If you are one of our customers, then chances are you are interested in preserving your personal power and choice when it comes to your food and your garden. Growing GMO-free, open-pollinated, untreated seed is a great way to begin. But, saving seed takes some planning and preparation. It is important to start small your first year or you may get overwhelmed.
We’ll begin with growing lettuce, beans and tomatoes for seed. Then you can pick several species each year to learn and broaden your collection. In a few years you will be surprised at what you’ve collected! Seed swaps and fresh seed purchases will keep your garden diverse. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll be the local seed saving extraordinaire before we know it.
What Kinds of Seed Can I Save?
To start saving your own seed, you'll need to plant open-pollinated (OP) varieties, not hybrids (often marked with the term "F1" in seed catalogs) or genetically modified varieties. A variety is a specific strain of a species with distinct characteristics, for example a Yellow Pear tomato, that is so distinct that someone thought to name it. Open-pollinated varieties are genetically stable, and will grow true to type when they pollinate with other plants of the same variety. Hybrids, on the other hand, are the result of a first-generation cross between two very different parent plants. If you save seed from a hybrid variety, you'll end up with a varied mix of characteristics from those different parent plants in the next generation instead of the variety you originally planted. If you're shopping at Sow True, there's no need to worry - all the seeds we carry are OP and non-GMO!
If you've been paying attention to seed catalogs, you've probably seen the term "heirloom" come up frequently. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated varieties that have been in circulation since 1946 or earlier, prior to the commercial introduction of F1 hybrids and the changes in industrial agriculture that favored them. Many heirlooms are much older. For some, families and traditional cultures have passed them down for generations.
Why Save Seed?
People choose to save seed for a variety of reasons. One is a desire to grow a variety that is particularly important to you or that you would hate to lose from your seed catalog. Since the early 1900s many varieties of seed have disappeared from seed catalogs. One study showed that by 1983, as little as 3% of the seed varieties available in 1903 remained commercially available - a 97% loss of diversity in just 80 years. Growing your own ensures your ability to keep the varieties you love in your garden. Seed saving also promotes the selection of plants and genetics that have adapted to your garden’s micro-climate. Preserving genetic diversity may be of interest to a seed saver as well as developing characteristics like disease resistance, taste, storage ability, etc.
Where To Begin?
One of the main concerns for seed savers is isolation, that is, making sure plants of different varieties within the same species (say, a Bushy cucumber and a Marketmore 76 cucumber, for example) don't cross-pollinate each other. If that happens, you won't have the pure varieties you started with when you replant your saved seed. When you're starting out with seed saving, it is a little easier to begin with self-pollinating species like lettuce, beans and tomatoes that are unlikely to cross with other varieties. Many other garden crops like squash, cucumbers, and okra are insect-pollinated and cross easily across long distances, making them a bit more challenging for the beginning seed saver. Lettuce, beans, and tomatoes also make good beginning varieties for seed saving because these species are all annuals, which means they will produce a crop of seed in the same year they're planted. Some garden crops like chard and kale are biennial, which means they will not flower and set seed until after they have gone through a winter season. You can find more specific information about saving seeds from any particular crop on our product pages, in our other blog posts, or in books on seed saving.
Seed Saving Logistics
Prior to saving seed, locate a cool, dark place in your home where you can store your seeds. Seeds prefer low humidity for long-term storage. While it depends on the type of plant, properly-stored seeds may last for 3 or more years. You can store seeds in the refrigerator, but if you do, they must be in an airtight container to protect them from humidity. You'll need a dry place with high air circulation and low light for drying your seeds before storing them.
Plan to keep good records for each seed batch. We suggest you include:
- variety name and species
- original source and contact information
- year grown, date of harvest and storage date
- variety description
- grow out location (perhaps with a map)
Label your storage containers well and keep a spreadsheet of this information. Don't just say "I'll remember" - a year later, you will not. (Ask us how we know!)
Try Saving Seed From These Vegetables:
Tomatoes make a great first seed collecting endeavor. Collect disease free, ripe fruit (ideal specimens have the highest quality seed) from multiple plants. Cut the fruit and squeeze out the seeds/pulp into a clean container. Cover the top with a towel or coffee filter to keep out flies, and leave these seeds and pulp to ferment at room temperature for 1 to 3 days. The seeds are ready to rinse when a white mold develops on the surface of the liquid mixture. The fermentation process may seem a little gross, but it is important because it degrades the gel-like sheath surrounding the seed so that the seed can properly germinate when planted. To clean your seeds, add water to your container and decant off the pulp, then strain seeds in a strainer and give them a final rinse under running water. Then spread them on a labeled screen, coffee filter, or parchment paper to dry completely before storing them in a cool, dark, dry location.
Beans should be left on the vine to dry until brown and crisp. Pods can then be placed in a cloth sack and threshed piñata-style by hitting the sack with a stick, or by running in place on top of the pods in sack or bucket. The chaff is then separated from the seed by a process called winnowing. When winnowing, a stiff breeze is used to get the chaff to fly off the seed, leaving the seed clean and ready for storage. A fan can be used if nature doesn’t provide convenient steady wind. Place the seeds and chaff in a basket and pour the mixture into another basket or container, letting the breeze hit the seed as it falls. The light chaff will blow away while the heavier seeds fall into the container. Repeat the process until the seed is clean. Bean seeds should then be dried until they readily shatter when hit with a hammer. When they are dry, they can be stored in envelopes or airtight containers under cool, dark and dry conditions. It's also a good idea to place your beans in the freezer for at least 2 weeks before long-term storage to kill any bean pests, like weevils, that might be living in the seeds.
Most gardeners get rid of their lettuce when it starts to bolt. Mostly, it ceases to taste very good at this point. However if you let it flower, obtaining seed is rather easy. For better seed quality, refrain from harvesting leaves from plants that are intended for seed production. Seed is ready 2 to 3 weeks after flowering. Over the course of a few days, visit the plants and shake ripened seed into a large paper bag or receptacle that will hold the very fine seed. Since lettuce does not lend itself to winnowing (the wind will carry away the precious seeds) use a fine mesh sieve to clean the seed. Dry the seed in a warm, dry spot. The seeds are ready for storage when they break but don’t bend under stress. To avoid cross pollination, grow varieties 12 to 25 feet apart. Crossing in lettuce is generally low (5% or less) but can vary among different varieties.
These few species are a place to get started in seed saving. If you plan on broadening your skills you should obtain a comprehensive seed saving guide.
For many gardeners this becomes a passion. At the very least we hope you find that saving seed is interesting and rewarding. Knowing you are participating in the preservation of one of our most precious resources, our agricultural heritage and diversity, is likely reward enough!
Article Written by: Angie Lavezzo
About the Author: Angie Lavezzo is the former general manager of Sow True Seed. Beyond her professional role at Sow True, Angie's passion for gardening extends into personal hands-on experience, fostering plants and reaping bountiful harvests.