Tag Archives: Seed Saving

Seeds: Tips for Storing, Testing, & Saving

Almost all gardeners end up with extra seed each year. Whether you saved more than you needed from your own plants, wanted a lot of variety, or simply got overzealous when all the beautiful catalogs came in the mail chances are you’ll have a bit of seed left over from year to year. No matter if you purchased the seed or saved it yourself, you don’t want it to go to waste. Many seeds can last years like this variety of squash which was revived from 800-year-old seed found in a clay jar in Wisconsin!

Germination Test

There’s a simple germination test you can do at home to ensure your seeds are still good before planting time. Simply take 10 seeds and place them, folded into a damp paper towel in a container or bag (to help hold in moisture). Set your container in a warm place. The amount of time you’ll need to leave them will, of course, depend on how long whatever type of seed your testing requires to germinate. Be sure to keep the paper towel damp. You may have to sprinkle water on it if it begins to dry out. 

The number of seeds that germinate will give you a rough idea about their germination rate and you can plant accordingly. Even if only half germinate you still use your seed just be sure to plant thickly in the case of direct seeding or multiple seeds per cell when starting indoors. If you have a lot of seed, testing more than 10 will give you a more accurate percentage. 

Tips for Storing Extra Seed

While some seed like beans, corn, and peas naturally keep longer than others like spinach, alliums, and parsnips, storing your seed properly will greatly increase its shelf life. 

  • Extra seed should ideally be kept somewhere cool (about 50°F), dark, and dry. 
  • Unless your house is extremely humid storing your seeds in the paper packets they came in should be fine. However, you can place the seeds or entire packet into mason jars to be extra safe. 
  • Mason jars are also an excellent way to store seed you’ve saved at home.
  • Label everything with the variety and date you stored or last tested your seed.
  • Organize your seeds in the fall that way they’re ready to go and you’re not left scrambling with last minute orders when you can’t find a variety you thought you had in the spring.

Saving Seed at Home

If you’re planning on saving your own seed this year be sure that you’re processing it properly if you want it to last. Here are a few of our resources for those looking to become more knowledgeable about saving seed at home.

Even if you don’t have the time or desire to save your own seeds learning to properly care for your purchased seeds can save you time and money each year. 

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Seed Saving from Biennial Crops

Generally when people think of seed saving they think about annual crops like corn, tomatoes, and beans which all produce seed in the fall or at the end of the growing season. While these are great crops for beginners to get started with many other common crops are actually biennial.

Seed Saving for Beginners

What’s a Biennial?

Biennial crops are those that require two growing seasons to reach maturity and produce seed. They need to go through a cold period called vernalization in order to produce seed. These include crops like beets, Swiss chard, bulb onions, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips, and more.

Planting

For most of these crops it is best to plant them in early fall. With the exception of bulb onions, plants that are started in fall rather than spring generally overwinter better.  When planting make sure that you give them enough space. Remember that your plants will be growing beyond the size they normally would for harvest before you’ll be able to collect seed.

You should also consider how much your chosen crop needs to be isolated. For example beets are wind pollinated, can cross with Swiss chard, and need to be isolated by 1/4 mile for home use. For pure seed they need to be isolated by 1/2 mile! Unless you have a large farm it’s probably best to stick with one variety so isolation isn’t as much of an issue. You can find this information for most crops in our growing guides.

Overwintering

Depending on your climate you may have different options for overwintering these crops. In southern zones it’s possible to overwinter some of these crops right in the ground especially if you have a hoop house, low tunnel, or cold frame set up over them. They should also be mulched in heavily to keep the soil temperature warmer. Many biennial crops can survive temperatures into the 20°Fs.

If you live in a colder climate where you cannot overwinter your crop in the ground it is still possible to save your own seed. Before the the ground freezes pull the plants up, being careful with the roots, and store them in moist peat moss, shredded newspaper, sawdust, or sand in a fridge or root cellar the way you would store carrots and beets for winter eating. Leave space between each plant so they aren’t touching each other. In storage you want to keep your plants cold but still above freezing. The high 30s are ideal. Onions however prefer less moisture and warmer temperatures (storage temperatures in the low 50°Fs).

Before pulling them up you can let them get frosted a few times. This will encourage them to go dormant. If they don’t go through a cold period they won’t be triggered to produce seed when you replant them in the spring. You can replant as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring.

Collecting Seed

During their second growing season biennial plants will flower and go to seed. For most crops this seed should be collected when it’s dry and brown. Some crops may have seeds on the same plant maturing at different rates so you may need to harvest your seeds while some are still green. Do no keep any seeds that didn’t fully mature and are green.

While there is a bit more involved in seed saving from biennial crops it’s still not a difficult skill to learn. If you’d like to help save your favorite heirloom variety or adapt a crop to your specific climate you  might consider trying your hand at seed saving.

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Seed Saving for Beginners

Saving seed and heirloom varieties is extremely important work, whether on a large scale like at Southern Exposure or a smaller scale like a family’s backyard garden. Saving seed helps to preserve genetic diversity, provide people with secure food sources, and connect people to the earth and their local community.

Unfortunately saving seeds isn’t as simple as harvesting and cleaning your seeds. First you need to ensure you have the right kind of plants to start with.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

In order to save seed that will “breed true” or have the same characteristics as its parents you need to start with open pollinated or heirloom seeds or plants. All heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open Pollinated

Open pollinated simply means that a variety has been bred and then maintained until it was genetically stable. This means that if you save seed from an open pollinated individual that seed will grow plants with the same characteristics as its parent plants.

Heirlooms

Heirlooms are just open pollinated varieties that have been passed down for many generations. While there are a few definitions, at SESE we describe heirlooms as varieties dating from before 1940. Unlike modern varieties that have been developed for use with modern industrial agriculture and our global food system these varieites were grown, saved, and cherished by small farmers and gardeners.

Hybrids

Hybrids on the other hand are not genetically stable. They are the seed from two seperate varieites being crossed. While their first generation traits are predictable they would not be if you were to again save seed. The second generation seed can have characteristics from one or both of the parents or entirely new characteristics altogether.

Hyrbrids are not GMO or inherently bad. In fact many people grow them for their “hybrid vigor” which can make them grow faster than their open pollinated counter parts.

Choosing a Variety

Obviously you’ll want to choose a variety you love and care about. Maybe you fell in love with an heirlooms story or your family just can’t eat enough of your a certain variety. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to stay motivated throughout the season and proccess if you’re really invested.

If you’re a first time seed saver you may also want to consider choosing from a few easy vegetables. Squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, tomatoes, and peppers are all great choices for beginners.

Planting

If you want to grow plants to save seed there’s a couple things you need to consider. First many plants require other plants of the same variety to pollinate with and produce viable seed. Also for this reason seperate varieties should be kept a certain distance apart to avoid cross pollination. For more about how to plan a seed saving garden check out this post:

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

Selection

Even if you don’t have longterm goals for changing or creating a new variety selecting which seed to save is still important. You want to save seeds from healthy and productive plants that have desirable traits.

Harvesting the Seed

Tomatoes

Old German Tomato

To save seed from tomatoes you should harvest them when they’re fully ripe. Then the flesh can be seperated from the seeds and gel that surrounds them. The gel and seeds should be placed in a glass container with a bit of water and lightly covered. This mixture should be stirred twice a day unil the seeds sink to the bottom. The liquid can then be poured off and the seeds rinsed and spread on a towel to dry.

Peppers

Cayenne, Long Red Hot Pepper

Peppers are much easier to save seed from than tomatoes because their seeds lack that gelatinous coating. Wait until the pepper is over ripe, it should begin to wrinkle, and then harvest the seeds and spread them out to dry.

Cucumbers

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Mouse Melon, Sandita)

A ripe cucumber for eating is not the same as a ripe cucumber for seed saving. Cucumbers you wish to save seed form should be allowed to ripen on the vine until they’re yellow or brown in color. Then they need to cure for an additional two weeks or until mold begins to appear. Then the seeds can be scooped out and fermented in a jar just like tomato seeds.

Peas & Beans

Creel Crowder Southern Pea (Cowpea)

Harvest your peas and beans when the pods have turned brown. Then dry them in a single layer for 1-2 weeks until they’re crisp and dry enough that you can here the seeds rattle in the pods. They can be threshed individually or stomped or beaten in a pillow case to remove the pods and then winnowed.

Squash

Candy Roaster Melon Winter Squash

Winter squash, summer squash, and pumpkins are all harvested in the same method. Wait until the fruit is hard and large to harvest. Then cure for 1 month at room temperature before removing the seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and lay out in a single layer to dry for 3 weeks.

Storage

All seeds should be stored in air tight containers in a cool dry place. Some people choose to add a small amount of silica desiccant in with their seeds to absorb moisture. It’s also important to note that different types of seeds have different lifespans.

 

Saving seed really isn’t difficult. It’s a great way to connect with land and a bit of history. Start saving seeds this season or making a plan for next year’s garden! For more information check our Seed Saving Guides in our Growing Guides Library.