Saving seeds is a huge part of being a micro homesteader and becoming more self-sufficient. But self-sufficiency can also mean putting homegrown food on the table, making your own natural products, sewing your own clothes or becoming debt free. It is going to look a little bit different for everyone depending on their goals and where they are on their homesteading journey. In this post I want to touch on one thing that has helped me become more self-sufficient when it comes to putting homegrown food on the table while reducing costs!
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Don’t get me wrong I love a good seed shopping adventure. I pour over the seed catalogues each year and one of my favourite times is in November(ish) when the new Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue comes out. Last year was my first time buying the full catalogue and man was it worth it. They totally have a free one, but getting that inch thick catalogue full of all the heirloom stores is a high point when the outdoor garden is becoming a distant memory. While I save my seeds it doesn’t mean I don’t buy seeds every year.
Wait, huh? Yup that’s right I am always buying new seeds, but I only buy them once. I do this to constantly add new varieties into my garden. I always have my “regulars” that I grow every year, but I always want to experiment with new varieties in case I find a new “regular” that I need to add into the rotation. If I end up with a. variet that I don’t love I use it to trade for other seeds in one of the many seed exchanges I am a part of. So let’s jump into the nitty gritty of seed saving so that you can confidently add it to your micro homesteading tool box.
Why should you save seeds for next season?
I want to touch upon 4 of my own top reasons for saving seeds. Hopefully these resonate with you, or perhaps you have a completely different reason to save seeds. As with anything and everything micro homesteading related, you do you my friend! We are all just plant nerd on our own journeys along this wonderful micro homesteading spectrum.
Being one of the most practical reasons I felt that I should address this right off the bat. I mean if you are saving seeds then you don’t have to buy new ones, right?! As I already mentioned saving seeds definitely does not mean that I don’t but any, I just don’t buy ones that I already have. I always try to buy a few new varieties each year to try out new things.
If you want to really cut down on costs then you can just invest once into the varieties you love and then save until your heart’s content! If you want new varieties you could always join a seed exchange to trade for any new varieties you may want to try.
If you are saving your own seeds then you always know that your garden for next year is guaranteed. When COVID hit we saw a rush of people wanting to grow their own food. This meant that seed companies were overwhelmed and many people that had bought seeds for years couldn’t get the seeds they needed! When you save your own seeds, as long as you plan properly then you don’t have to worry about any shortages in the seed stores. Which is a great way to be more self-sufficient!
As I have mentioned I get a lot of my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and they are located in Mansfield, Missouri. Which is 1,576 km (980 miles) and 15 hours and 22 minute away from my little micro homestead as per Google. Why does that matter? Well, you can be sure that the weather and pest pressures down in Missouri is going to be different than in my backyard in Pickering, Ontario!
So while Baker Creek is selling the seeds from the strongest and best plants in Missouri, it doesn’t mean they will grow as well here in Ontario. So by saving the seeds from the strongest plants I am ensuring that my yields will increase over time. Why? Well the seeds from the strongest plants are going to be the ones that are best suited for my garden. So over time I locally adapt those original Missouri seeds to be the plants that will grow best in Pickering, Ontario.
This is a HUGE deal for me as I am a total #heirloomseedsnob. I love learning the histories that accompany the heirloom seeds that I grow and sharing them with other plant nerds as well. I currently have a single Granny Cantrell tomato plant growing in my front yard that I got in a seed exchange. So what? Well, this tomato was names after Lettie Cantrell who received the seeds from a soldier returning from Germany after World War II. She took those seeds and grew them year over year at her Kentucky home.
She always saved seeds from the largest tomatoes and some can reach 2.5 pounds! This means that the tomatoes growing in my front yard can trace their history back to an exchange that occurred at the end of WWII. That my friends is hella cool to me! If Lettie hadn’t encountered that soldier, or if that soldier hadn’t saved the seeds I would not have the same tomato growing today! By saving the seeds and telling you this little historical tidbit I am now a part of keeping that history and that tomato variety alive for another year.
Types of plants
So you may be wondering what’s the deal with F1 hybrids and are they GMO. Well, let me start by saying, that while, for the most part, I don’t grow hybrid seeds they are by no means bad. Also they are not GMO. It always makes me giggle if I see seed packages advertising that they are non-GMO. The general public is NEVER going to be sold GMO seeds, so if that is a concern for you please don’t worry about it. Hybrid seeds are the result of cross-pollination and GMO seeds are they result of laboratory work to introduce unrelated genes into the plants.
If you go back far enough then just about every heirloom today is a hybrid. The difference is that they have become stabilized over a long period of time. So you should not think of hybrids as bad. So why don’t I grow them? Well, for me it goes back to wanting to reduce cost and be more self-sufficient. I can’t save the seeds of hybrids and get the same plant the next year. Wait, what?
Hybrids are the result of crossing the male pollen of one variety with the female flower of another variety. These results in a F-1 hybrid, which stands for first filial generation. Hybrid seeds often imbue the plants with what is known as hybrid vigour. This just means that they tend to grow stronger, bigger and produce more than say their heirloom relatives. They often provide better disease resistance, uniformity and tend to cost a bit more. The added is cost is related to the work that goes into producing them as human intervention is always required. If you want to know more about F1-hybrids I did a while blog post on them.
And yes, you can save seeds from a hybrid and you will get a type of whatever you saved. It just won’t be exactly the same as the plant you saved it from. When you save seeds from a hybrid, they will revert to the characteristics of one of the parent plants. That doesn’t mean it will be bad by any means, it just won’t be the same.
Heirlooms are always my seed of choice even though they are not always the strongest or most reliable. I just love the variety in colour, shape, flavour and those histories I already mentioned. On top of that, all heirloom varieties are open-pollinated which means that I can save the seeds year over year. I you want to know more about heirlooms and why I think you should grow them, you can check out this blog post. The plants produced from saved seeds (assuming you have prevented cross-pollination) will always be the same as the parent plant. So it is always important that make sure that you save the seeds from the best fruit on the strongest plants. Most people haven’t tried anything but a round red tomato. To them the fact that you can easily grow black, green, stripped, “blue”, orange or white tomatoes would be baffling.
Definitions of heirlooms seeds can differ depending on who you are talking to, but time is one of the main factors. For some people an heirloom is any open pollinated variety that was developed prior to 1951 when hybrid cultivars came onto the market. Other people will say that you have to be able to trace the history of the variety back at least 100 years. Regardless of your own definition, one thing is true. With the industrialization of agriculture there has been a HUGE drop in the genetic diversity of the fruits and vegetables that are readily available. Before the WWII, most produce grown were heirloom varieties, which is in start contrast with the current day.
So why am I talking about open-pollinated plants when I just talked about heirlooms which are open-pollinated??? Well, while all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. Why? It goes back to the time requirement. I have mentioned a few times that I get most of my seeds from Baker Creek, but there is one other place I get seeds from, Row 7 Seeds. They have some amazing open-pollinated seeds, none of which are heirlooms. These are result of recent collaborations between chefs, farmers and breeders. They come up with new varieties, basically creating hybrids. But they don’t stop here, they stabilize those hybrids which then makes them open-pollinated. Which is hella cool…
An annual plant is simply one that completes its entire life cycle in a single year. This means that you will be able to save seeds from an annual plant in the same year you grew it. Think of things like tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, squash and melons.
A biennial plant requires 2 years to complete its life cycle. This means that if you want to save seeds you will need to successfully get it through your winter. Depending on where you are this may be as simple as providing some mulch or if you live in a zone 5b like me (or colder) then it probably means digging it up and storing it in a garage or cold cellar and then replanting the next year. This can be things like cabbage, carrots, beets
A perennial plant is one that will come back for more than 2 years, and if its needs are met then perhaps many more. This means that you typically will NOT gets seeds in the year that you plant it. These plants need to enter into a stage or dormancy before they emerge in the next year and produce seeds. When it comes to talking about food, this would be things like asparagus, berries, fruit trees, chives and parsley.
Without pollination you aren’t going to have seeds. So if you’re interested in saving seeds this is of the highest importance. At this point we need to chat about self-pollinating vs manual pollination, as well as how to attract pollinators to your garden and how to avoid cross-pollination.
These are the easiest to get started with as you really don’t have to do much. Why? Well, in self-pollinating plants the male and female parts of the plant are all present in each flower. They are very much a set it and forget it type of seed saving. If you are just getting started saving seeds these are always ones I recommend getting started with. Here are a few varieties…
Once you have mastered the art of saving self-pollinating seeds then the next step is to move onto varieties that need manual pollination. These are the ones that are going to suffer if you aren’t bringing enough pollinators into your garden. Your best friend if you want to save seeds from these will be a soft paintbrush. Yup….a paintbrush! You will use it to manually move the pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers. If you want to know more details about how to do this then you can check out my video on hand pollinating squash. I would suggest starting with squash as they have bigger flowers and it is easier to learn the process on these.
- Cucumber and pickles
This was something I didn’t focus on enough when I first started building my micro homestead. I actually got rid of most fo the flowers to grow food. Over the years I have shifted back to incorporating flowers into the homestead. I mentioned biodiversity at the start and this is something I have strived for the more I have learned. I can’t wait until I get land in the future and I can start to build a much larger biodiverse homestead. if you haven’t watched The Biggest Little Farm on Netflix I would really suggest you watch it. It’s a great lesson in the importance of biodiversity and the struggle to get the balance right. Here are some of the flowers I have included in my garden to attract pollinators:
Depending on what your goals are cross pollination can be either a good thing or a bad thing. But for most seed savers it is going to be abad thing as you will not end up with the plants you were expecting. An easy way to prevent cross pollination is to use blossom bags to protect the flowers. I get mine from the dollar store and they are just these little mesh bags from the wedding aisle. They are supposed to be used for wedding favours but I find them much more useful in the garden. You could definitely make them yourself as well. It’s on my to-do list to do a sewing DIY post on how to make these, maybe this winter.
If however, you fancy yourself a garden scientist and you want to try and create a new variety then cross-pollination is your best friend! This is something I want to try in the future but I still have some more book nerding to do before I take on this project!
So now we know a lot of the what and we need to jump a bit more into the how. The terms wet harvest and dry harvest are my own and the easiest way I know to group these plants in a way that is easy to understand.
When I say wet harvest, I mean that you harvest the fruit when they are still moist (damn I hate that word). The seeds will typically be surrounded by a jelly, picture tomato seeds. I like to use the little 125ml mason jars. I put a little water in them and then I scoop the seeds and jelly in. Then I cover them with a piece of paper towel with the variety written on top. I hold it in place with the canning ring and set them on the counter for about a week.
You may see some mold forming on top and that’s fine. Basically this is mimicking how the fruit would rot if it fell to the ground. After a week I take of the lid, skim off any mold and floating seeds. Seeds that float to the top are likely not viable and you can get rid of them. Then rinse the remaining seeds in a strainer and dump them back onto to paper towel with the variety written on it. Leave them out to dry for another 1-2 weeks. I move them around a bit each day to make sure they don’t go moldy. That’s it. Now some people don’t ferment the seeds and yes their seeds still grow. My mum just smeared some tomato seeds onto a paper towel and saved them and they grew.
I always go through the fermenting process as it helps to remove the germination inhibiting substance on the seed coating. I have found that I have better germination when I put my seeds through this process. But you do you. If you want to go through this process then here are some of the seeds that can benefit from fermenting:
These are by far the easiest as you just let them dry naturally on the plant and then you can remove them. I still like to leave mine out for a bit, I usually keep them in a strainer and swish them around every now and then. This works for things like:
Ok this “type” is a real stretch but I was having trouble putting peppers in either the wet or the dry category. What you want to do for peppers is to make sure that they stay on the plant until they are fully ripe. In most cases that means bright red and starting to get wrinkly and soft. Then all you need to do is take the seeds out and lay them on a paper towel for a week or two so that they fully dry out.
This is going to be important for any of those biennial plants. Depending on what hardiness zone you are in you may be able to leave them in ground with some mulch or you may need to dig them up and store them in a garage or cold cellar. Some varieties that require overwintering are:
- Brussels sprouts
If you have been around here more than a hot minute then you know I love me some hydroponic growing! I have found this is another great option for seed saving for certain varieties. You don’t have to worry about pest damage or cross-pollination so it can be great option if you have a hydroponic system at your disposal. I love my AeroGarden Farm Plus and my Family Rise Garden (save $50 off a family model).
How you store your seeds is key! You don’t want to invalidate all your hard waste but not storing them properly and then finding them moldy when you want to plant them. I have some free printable seed packages you can snag to store your seeds in. I also have a variety of other gorgeous printable seed packages in my Etsy shop, The Micro Homestead (as well as some cool stickers and t-shirts).
Dry & cool
I am pretty sure I mentioned it at least 5 times so far but when it comes to saving seeds mold is going to be your enemy! This is why you want to make sure your seeds are 100% dry before storing them. You can keep them in seed packages or in glass vials. But whatever you store them in you want to keep them cool and dry. A lot of people like to keep their seeds in the crisper of the fridge as seeds store longest when they stored below 10C (50F) and with less than 50% humidity.
How long do seeds last?
When you are saving seeds it is important to know how long you can expect them to last. That will depend both on the type or seed and the way in which you store them. Of course these are averages and conservative at best. There are many examples of seeds lasting WAY longer than the time below but it is also going to depend on the conditions under which they have been stored. If you come across some old seeds I would ALWAYS at least try to grow them! But I did a bit of research and here is what I found for some of the more common seeds you may be saving.:
- Tomatoes – 4 years
- Pepper – 2-5 years
- Eggplant – 4 years
- Beans – 3 years
- Squash – 4 years
- Cucumber – 5 years
- Melons – 5 years
- Carrots – 3 years
- Lettuce – 5 years
- Radish – 5 years
- Brassica – 4 years
- Beetroot – 4 years
- Onions – 1 years
Hopefully this give you a bit more insight into saving seeds and encourages you to give it a try yourself. Its a great way to become more self-sufficient and to be a bit closer to the whole life cycle of the garden!