Saving seeds from your favorite plants and swapping them with friends is one of the best ways to share your love of gardening.
Select the best plants to save seeds from based on traits that are important to you such as disease resistance, size, color, yield, flavor, vigor, earliness, etc.
Open-pollinated or Hybrid Seeds?
Before you start collecting you need to know the difference between open-pollinated varieties and hybrids.
- Open-pollinated plants are created by natural means - wind, insects, gravity, birds. These plants look just like their parent plants. It is called “coming true to seed.” Sometimes you get an oddball called a “sport”. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated.
- Hybrids come from plant breeders who carefully selected the parent plants to develop a unique variety with improved traits. Seeds saved from a hybrid usually revert back to a distant ancestor that is not the same as the parent plant. You need to take cuttings or divisions of a hybrid to get an exact copy or buy fresh seed.
With some plants such as poppies and columbine, seed collecting is as easy as waiting till the pods dry on the plants and putting them in an envelope. Pansies and impatiens tend to scatter their seed before you even notice it is ripe.
Coneflowers and other daisy-like flowers hold their seeds longer making them easy to collect. If the seeds you are waiting for might drop before you can collect them, try tying a small paper or cloth bag over the ripening seed pods. Large seeds like peas, beans, corn, peppers, sunflowers, morning glories, cosmos, hollyhocks, calendula, and zinnias are easy to collect. Many smaller seeds like delphinium, larkspur, cleome, nicotiana, nigella, mallows, and foxglove are contained in large seed pods making them easy to harvest also.
Once you have chosen the plants to collect seed from, leave several fruits or seed heads on the plant to mature. With vegetables, the fruit should remain on the plant 1-2 weeks beyond the time when you would pick them to eat. They need to be fully ripe but not rotten. For most flowers, the seeds are ready to harvest about a month after the blossoms fade, when the seed heads turn brown. The best time to gather seeds is in the afternoon on a dry, sunny day.
Dry and Store
Even if the seeds appear dry when you collect them, spread them out on paper to dry for about a week before storing. Try to separate as much debris from the seeds as possible since chaff can harbor insect eggs or fungi. Place seeds in an envelope labeled with info you may need including plant name, height, color, and date them. Keep envelopes of seeds in a cool dry place, in an airtight container. If humidity is a problem, put a little powdered milk in the bottom of the container to absorb any moisture. The fridge or freezer is a great place for seed storage because the colder seed is kept, the longer it will remain viable.
Tomatoes Are Challenging
Some seeds require a little more effort. Tomato seeds must be fermented in water for a few days to remove the gelatinous coating around them and to stimulate the natural rotting of the fruit. Fermentation also kills many seed-borne diseases. Scoop the seeds from an overripe (but not rotten) tomato and place them in a bowl or jar of water. Let it sit at room temperature for two to three days. Stir occasionally to prevent mold from forming. Once the seeds have settled to the bottom, rinse them thoroughly and spread out to air dry on paper or a fine screen. Throw away any seeds that float since they will not germinate.
Host a Seed Swap
If you find you have extra seeds to share, consider hosting a seed swap where interested parties bring seeds they have saved to trade for new varieties. It is a fun way to learn about new plants and get to try them for free!