MATER GARDENER — Saving plant seeds the correct way (Part 1 of 2)
Published 12:02 am Wednesday, June 21, 2023
Gardeners, so you want to save your own seeds this season but don’t know where to start?
Some readers have requested that I write about saving seeds, but more specifically how to harvest seeds and store them but also want to share them with friends, neighbors, fellow gardeners and family-while keeping a few to germinate next year and for future use.
This is the first installment of a two-part series on how to harvest and save seeds, so let’s begin with some basics!
Seed saving doesn’t have to be complicated and is a useful, and relatively simple method of propagation. For many home gardeners (me included) collecting seeds that plants produce saves time and money year after year, since saving seeds is more cost effective than purchasing seed packets or transplants from online merchants and local nurseries.
Saving high quality seeds can help develop plants with ideal traits that will thrive in your garden’s specific environment, providing you in time with exacting characteristics you deem important. Before we can begin discussing how to save seeds and the steps involved to correctly save them, we need to understand seed types, ensuring we’re not wasting our time, since the seeds we harvest we want to grow ‘true’ to the parent plant.
The only guarantee that saved seeds will produce the identical plant variety the following growing season if gardeners select and grow ‘open-pollinated’ and ‘heirloom’ varieties.
Let me break this down a bit more: all heirloom seeds are produced from ‘open-pollinated’ varieties but not all ‘open-pollinated’ plants are ‘heirloom’ plants.
Open-pollinated seeds are plants which are fertilized utilizing natural means through pollinator insects (bees, moths, butterflies, etc.), birds, rain, wind, or manually. Two plants of the same variety are ‘cross-pollinated’ using a natural means and when seeds are produced will grow into a plant very similar to the parent plants, presenting ever-so slight variations, leading to genetic diversity, and allowing seeds to slowly adapt to our local environments.
Heirloom seeds originate from open-pollinated plants which have a history of passing ‘desired’ traits (parent plant to child). These prized characteristics are developed through years of cultivation. Examples of these traits are hardiness, flavor, productivity, pest and disease resistance, as well as adaptability. An heirloom variety originates from plant varieties which are at minimum 50 years old, Seeds produced are always true to the parent plant, allowing gardeners to save seed for the following year.
Hybrid seeds grow plants which are a mix of two different plant varieties and plant breeders produce hybrid seeds by cross-pollinating two plant varieties, creating a ‘hybrid’ demonstrating definitive traits from each variety, a process known as “Hybrid vigor.” Let me note that saving ‘hybrid’ seeds is not ideal, since most offspring of hybrid varieties do not resemble the parent plant, nor will they have desired characteristics.
F1 hybrids (first-generation hybrid plant seeds) produce higher yields of plants, often with the desired mix of traits, it’s a different story if you save seeds from that new batch of plants to grow the following season. Note that these ‘second’ generation hybrid varieties (F2 hybrids) will produce a very small percentage of plants which are identical to the F1 hybrids. In this gardener’s opinion, seed savers should stick with saving seed from ‘heirloom’ varieties which is exactly what I do, and I never include hybrids!
With growing plants, you must know the difference with eating or harvesting.
Gardeners, to be clear it’s usually not both (food and seeds), since for a plant, such as lettuce to produce seed, there is a time requirement for the plant to send up flower stalks, eventually producing seed pods as the lettuces’ leaves yellow and shrivel, becoming bitter. The good news is that a single plant produces numerous seeds, meaning only a few ‘extra’ plants are needed for seed-saving purposes.
Now, here is where seed saving becomes the most interesting (at least for me it does)-gardeners who chose to save seed are participating in the natural selection process! How might you ask?
Well, let’s say for example, you decide to save the seeds from your largest tomato or pepper each year, and then plant the seeds each year subsequent year, continuing to save seeds from the largest fruit. Eventually, you will have seeds which produce plant traits where all the tomatoes or peppers are bigger! This holds true for almost any trait.
Another example might be if you’d like earlier ripening tomatoes, then you might save seed from the initial fruit and continue doing this yearly! No need to get too scientific, simply save seeds from the healthiest, most robust, and tastiest plants that demonstrate the qualities you want in the plants.
Saving seeds can become tedious. Large seeds, such as bean and pea seeds are easily removed from their pods, but this is the exception not the rule.
Pak choi or carrot seeds, for example, are tiny and disappear quickly when liberating them from their seed heads. Plants hold their seeds in numerous ways: husks, pods, capsules, and other shrouds, most of which are not easily removed.
The process varies depending on the species but involves threshing (removing the seed from the plant), drying them, before winnowing (separating seed from the pod) and for home gardeners, these tedious tasks are completed by manually, by hand.
John Green is Texas Certified Master Gardener with Orange County Master Gardeners. If you have gardening questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone the Orange County Master Gardeners Helpline at 409-882-7010.