Saving seeds from your own garden can be satisfying and save you money. But to be successful, you must learn about the plants from which you save seeds.
Open-pollinated versus hybrids
Seed collected from open-pollinated (OP) varieties will produce plants similar to the parent as long as pollen is not shared between different varieties of the same species. Seed from hybridized plants (often labelled “F1”) can be sterile or produce plants that do not resemble the parent.
Save seed from open-pollinated OP plants if you want plants that resemble the parent. Do not save seed from hybridized varieties unless you like surprises.
Pollination results from the transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower (called a stamen) to the female part of the flower (called the pistil). All plants require pollination to make seeds.
Self-pollinating plants have complete flowers (that is flowers that have both male and female parts) and readily transfer pollen from the stamens to the pistil of the same flower. Common self-pollinated plants include lettuce, legumes (such as beans and peas) and most tomato varieties.
It is easiest to save seed from self-pollinated plants; the plant does all the work. You just need to harvest and clean the seed at the right time.
Lettuce forms seed heads after the plant bolts. As the seed ripens, it usually gets darker. Cut the seed heads and allow them to dry for two to three weeks. Rub the seed heads between your fingers to separate the seed from other plant parts.
To save seeds from legumes harvest the pods when they are dry and rattle. Open the pods, remove the seeds, and spread them on a plate for a day or two. Put the dried seed in the freezer for 30 hours to kill any weevil larvae.
To save tomato seeds, mash a few fully ripe disease-free tomatoes from your favorite plant. Place the seeds in a clean jar. Pour off the excess liquid, leaving the pulpy mass of seeds. Allow the liquid to ferment for up to a week, stirring three times a day to break down the jelly around the seeds.
During this process, viable tomato seeds will sink and the non-viable ones will float. Remove (and discard) the floating seeds with a spoon and pour the remaining liquid into a fine sieve. Gently wash the seeds to remove any remaining pulp and spread them onto a paper towel. Leave the seeds at room temperature to dry thoroughly.
Some plants have flowers that can easily be pollinated (in some cases, must be pollinated) by pollen from a different flower (on the same plant or a different plant of the same variety or even sometimes a different variety or species.) Common cross-pollinated plants include squash, cucumbers, peppers and corn.
If the plant is pollinated by the pollen from a different variety, cross-pollination can produce plants that do not resemble the parent, even for OP varieties. If you want plants similar to those from which you collected the seed, you must prevent cross-pollination between varieties by taking one of the following steps:
• Maintain a certain distance between varieties. (The distance depends on the species. Peppers require only 30 feet whereas Cucurbits require a quarter of a mile. Realize that wild varieties can pollinate cultivated ones.)
• Plant the second variety after the first has ceased to produce pollen.
• Cover the flowers from which you will collect seed with a paper bag or fine netting. With this approach you will have to hand pollinate plants that cannot self-pollinate (e.g., squash).
Carrot, beet and cabbage family members cross-pollinate but are biennials; they do not produce seeds until the second season. Because it can take considerable effort to carry over plants from the first to the second season, collection of seeds from biennials is not usually encouraged.
Finally, be aware that you cannot legally save seed from plants listed as “patented” or “plant variety protected”
For more information on seed saving see the tips below and read the Organic Seed Alliance’s “A Seed Saving Guide” at seedalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/seed_saving_guide.pdf.
Bob Cain and Jeanette Stehr-Green are WSU-certified Clallam County Master Gardeners.
General seed saving tips
• Start with easy to save crops like peas, beans, lettuce and tomatoes when you first start saving seeds.
• Collect seed only from healthy plants. Save the very best and eat the rest.
• Collect only mature seeds. If seeds aren’t mature they will not germinate. Signs of maturity include petals that have dropped from flower heads, formation of seed pods and seeds that are brown and dry.
• Dry seeds indoors during cool, moist weather.
• Discard seeds that show fungal growth.
• Once dried, put the seed in an envelope and label the envelope with the plant variety and year collected. Place the envelope in a tightly sealed glass jar; place rice or a small cloth bag of powdered milk in the jar to help control moisture.
• Store the jar in a cool (less than 50 degrees) dark place at less than 50 percent humidity; an ideal location is in the refrigerator.