Saving seeds doesn’t have to be a frightening task and can even be absolutely easy, according to Fred Bove of the San Francisco Permaculture Guild. Instead of waiting for the last riffraff plants to flower, he instructs to look for the biggest, most colorful specimens that were among the first few plants to become ripe.
He urges to resist harvesting the first beautiful flower, vegetable or herb of any one planting, and allow full maturity.
“You want to save the best characteristics (of any plant) and pass them on,” explained Bove. Depending on the plant, you may want to select for size, flavor or how quickly it takes for the crop to reach maturity. “That way, you’re promoting the desired characteristics in the next generation of seeds.”
The next important challenging task is identifying a seed that’s ready for saving. There are different ways to save seeds, depending on the variety. Plants in the apiaceae family, which includes parsley, fennel and cilantro, will bloom and form umbrella-shaped flowers (called umbels).
“If you pick them a bit too early, the seeds won’t develop enough to reproduce and you’ll plant them and nothing will happen.” To single out seeds that are ready to save, look for flowers that are beginning to drop off. Look more closely and you will see what Bove describes as “little green nubs.” These nubs, or seeds contain all the relevant information for future plants.
Once the plant is cut, there’s no communication coming from the stem indicating to keep on living. Now it’s time to preserve the next generation.
How to Harvest Seeds
- Identify the earliest, best-looking and most floriferous plants in your garden.
- Watch and wait for the plant’s seeds to ripen. When the flowers begin to drop away, you will see “little green nubs.”
- Cut the flowering plant with garden shears.
- Carefully place the flowers upside-down in a small paper bag, ensuring any seeds that fall go directly into the bag.
- Close the bag and tie a string around the top, leaving a loop at the end.
- Hang the bag through the loop in a cool, dry place, away from any drafts.
- Examine the seeds every few days. As they dry out, the seeds will fall out of the stems to the bottom of the bag.
- When the seeds are dry (about two weeks) rub the bag, as if you’re warming up your hands over a fire. This will further separate the chaff from the seeds.
- Pour the seeds out of the bag and onto a flat surface.
- Separate out anything that is not a seed. This can include leaves, stems, chaff and other debris.
- Store in a closed container and label with the year and type of seed. If stored away from moisture, most seeds will be viable from three to five years.
- Put your seed in the ground during the next planting season.
How to Save other Seed Types
- Beans and peas: The easiest seeds to save – just wait for the seedpod to sell and dry out.
- Brassicas: The brassica family includes cabbage, mustard, kale and broccoli. They have “seedheads” that can be saved and stored like apiaceae family plants.
- Melon and pumpkins: Remove the seeds, clean and dry.
Hard to Save Seeds
Some seeds, like lettuces and radicchio, are small and fiddly and therefore harder to collect and store.
The art of seed saving has been practiced for centuries. The thought of this daunting task could send any novice gardener straight to the seed catalog. But for the adventures organic gardener, saving seeds if done right can bring years of great produce and glorious blooms economically.