For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
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. See our Seed-Saving 101 Guide on the benefits of saving seeds, which seeds to save, and how to save seeds from common vegetables.
What is Seed Saving?
With seed saving, you grow some extra vegetables which you save just to harvest their seeds. Then you store those seeds over the winter to replant them in the spring. Seed-saving helps to preserve heirloom varieties and promotes genetic diversity.
Why Save Seeds?
There are three good reasons to learn the technique of seed-saving.
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. Saving and sharing seeds is essential to the cultivation of sustainable heirloom gardens and healthy living.
Using seeds from your own plants also connects you with the earth’s natural cycles, and many gardeners find this activity rewarding!
Save Heirlooms, Not Hybrids
Save seeds only from open-pollinated versus hybrids (which are very common from local garden stores).
An open-pollinated plant is one in which the offspring replicates the parents so you’ll harvest the same wonderful vegetable year upon year. Open-pollinated plants may be “heirlooms” which have been passed down through generations, with nature keeping only the best traits.
Unfortunately, modern hybrids, which are produced by crossing two or more inbred varieties to obtain specific characteristics, won’t work. The new plant will end of being some sort of unknown combination of the good and bad traits of the plants from the initial cross, and most often results in poorer quality.
Also, remember that some crops can cross-pollinate (via insects) if they are planted too near each other. Examples are cucumbers, peppers, melons, and squashes. Cross-pollination often results in inferior flavor.
Which Vegetable Seeds to Save
Some crops are easier to save than others. If you are a beginner, we would highly recommend that you start with vegetables that are self-pollinating and require no special treatment, such as:
Seeds from biennial crops are not advised because it takes two seasons to set seed and gets complicated; this includes cabbages, beets, carrots, cauliflower, onions, and turnips.
Again, only save open-pollinated types. Examples of open-pollinated tomatoes are ‘San Marzano’ and ‘Brandywine’. Examples of hybrid tomatoes are ‘Big Boy’, ‘Beefmaster’ and ‘Early Girl.’
Examples of open-pollinated peas are ‘Lincoln’, ‘Little Marvel’ and ‘Perfection.’ Examples of peppers are ‘Habanero’, and ‘Corno di Toro’ peppers. Examples of beans are ‘Kentucky Wonder’, ‘Blue Lake’ and ‘Tendercrop.’ All come true from seed.
Good sources of open-pollinated vegetables seeds include Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange, and Territorial Seed Company.
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 and you would harvest for eating.
Peas and beans are ready when the pods turn brown on the vine and shrink against the seeds.
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.
Cantaloupe and muskmelon seeds are ripe when the stem turns brown and dries, and the melon readily separates from it.
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.
Steps on How to Save Seeds
Below is a rundown of gathering, treating, and storing the most commonly-saved garden vegetable seeds. No matter which type of open-pollinated seed you are saving, the general guideline is to select only the most vigorous plants with the best-tasting fruit as parents for the next year’s crop. Do not save seed from weak or off-type plants.
Because tomatoes and cucumbers have seeds that are coated with a gel, the first step is to remove it by fermentation. The process smells bad, however, so don’t do it in an enclosed room in the house. Follow these steps:
Squeeze or spoon the seed mass into a waterproof container (glass, jar, plastic cup, or deli container).
Add enough water to equal the volume of the seed mass, and put the container in a warm spot out of direct sunlight.
Stir the contents at least once a day.
In a couple of days, the viable seeds will sink to the bottom and bad seeds and debris and white mold will float to the surface.
Wait five days for all the good seeds to drop, then rinse away the gunk at the top.
Wash the seeds in several changes of water, and lay them out in a single layer on a glass or plastic plate or screen.
Put the plate in a warm place until the seeds are fully dry, which can take several weeks.
Pick the brown pods from the vines and remove the seeds, which will require about six weeks of air-drying. One way is to put them in loosely woven baskets and stir them once a day.
If frost or other inclement weather threatens legumes that are ripe but not dry, pull up the vines by the roots, and hang the plants upside down in a warm area, such as your basement or barn. The pods will draw energy from the plants for another few days, which will increase the seed viability.
Saving Melon Seeds
For watermelons, simply rinse the seeds under running water to remove any traces of flesh or membrane. For cantaloupe and musk melon, seeds will have more fibers and membrane attached to them. Wash this off, rubbing the seeds between your fingers to remove as much as the debris as you can.
Then put the seeds in a container of water, and the good seeds will sink to the bottom.
Remove what comes to the top, give the good seeds another rinse, and dry them on a plate or screen.
Saving Lettuce Seeds
Radishes, lettuce, and Asian greens also produce seeds in pods after the plant has flowered. With these vegetables, too, it is best to let the pods dry on the plant.
These plants, however, tend to dry from the bottom up, a few pods at a time.
The dry ones are prone to shattering and spreading their seed all over the ground, so either bag the seed heads—literally putting a paper bag tied at the base over the plants to capture the seeds—or pick the dry pods on a daily basis. Old nylons or row-cover materials work well for bagging because you can still see what’s going on with the plant.
When squashes are ready, break them open and remove the seeds.
Hold the seeds under running water, rubbing them between your fingers to remove any stringy material and membrane.
Then lay them out on a plate or screen to dry.
Storing Saved Seeds
Once your seeds are completely dry, they can be stored in any dry, secure container and kept in a cool, dry area. Keeping them dry is very important (as you probably could have guessed by now).
For large seeds, such as beans, you can recycle the cardboard canisters that certain snack foods come in.
For small seeds, such as pepper and tomatoes, washed-out pill bottles work well.
How long a seed remains viable depends on its type and the environment it’s kept in. Tomato seeds may last for more than five years, while squash seeds typically last for less time. You can extend seeds’ viability by freezing them, especially if you have a zero-degree freezer. Properly dried and frozen seeds can remain viable for at least 40 years!
Seed-saving isn’t hard but it really helps to see how it’s done. See Ben’s video demonstration as he saves seeds from his vegetables and shares some great tips and tricks.
Another way to save seeds is when veggies “bolt” (run to seed) during the summer! See our video on how to collect seeds from bolted vegetables.
We hope that you will enjoy saving the seeds from your favorite plants! If you have any tips, please post below!