Saving seeds also saves money and plant history

Dean Fosdick
Associated Press
This June 2010 photo shows beans, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and peas growing a garden near New Market, Va., and are among the best self-pollinated plants to use for seed saving since their offspring will be dependable.

Seed saving is precisely that. Gathering seed saves money for the next planting season and also saves genetic strains that may have originated generations ago in family gardens.

But it takes planning and good timing.

"Seed saving has always been a common way to save seeds that were adapted to local climates or that had local historical value," said John Porter, an educator with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. "The practice has become much more popular with the increase of home food gardening and interest in heirlooms over the last few years."

Gardeners can save seeds from just about anything that produces fruit or seeds, Porter said. Open- or self-pollinated plants like beans, lettuce, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes are among the best, since their offspring will be the most dependable.

Annuals are most commonly used because they're reliable about producing seeds.

"Not all perennials produce seeds, and sometimes they need treatments to break their dormancy," Porter said.

Hybrids are the plant byproducts of two different varieties and combine the qualities of both. Hybrids are valued for their disease resistance but are not stable enough for seed saving. Their offspring may display the mixed traits of earlier generations.

Heirlooms, meanwhile, are open-pollinated varieties that either have a family or local history or that have been around for 50 or more years, said Weston Miller, a horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

"As a rule, heirlooms are open-pollinated, otherwise they wouldn't be easy to save," he said.

Plan ahead

Determine which open-pollinated edibles you want in your garden or on your dining table and then learn their growing cycles. Determine as they develop which are the healthiest and save them as the mother plants. Allow those to ripen beyond their normal harvest period.

"It is important to wait long enough for the fruit and seed of the plant to mature," Porter said, "but harvest early enough that rotting isn't an issue. The seeds won't necessarily rot when the fruit does, but nobody enjoys digging through rotten produce to harvest seeds."

Lettuce and bean seeds can be removed from the plants once they are dry and hard, Miller said.

"Don't harvest seeds when the plants are wet from precipitation," he said.

Store seeds in tightly sealed glass containers in a cool, dark location.

"Make sure that you label seeds with the type of seed and date," Miller said. "A small packet of silica desiccant or powered milk in the jar can help to remove moisture and keep the seeds dry.

"The refrigerator or freezer is also a good place for storing seeds that you collect and also seeds that you buy. Put small seeds in envelopes and label them. Place the envelopes in sealable freezer bags."

Seed saving requires time and energy but the effort is worth it, Porter said.

"Seed saving not only preserves a plant variety for the future, but also the history of that variety," he said. "Saving seeds from plants that perform well in your garden is also a basic form of plant selection that over time develops a strain of that plant that is adapted to thrive in your local climate."