some examples of self-pollinating vegetable varieties are tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas. Zinnias and sunflowers are just two of the many annual flower varieties that are self-pollinating.
Now that we have covered which seeds to save, let’s cover the actual process. First, only collect seeds from healthy plants. Plants that are diseased or have a weak growth habit produce low quality seeds. It is best to let the seeds fully mature before harvesting. In the case of vegetables, the fruit should ripen completely before harvesting. With flowers, collect seeds after the petals have dried and seed pods have formed.
After collection, the seeds should be cleaned. This process differs depending on the plant type.
Some seeds must be wet-processed, such as those found in tomatoes, cucumbers or melons. First, remove seeds from the fruit and wash them in a large container. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom, while non-productive seeds will float to the top.
Remove the floating seeds and pour the rest of the seeds and water through a strainer. Dry the seeds by spreading them in a thin layer on a flat surface.
For dry-processed seeds, such as beans, peas and annual flowers, cleaning requires the separation of the seeds from the husk flower head or pod. Using hand screens, winnow the seeds to separate them from additional plant debris.
After cleaning, be sure to store the seeds correctly. Place completely dry seeds in a paper envelope. Include a packet of silica gel (available at craft stores) or dry rice to be sure the seed remains dry. Always label saved seeds. Even though you know the exact varieties you are saving at the time, a year or two down the road, that may not be the case.
Store the envelope in a tightly closed glass jar and leave it in a cool, dry place. For extended quality, store the seeds in the refrigerator. Most seeds remain viable for three to five years.
Seed saving is a great way to preserve a little of the past while planning for the future. If you have never tried your hand at saving seed, this year is a great time to start. Happy gardening!
— O’Rear is a regional horticulture agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. For information on topics related to the home and garden, contact any office of the ACES. The Limestone County office is at 1109 W. Market St. in Athens. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For more information, call 256-232-5510 or visit www.aces.edu.