Start saving those vegetable seeds! Here's a quick primer on the benefits of seed-saving and how to know when a seed is ripe.
Why Save Seeds?
Gardeners tend to be a thrifty lot, and saving seeds from one year to another just makes sense. It's what the old-timers always did. But there are three good reasons to learn the techniques:
- Saving seeds ensures that you'll always have seeds of a favorite variety.( Just because you've been able to order a seed variety from a commercial source in the past doesn't mean it will always be available.)
- Saving seeds is cost effective. It makes no sense to buy seeds that you can grow yourself. (You have to be realistic, however. If you don't have the space or inclination for biennials (such as cabbage), just save seeds for annual vegetables.
- Savings seeds opens a whole new world of seed trading. At least half the vegetable varieties being grown today have no commercial sources. If you'd like to try them, you have to trade seeds that you have for seeds you want. (Visit our Seed Swap Discussion Forum!)
Two Important Questions
When is a seed ripe?
From a plant's point of view, ripeness is when the seeds are viable, which is not always when the plant is most edible.
- Pepper seeds are ripe when peppers are at their full color—depending on variety, this could be red, orange, yellow, purple, or black—and start to shrivel.
- Tomato seeds are ripe when tomatoes are firm but tender. If you press them, they have some give, unlike the hard feel of green ones. Like peppers, they will also have reached their full color.
- Cucumber seeds are ripe when the cuke turns fully yellow—overripe for eating. Harvest it and put it in a safe place for another 20 days.
- Winter squash seeds are ripe when the skin turns hard.
- Summer squash seeds are ripe when the squash is past the edible point, with a hard rind. Then treat the same as winter squashes.
- Watermelon seeds are ripe when the tendril directly opposite the stem turns from green to brown and becomes dry.
- Canteloupe and muskmelon seeds are ripe when the stem turns brown and dries, and the melon readily separates from it.
- Peas and beans are ready when the pods turn brown on the vine and shrink against the seeds.
When is a Seed Dry?
Proper drying is a key to saving seeds. Here's how to test if seeds are fully dried:
- Squeeze one seed with pliers or hit it with a hammer.
- If it's dry, it will shatter.
- If it just crushes or feels soft or spongy, then your seeds still need more air-drying before being stored away.
What Not to Save
Save seeds only from open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, never from hybrids (which are very common from local garden stores).
- An open pollinated plant is one in which the offspring replicates the parents. That is, its seeds will breed true to type.
- Modern hybrids, which are produced by crossing two or more inbred varieties to obtain specific characteristics, will not produce the same variety that you originally planted. If you save seeds from a hybrid, the next generation reverts to the various parents.
- Sources of open-pollinated vegetables seeds include Johnny's Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, and Territorial Seed Company.
A Couple Points to Consider
For successful seed saving, you must assure seed purity. This means that plants which readily crossbreed among their own varieties (such as cucumbers, peppers, melons, and squashes) need to be isolated from other varieties of that particular vegetable by distance, caging, or other means. If you're a beginner, you can make life simpler by just growing one variety of these at a time.
As mentioned above, most home gardeners do not have the room to save seeds from biennials, such as cabbages, beets, carrots, cauliflower, onions, and turnips. To do so, you have to harvest the vegetable with the root when it's ripe, store it over the winter in a root cellar, and replant the whole vegetable the following spring. Whew!
Now that you're more knowledgeable about seeds, go to our quick Seed-Saving Guide for Beginners.