Seed-saving: It’s an art, a science, and an act of rebellion in a world where four corporations control most of the world’s seedstock.
The worldwide pepper seed mixup of 2023 (affectionately referred to as “Peppergate” on social media) isn’t the first major seed disaster of its kind and it won’t be the last. Whether or not you were personally affected by the mixup, it may just be the extra motivation you need to start saving your own seeds at home.
Saving seeds has been around since the beginning of agriculture–the beginning of civilization–and put simply, it’s the practice of harvesting and preserving the seeds of domesticated plants for future cultivation.
Don’t be intimidated, because saving seeds is easier than you think—but it does require a little bit of work. As long as you follow the process and take care when storing your seeds, your efforts to preserve the next generation of seeds will surely be successful.
In this blog post, we’ll examine the importance of saving seeds, answer some commonly asked questions about seed saving, and walk through the whole process of saving seeds, step-by-step.
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Why saving seeds is important
Planting a garden is a big step towards food sovereignty and independence, and saving your own seeds takes that work one step further! Consider saving seeds another feather in your hat when it comes to self-sufficiency.
- Cultivating regionally-adapted varieties
Like animals, plants adapt to their environments with time. This means that each generation of plants grown in a certain area will be better equipped to survive that particular climate. Seeds that you save from your own garden will naturally adapt to your garden’s microclimate with each passing year.
- Preserving seed genetics and diversity
The more open-pollinated seeds there are, the more diverse the world’s seedstock. Saving homegrown seeds outs genetic diversity back into the world’s seedstock, which ultimately results in stronger plants with better tolerance for pests and disease.
- Ensuring food sovereignty
Not to scare you, but what would you do if your favorite seed company went out of business? What if the price of seeds went sky-high? Take back independence by saving seeds, and you’ll never have to buy seeds again (although you probably will want to). With grocery prices on the rise and lesser-quality produce on the shelves, ensure that you and your family will always have enough to eat by stockpiling seeds from your garden.
- Sharing seeds as gifts
Is there a more personal gift than seeds that you saved yourself? Not everyone will appreciate such a creative gift, but your fellow green thumbs certainly will. You can order cute packets online and gift seeds for Christmas, birthdays, or just because. You could even sell your seeds if you’re looking for a side hustle!
Commonly asked questions about seed saving
Not all seeds are created equal. Hybrid varieties don’t come back true, and some hybrids have even been engineered not to produce seeds at all (think seedless melon or “burpless cucumber.”) What’s worse, it’s technically illegal to save seeds to certain varieties that are owned by the “Big Four” seed companies.
What seeds can I save?
Open-pollinated varieties are safe for seed saving. Open-pollinated refers to the way that a plant is pollinated: open-pollinated means that a plant was pollinated through natural means like insects or wind.
One thing to note about open-pollinated varieties: if you plant two varieties of the same species together, the species may cross naturally and produce offspring with characteristics of both parents. This can be really fun, unless you’re looking to get seeds that will resemble the parent plant exactly. If this is the case, isolate your patch from other varieties.
All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, so that means that you can also save seeds from all heirloom varieties as well.
Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, are produced by hand-crossing certain parent plants to isolate desirable features like productivity and pest resistance. Saving seeds from hybrid plants will result in plants that may not resemble their parent plants at all. Plus, seeds saved from hybrid varieties tend to be less hardy and more susceptible to diseases and pest pressure.
While you can certainly save seeds from biennials and perennials, it’s easiest to start out by saving seeds from annual varieties since these varieties flower and set seed in a single growing season. Biennials take two growing seasons to set seed, and although perennials produce seed each year, they are most often propagated by root divisions or cuttings.
Again, more experienced growers can learn to save seeds from cross-pollinated varieties, but by far the easiest plants to save seeds from are self-pollinating species, like:
When should I save seeds?
The window for seed saving varies slightly depending on your hardiness zone but tends towards late summer, generally August and September. The best way to save seeds is to let the seeds dry naturally on the plant and harvest the seeds before the first cold autumn rain, which may cause seedheads to mold.
Tips for saving seeds
- Start small & easy
Don’t try to do too much at once. Instead, pick one or two easy crops to save seeds from—you can always add more next year! Cucumbers, green beans, corn, spinach, sunflowers, and zinnias are great crops for beginner seed-savers.
- Grow enough plants
If you don’t grow enough plants, you won’t get a crop of seeds. Plus, the more plants you grow, the bigger the genetic pool for being for the consecutive generation, which will increase plant vigor and other desirable traits.
- Isolate different varieties
Work a few feet of space between different varieties, or plant different species between different varieties to serve as a buffer. If you have a greenhouse or hoop house, only plant one variety inside. You can also use bug netting to separate different varieties from one another.
- Store seeds in plastic or glass jars
When your seeds are completely dry, transfer them to an airtight container—Tupperware and Mason jars are perfect, but plastic freezer bags also work well. You can also store seeds in paper bags (and many seed companies will send them in paper packets) but if you do go with paper, it’s even more critical to avoid storing seeds in humid locations since paper isn’t airtight.
- Store seeds in a cool, dark room
Both light and moisture can ruin seeds, so choose a cool, dark, and dry room to store seeds. A kitchen cabinet is perfect, or a shelf in your cellar. For long-term storage, you can keep seeds in a container in your freezer—this will prolong their shelf life to ten years or more. Seeds stored at room temperature will keep for two years minimum. The worst place to store seeds is in a greenhouse or attic, so avoid these hot and humid locations at all costs.
- Label seed containers with date and variety
However you store your seeds, make sure you clearly label each container with the variety name and date of harvest. Even if you just save one variety this year, label it! Your future self will thank you, we promise.
5 steps to saving seeds perfectly
Seed production looks a little bit different from species to species, so seed saving necessarily looks different for different plant families.
All plants are designed to produce seeds—but the seeds might come in the form of fruit or flower. Either way, the general idea is to encourage adequate pollination and let the plant mature fully before harvesting seeds.
- Prepare the drying area
Gather cardboard and newspaper, tarps, or plastic bins to hold the seed as it dries even further. The best place for these containers is a dry area without any wind—a greenhouse or hoop house is okay for this step because the seedheads won’t be there for too long.
2. Let the plants go to seed
The best seeds come from plants that have been allowed to fully mature. Although most seeds do ripen somewhat after harvesting, it’s a mistake to harvest seeds too early. If the weather permits, let seedheads dry on the plant, and only harvest them when the seeds begin to naturally fall to the ground or just before the forecast calls for rain.
3. Cut the seed heads
Check seed heads daily or a few times a week, and when the seedheads are crispy and the seeds themselves have darkened, it’s time to harvest. Take a pair of snips (or your fingers) and pop the seedheads into a bucket. Once you’ve collected all the seedheads, pour them onto a flat surface and spread them out into a single layer of plant material to continue drying.
4. Clean the seed
Though arguably not a crucial step, this is where the magic happens. You can plant dried seeds (complete with the excess plant material) and still grow a beautiful crop. But cleaning the seed does just that—makes it look pretty and professional, and takes up less space in storage. Winnowing, the process of separating seed from chaff, can be as simple as handpicking out the larger seeds or it can be as extensive as using special equipment. The best time-efficient and cost-efficient way to winnow is by straining seeds through mesh screens, but you can also use a box fan to blow the chaff away from the heavier seeds. The key is to repeat whichever step you take (or try different methods together) to get the seeds as clean as possible and stop when you are satisfied.
5. Label and store
Finally, transfer the dried and cleaned seeds to an appropriate-sized and clearly labeled container.
Saving seeds from fruit
Dry seeds (like flowers, lettuce, onions, beans, and peas) are the easiest to save since these seeds appear after the flowers and typically dry on the plant. Once harvested, all that’s needed is to separate the seed from the flower and they’re ready to plant.
Wet seeds (like tomato and cucumber seeds) require slightly different treatment than other seeds because you have to cut open the fruit to access the seeds. These seeds must be fermented before they can be dried.
With plants that produce fruit, you want to let the fruit fully ripen on the plant. Even though we might harvest peppers or cucumbers when the fruit is still immature, you want to leave at least a few fruits on the vine. The plants will signal when the fruit is ready for harvest—generally when the vines finally begin to die back or the fruit falls off the plant of its own accord.
Once you pick the overripe fruit, cut it open and spoon out the seeds. Transfer the seeds (and pulp) to a bucket or bowl of warm water and let the concoction soak for three days, stirring occasionally. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom and everything else will float. Pour off the excess water and set the good seeds out to dry.
Consider this your go-to guide for saving seeds at home, whether it’s your first or fiftieth season saving seeds. Saving open-pollinated and heirloom varieties is essential work in today’s world and sets you up to have a steady supply of regionally adapted and delicious varieties.
Now you know more than enough to save your own seeds at home, so get to it! Late summer is the ideal time to harvest seeds for next year’s planting. And if it doesn’t go perfectly, well, you’ve learned a lesson for next time. But I know you can do it, so get to it and have a little fun!
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About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.