How to Save Seeds on a Small Scale

seeds in hands

As I plan my garden each spring, I think forward to what seeds I might want to save, and make sure that my garden is structured in such a way that I can do that. I only save easy seeds — I have not yet bothered with isolation tents or hand pollination — so the ones I do save usually come at me pretty easily.

One of these years, though, it might be worthwhile for me overwinter some biennial crops, like beets, carrots, or cabbage, to get seeds their second year. Luckily, I live in the same town as Seed Savers Exchange, so there’s a lot of expertise nearby for me to draw on. The only thing that I know for sure is that if I’m trying to do easy seed saving, and get the same variety next year as I planted this year, I want to make sure to use open-pollinated or heirloom varieties rather than hybrids.

Saving seeds is easy, money-saving and ensures superior plants and produce, year after year. This self-contained kit has all you’ll need to get started. At Lehmans.com.

Saving seeds is easy, money-saving and ensures superior plants and produce, year after year. This self-contained kit has all you’ll need to get started. At Lehmans.com.

Here’s a list of the seeds I’m planning to save this year, and what considerations I make for them as I’m planting my garden:

amish snap peas

Peas: I love growing snap peas, and I only grow one variety, so it’s not too hard to make sure that nothing crosses. The thing to remember when saving snap peas is that I want to make sure that I keep the earliest-maturing genetics, which means saving seed from the first pods that the plants set. The problem with that is that I want to eat the first pods the plants set! Furthermore, if I leave all the earliest pods on the plant, it will not be as prolific, since the reason pea plants continue to make more pods is that they are trying to make seeds that will survive — if they already have some seeds maturing, they’ll put their energy into those first pods rather than making more. To solve that problem, I select a small section of my pea row that I will use for seed saving; the rest of it I plan to harvest for market. For the ones I’m saving for seed, I wait until the peas dry fully, harvest the pods into a mesh bag, leave them in an airy place, and then shell them when I’m ready.

kentucky wonder beans

Beans: I treat green beans similarly to peas, choosing a certain part of the row to reserve for seed saving. I grow many more varieties of beans than I do peas, mostly dry bush beans of many colors. Bean flowers will self-pollinate, so I don’t need to worry too much about growing different varieties of beans right next to each other, though if I were saving seed for sale I would be sure to separate the varieties by at least 20 feet.

squash in bowl

Squash: The great thing about squash is that there are 3 different species, so even though pollinators will travel long distances and cross-pollinate squash, I can have up to three different varieties in the same garden, as long as they are of different species, and not have to worry about cross pollination. Cucurbita maxima, which buttercup and hubbard-type squashes belong to, and Cucurbita moschata, which are butternut squashes, are easy to save AND eat! As long as you have only one variety of each in the garden, you can harvest as usual in the fall, mark the most perfect specimens, and when you cut them open to eat, simply remove the seeds, rinse them in a colander, getting any residual stringy goop off, and set them out on a plate for a few days with a paper towel to wick up the moisture. Cucurbita pepo is a little harder, because not only does it include acorn and delicata squashes, it also includes zucchinis and summer squashes… which means that if you save seed from an acorn squash that was in the same garden as some zucchinis, in all likelihood you will not get an acorn squash when you plant those saved seeds.

sweet corn

Corn: This is easily my favorite seed to save—getting a perfect cob of beautiful dry kernels is a wondrous thing; and another excellent thing is that, in a lot of cases, you can see on the cob whether or not the corn has crossed with another variety. Corn is wind-pollinated, and very prolific with its pollen, so if you live in corn country like I do, you need to plant a substantial block of corn to make sure that your corn pollinates itself rather than having the neighbor’s field corn pollinate it instead, crossing the genetics like crazy. Needless to say, it’s smartest to only grow one variety of corn in order to keep the seed as pure as you can; you can also try growing two kinds that tassel at different times, so that their pollen won’t get in each others’ way.

amish paste tomato seeds

Tomatoes: the great thing about saving seed from tomatoes is that not only do I get to save seed, I get to ferment something! If I’m saving seed from tomatoes, I try to plant the variety I want to save from in a block, and save from the center of that block — tomatoes self-pollinate but they also have the potential to cross. I pick the most perfect, earliest fruits that I can, from plants without signs of disease, chop them in half, and squeeze out the seeds with the juice into a cup. I try to do several tomatoes of one variety at a time. I make sure the seeds have enough juice to cover them, add a little water if necessary, and let them sit at room temperature for a few days. Once they’ve developed a little layer of white mold on top, I know that the seeds have fermented enough to disintegrate the membrane that inhibits germination on the outside of the seed. Then, I rinse them with water and place them on a paper towel, stirring them and breaking them apart from each other as they dry.

bull nose peppers

Peppers: almost exactly the same as tomatoes except I don’t let them ferment — I just rinse them right away. WATCH OUT for hot peppers though! Wear gloves if you’re going to get seeds from them or you’ll regret it for days, and when you’re rinsing them be prepared to cry and have your sinuses cleansed!

Potatoes: While not technically seeds, I save the genetics of the potato and propagate them the following year by saving the best tubers, without disease, keeping them in the basement for the winter, and cutting them up and replanting in the spring.

garlic

Garlic: Also not technically a seed, but garlic is one of those things that is very expensive to buy for planting, so it’s really nice to save my own. The good thing about garlic is that I re-plant it in the fall rather than in the spring, so there’s no chance I’ll start eating my seed stock out of desperation in the winter — it’s already in the ground!

The seed saver's bible! 228 pages of techniques for growing, harvesting, drying and storing the seeds of 160 vegetables. Detailed information on each including pollination methods, isolation distance and proper care. Organized by family, genus and species. At Lehmans.com.

The seed saver’s bible! 228 pages of techniques for growing, harvesting, drying and storing the seeds of 160 vegetables. Detailed information on each including pollination methods, isolation distance and proper care. Organized by family, genus and species. At Lehmans.com.