There are two main premises for homesteading (outside of growing your own food) and they are sustainability/self-sufficiency and saving money. Luckily, saving seeds is a great way to hit both those nails on the head. On top of that, there is just a sense of pride in planning for and being able to grow next year’s harvest with an action taken today. It also makes you a part of an age-old tradition of perpetuating the seeds from this year’s harvest to ensure next year’s harvest. Which is key, because that’s how heirlooms became heirlooms! It’s not hard to learn how to save seeds and anyone can do it, you just need to know a few key things to ensure your success.
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My seed saving adventure began once I started growing heirloom plants. I really hope that your garden is full of heirloom plants. I truly believe they are so much more flavourful than hybrids or those run of the mill grocery store varieties. Plus, they have such amazing stories and histories that go along with their pedigrees. I grew Charentais melons for the first time this year. Why do I mention this? Well, these melons are hella fancy and you should know about them. They have their own festival, statue and knights! You don’t that with your “regular” seeds! So if that isn’t enough to convince you then here are 5 reasons to grow heirloom seeds!
What seeds should I save?
While you can save just about any seed, some are going to be easier than others. Especially for the newbie seed saver. Some of the ones I would recommend when first dipping your toes into this age-old practice are listed below.
Let them grow to maturity
The key to saving seeds is to let the fruit fully mature. If you take seeds from immature fruit then you are not going to have much luck growing them. So no green tomatoes and no zucchini that are smaller than a young child. Why? Well, things like summer squash (aka zucchinis among other ones) we eat when they are immature. If we leave them (or they hide as zucchinis are prone to do) they will grow MUCH bigger and develop tough skin like the winter squash. And this my friends is when they are mature and you can save seeds from them. The same thing goes for peppers, leave them on the plant until they are fully ripe and then you are good to go!
Make sure you use heirlooms
Another key factor in successfully saving seeds (without any surprises) is to make sure that you are using heirloom plants. Why? Well, heirloom plants will always grow true to form (baring any cross-pollination) in the subsequent year. That said you can totally save seeds from a hybrid plant. Just don’t expect to get the same plant the next year. Why? Well, the seeds will revert to either the female or male parent’s type. So it’s not that you will get “bad” seeds from a hybrid, it just won’t be what you were expecting. Some F1 hybrids can also produce seeds that are infertile, which can just lead to disappointment next year. So it’s best to stick with open-pollinated heirloom varieties increasing your chances of success.
Another benefit to learning how to save seeds, other than the cool factor of course. Is that they will increase your yields over time as you will essentially be saving and growing plants that have adapted to your local conditions!
Only the strong survive
Ok, that was a tad melodramatic I admit. But you do want to make sure that you are saving seeds only from the strongest and most “perfect” looking fruit. I put prefect in quotes as an important thing to learn about growing your own food is that perfect rarely happens in the garden. Those veggies you are used to from the grocery store are NOT representative of what will likely come out of your garden. So that said choose the best fruit, from the strongest plants and avoid any “weird” looking ones. We want to make sure we move the best genes onto future generations.
Save the big boys
When it comes to seed saving, big is better! The goes for the plants and for the seeds. The heavier the seeds to more developed the embryo inside them. Why does this matter? Well the more developed the embryo the better the chances of germination and vigour in the resulting plant. The easiest way to save the most viable seeds is putting them in water. If you are saving seeds from a pulpy fruit or vegetable then you will already be doing this step (see below).
If the seeds you are saving are not from pulpy vegetables/fruits then these can also be put in water just make sure you let them dry completely! If you want to up your seed saving game or have dreams of starting your own seed company (this is suddenly becoming a dream of mine), then you may want to invest in a seed clipper and/or aspirator. If you don’t want to spend any extra money and don’t want to use the water method then you can go super old school and try winnowing.
So you might now be wondering WTF is winnowing or frantically googling it. Well, basically the process is super simple. It just involves dropping the seeds from a height, ideally on a windy day, into a container. The wind helps to blows away any debris and lightweight (ie: non-viable) seeds and only the heaviest ones remain. This is going to work best for seeds that are heavier. If you try this with pepper seeds you may have none left! The lighter/smaller seeds are best separated using a seed clipper.
Make your seeds locally adapted
One of the main benefits of saving your own seeds, even moreso than saving your pennies is that they become locally adapted. What does this mean? Well, plants that grow in your backyard are best suited to your environment. So if you save the seeds from the fruits and vegetables they produce, then over generations you will end up with seeds that will thrive in the micro climate of your yard.
I mean think about it. I live in Ontario, Canada and we have some cold-ass winters. Compare that to say California in the USA. The bugs and plant diseases that have evolved in those two climates are probably pretty different. So the heirloom seeds I may have gotten from California would come from plants that had adapted to those pests, diseases and climate. Which means they may not grow as good for me. But if I take the best fruit from the strongest plants that DO grow and save those seeds. Grow them the next year and repeat the whole seed saving year over year. The plants I end up with down the road WILL be adapted to my pests, diseases and climate!
Some of them need to Ferment
Huh? Ferment the seeds? Yup, it is important to let the seeds of pulpy fruits and vegetables ferment. Why you may ask? Well, think about how things go down in nature. Let’s look at a tomato. Typically the fruit gets overripe and falls to the ground and rots. Then sometime after that booyah… a new tomato plant! The rotting time is key as it causes the pulp to separate from the seeds. Again, that is not to say the seeds won’t grow if you don’t do this step. I just like to do as much as possible to increase my chances of great germination for next season. So now you may be wondering what types of seeds are going to benefit from fermentation. Lucky for you I have made a list below.
- Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum)
- Melons (various plants in the Curcurbitaceae family)
- Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus)
How to ferment seeds for saving
This really is easy. All you need to do is collect up your tomato, cucumber or melon seeds, grab a mason jar and ring (but no lid), a piece of paper towel and a pen. Remove the seeds and place them into a mason jar.
At this point, you can add a LITTLE bit of water (not too much I will explain why in a moment). The water helps you tell the good seeds from the bad ones. The bad ones will typically float, you can do this right away if you see any floating. Then you can write the type and date on the toilet paper/paper towel, put it over the top and secure with the mason jar ring.
Leave them for 7-10 days, making sure to skim off any mould as you see it and then give them a quick swirl. After the fermenting period is complete, check for any new seeds that have floated to the top and remove those. Then you can dump them into a mesh strainer and give them a good rinse with some clean, cold water.
Then you can just carefully lay them out on a clean paper towel, you should also write what type they are onto the paper towel so you don’t get them mixed up. Leave them in a warm, well-ventilated location and move them about daily to make sure all sides are drying properly. Do this for about a week, until they are fully dry. When this is done then you can move them into a dark and airtight storage container. Moisture must be avoided at all costs as we don’t want the seeds to get mouldy. I also have a DIY project to build your own seed storing rack coming soon.
Remember earlier when I said don’t add too much water? Well what I should have said is don’t add too much water and leave them too long. Why? Well, you could end up in this situation where the seeds start to germinate! If you find yourself in this position and the time until first frost permits, then you can go ahead and plant them. Otherwise, chock it up to a lesson learned and hopefully you have some seeds that didn’t germinate.
What seeds don’t need to ferment?
So now you know how to save seeds and why to ferment them, you may also be curious about those that don’t need this step. I would group these other ones into two categories: annual and biennial. Say what? Well, for the other plant varieties, some will give you seeds at the end of the season and others will require you to wait an additional year. Yup, a whole extra year. So let’s take a look at both.
Saving seed from annual plants
You will get annual seeds with no need to ferment them from such varieties as: lettuce, spinach, peppers, beans, peas, arugula and radishes. You just need to make sure the plants stay in the ground until the seed pods have FULLY dried. This ensures you get the best quality of seeds. While they will continue to dry if you remove them early, it’s not what I would recommend. Just leave them in place and let them do their thing. Then you can crack open the dried pods and store them away for next season.
I mentioned peppers in this list, and they do give annual seeds and don’t require fermenting. But they differ from the other varieties I listed above where we are leaving them on the plant until its dry. So how do we save pepper seeds? All you need to do is wait until the plants are fully mature and are starting to wrinkle. Then you can harvest the pepper, remove the seeds and lay them out on a paper towel to dry. That’s it!
Saving seeds from biennial plants
So what plants produce biennial seeds? Well, these are things like parsnips, celery, cabbage, carrots and beets. It is important to note that biennial plants are going to take a bit more planning and can’t be done easily everywhere. Why? Well, if those puppies need to stay in the ground for two years then having them smack dab in the middle of your raised bed may not be the best idea! On top of that, if you have cold winters (as I do) then chances are good that the plants won’t survive the winter. That said leeks and parsnips can tolerate temperatures down to about -20C (-4F). I actually did this by accident last year as I apparently lost track of my parsnips last year and was blessed with loads of seed this year!
If you live in an area with a cold winter climate but are determined to save seeds from biennial plants good on you! So assuming this is the case, let’s look at what this is going to entail. Firstly, you will need to keep the plants cool and humid until the spring. To do this you will need to CAREFULLY remove them from the garden and store them in slightly moist sand or sawdust. Just make sure you don’t bang them about as we don’t want to damage them as they could just end up rotting.
The second thing you are going to ideally need is an old school earthen cold cellar. Why? Well, storing them in the garage will most likely be too cold. Storing them in an indoor cold cellar with likely be too dry and they tend to warm up too soon in the spring. So the best answer is to build a DIY earthen cold cellar. This is on my To-Do list so stay tuned.
P.S. You have probably noticed I have a very big To-Do list! I honestly find as a micro homesteader there is no end to the chores, tasks and DIYs to get done. And you know what? I LOVE IT!
My plant looks weird!
So you dutifully learned how to save seeds and proudly grew them the next season. Only to end up with some “WTF is that?” type of plants. And now you’re wondering what you did wrong. Well, if you are in this boat then I am going to hazard a guess that the plant you saved as a type of melon or squash. What most likely happened is that your female flower was cross-pollinated with the pollen of another type.
While this can happen with other types of seeds like tomatoes or peppers etc it is much less likely in those varieties it is much less common as they are self-pollinating. The issue is much more prevalent in varieties that have both male and female flowers. Now all is not lost people! Number 1 holy crap you created a new vegetable! Try it out see how it tastes! Number 2 there are precautions you can take to avoid this.
So now you either want to know the precautions or have Frankenstein dreams and want to go out and make new squash/melon varieties. Either way, power to you. But I am going to assume you want to know the precautions. So let’s take a second to discuss.
The key is in having control, that said, you are most likely going to need to get up early. Why? Well, you are going to have to beat the bees and other pollinators to the female flowers. So you are going to have to get out there bright and early and hand pollinate those female flowers with the pollen from the male flowers of the same type. Then you can tie up the female flowers to make sure no other pollen gets in. Also, you should do this more than once. I go into the process in more detail in my post on How to hand pollinate squash. I also have a video there for you visual learners. Did I mention I started my own YouTube channel?
Protect self-pollinating plants from cross-pollination
You may be wondering why you would even need to do this. As I explained above, cross-pollination is very likely in monoecious plants (ie: those with male and female flowers) which is obviously not the case with self-pollinating varieties. So why bother? While cross-pollination is much less likely in self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas it can still happen. I mean the bees and other pollinators still visit those flowers so there is the chance other pollen is introduced.
Luckily this is VERY easy to prevent in self-pollinating varieties. All you need are some blossom bags. What are these? Well, they are just little draw-string bags that you put around some blossoms BEFORE they open. That way you know 100% that they will not have any other pollen coming into contact with the flowers. This also means you can be sure that the seeds from those fruits will be true to type. Just give those branches a little wiggle/shake when you walk by. to encourage pollination.
I would also do this to more than one bloom set, just in case you run into any blossom drop. Oh and blossom bags are super easy to make, so stay tuned for a little DIY. If you are not feeling up to a sewing DIY (but it is one of the vintage/homesteading skills you should master) then not to worry you can easily buy some blossom bags online.
So there you have it, how to save seeds and money! If you add in joining a seed exchange then you are definitely on your way to self-sufficiency. Let me know in the comments below what seeds you are saving from your garden this year. Also if you are looking for a specific variety of seed and have seeds to trade, check out my list of heirloom seeds. I’m always looking to trade for new varieties!
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