One amazing way to engage with your garden, learn more from your plants, and save a little money is to save your own seed at the end of the season! Most people think that seed saving is very difficult, that is takes years of practice, many special tools, and diligent hand pollinating. For some crops that is true, but there are many vegetables out there that are easy and relatively foolproof to save seeds on. All you need is a little patience and good observation!
Great reasons to save your own seed are:
- Save money! On a garden scale, even one plant will provide enough seed for you (and your neighbors) next season, so you wont have to buy new seed year after year.
- Adapt your seed your own environment! When plants grow, they slowly adapt to their particular micro-environments, whether your garden is in high altitude, has cold nights, or is particularly hot and exposed. The plants store those learned environmental adaptations in the genetics of their seed offspring, so over time you’ll begin to get plants that are better designed for your particular garden.
- Learn something new about your garden! Watching a plant go to seed and harvesting the seed to save for next year is a wonderful way to engage more deeply with your garden and to learn about the different plant varieties that you grow.
Some general things to keep in mind:
- Only save seed on open pollinated or heirloom varieties. This means that the seeds will come “true” to their parent plants. If you try to save seed on hybrid varieties, you’ll be playing Russian roulette with genetics – you wont be able to predict what kind of crop you’ll get. If you have any questions about the varieties planted in your garden, ask us and we’ll be happy to help.
- Once you’ve harvested your seed, always store them in paper or plastic bags in a cool, dry place that ideally does not have a lot of temperature fluxuations. Think dark closet on the north side of the house, away from a furnace or heater. And always label them so you know what they are.
Here are 4 vegetable crops that you can save seed on this year, without much work and with great chances for success:
1. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa):
Lettuce is an annual crop. That means it will go to seed and complete its life cycle in one year. You’ve probably seen your lettuce plants after harvesting leaves from them for 4-5 weeks, send up a sturdy, hard center that has a milky residue if you break it, and that flowers at the top. This is called “bolting” and it is the act of your lettuce plant going to seed. Lettuce is also self-pollinating. This means that each lettuce flower has both male and female parts (the stamen and pistil) and pollinates itself right upon opening. The good news for seed saving is that because lettuce is self-pollinating, it does not easily cross with other varieties. You’ll get “true” seed that will very closely resemble the parent plant.
- Allow at least 1 (ideally multiple of the same variety) lettuce plants to bolt and go to seed in your garden bed.
- Watch and notice as the small yellow flowers come out and bloom.
- Notice when the flowers begin to fall off and the seeds start to form. Lettuce seeds mature between 12 and 21 days after flowering.
- You know the seeds are mature and ready to be harvested when they produce a small white fluff (called feathering) and look dry.
- You’ll notice that not all the seeds will feather at the same time. The most efficient way is to wait until about 50-60% of the seeds have feathered and then harvest. You’ll loose a little seed here, but you’ll also catch the seed before the plant drops it to the ground.
- To harvest, cut off the flower stalk and turn it upside down into a paper bag. Shake the flower stalk so that mature seed drops off the stalk and into the bag.
- Now you have a bag full of lettuce seed! To clean the seed from the chaff, you can sift your seed through a fine mesh kitchen sieve or you can poor your seed from one bowl to another with a gentle fan blowing towards the falling seed (or outside with a light breeze). The seed is heavier than the chaff and will fall to the bowl, while the chaff blows away.
- Store seed in a labeled paper or plastic bag in a cool, dry place.
2. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris):
Beans are an annual, self-pollinating crop. They have perfect flowers that pollinate before they open and therefore have very low chances of cross-pollinating with other varieties. The great thing about saving bean seed is that you can harvest and eat beans for weeks and then still get a seed harvest!
- Harvest and eat all the beans you want all season long.
- And then, when the bean plants are getting a little old and you’re sick of eating them, let the last few bean pods hang on the plant and dry down for your seed.
- When bean seed is maturing and drying down, no need to water the plant. If the bean plant does gets a little water while you water the rest of your garden, that’s OK too.
- Notice that the bean pods will swell with full sized beans inside and will feel very firm. If you were to taste them, they would taste starchy and slightly bitter.
- Notice that the bean pods will start to dry out and loose color.
- Harvest the bean pods once they are dry by pulling off the entire pod from the plant.
- Lay out the bean pods in a dry place inside (on a cookie sheet or in a wide bowl) and let dry for a few more days until the bean pod is completely dry and cracks easily.
- Separate the beans from the pod and now you have your seed! Store seed in a labeled paper or plastic bag in a cool, dry place.
3. Tomatoes (Solamun lycopersicum):
Tomatoes are an annual self-pollinating crop. They are wonderful crops to save seed on because even one tomato from one plant will give you enough seed for all your tomato needs the following year, plus more! They do not easily cross-pollinate, even when different varieties are planted right next to each other. Tomato seeds require a short fermentation period to separate them from the membrane surrounding the seed inside the fruit. But it is easy!
- Make sure you chose an open pollinated or heirloom variety of tomato to save seed on (not a hybrid).
- Allow one or two tomato fruits to stay on the plant 2-3 days beyond when you would want to harvest them for eating. If you are saving cherry tomato seed, you’ll want more like 8-10 tomatoes for enough seed.
- Harvest the tomatoes you are saving when they have full color and look slightly over-ripe (but are not decaying).
- Cut each tomato in half along the equator and squeeze out the seeds and pulp into a jar.
- Add about 1/2” of water to the jar and stir the tomato seeds, pulp, and water all together.
- Cover the top of the jar with cheese cloth or a coffee filter and leave the jar at room temperature, out of direct light, for 3 days.
- White mold will form on the top of the jar and most of the seeds will be at the bottom.
- On the 4th day, remove the cheese cloth or coffee filter from the top of the jar. Fill the jar to the top with water and stir to break up the seed and pulp.
- Set the jar down and let the seed settle for a few minutes. The viable (good) seed will sink to the bottom of the jar and the pulp and non-viable seeds will rise to the top. Carefully pour off the pulp and non-viable seeds. Refill the jar with water and repeat this process until the water and the seeds at the bottom are clean.
- Pour the seeds out into a small kitchen sieve and then onto a dry, clean coffee filter or paper plate. Set in a cool, dry place and let the seed dry. You’ll have a “cake” of dry tomato seed in the end that you can gently break apart with your hands.
- And now you have your tomato seed! Store in a labeled paper or plastic bag, in a cool dry place.
4. Peppers (Capsicum annuum):
Peppers are an annual, mostly self-pollinating plant. Occasionally bees will cross-pollinate peppers, although it is rare and typically only happens when pepper plants are immediately next to each other and there are very few other flowering plants in the area. Home gardeners are typically very successful at saving pepper seed and it is easy!
- Harvest mature, fully ripe peppers for seed. Most peppers (including bell peppers and hot peppers) will turn red when fully ripe.
- If a frost threatens or if the peppers are beginning to decay on the plant before they have full color, harvest them early and hang them in a dry place indoors to continue ripening their seed.
- Once the pepper is mature and fully colored, harvest the seed by cutting the pepper in half most of the way, until you reach the core where all the seeds hang.
- Gently open the pepper up and pull the seeds off the core.
- Lay all the seeds on a paper plate or paper towel and let dry in a cool, protected place for a day or two until you are sure that the seed is completely dry.
- And now you have your pepper seed! Store in a labeled paper or plastic bag in a cool dry place.
For more information on seed saving, check out Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, or Basic Seed Saving, by Bill McDorman.