Garden Seed Saving

Sweet pea plants
Sweet Peas are a Great Seed Saving Plant

Gardeners have been saving seeds for centuries. Pioneers were some of our first seed savers, guaranteeing they could grow the same beans, corn and squash year after year. You may recall watching a grandparent save seed such as sweet peas. Entire books are written about seed saving as it can get rather technical. If you garden like us there is information that is good to know or interesting but we don’t necessarily worry about it.
Let’s cover the technical first. If you want the seed you save to grow identical to the parent it is important to know what type of plant you are saving the seed from. It could be an heirloom, an open pollinated, or a hybrid. This information can be on the seed company website, or the seed package.

Open Pollinated is a term to describe plants naturally pollinated by insects, birds, rain or wind. The seed produced is the same as the parent plant when isolated with distance from other similar varieties. With our zinnias for example we first ensure no cross pollination occurs by covering the blooms in a fabric bag. We will hand pollinate the best blooms on the healthiest plant. Use a clean paintbrush to move pollen from one bloom onto all the florets of the bloom. Allow the bloom to dry before removing from plant.

Bloom covered to avoid cross pollination
Bloom covered to avoid cross pollination

Heirloom is a term for a plant that the seed will be true to the parent and has been in existence for over 50 years. Think of the seeds your great grandparents gave to your grandparents. Heirloom and open pollinated are often confused. An heirloom is an open pollinated plant but an open pollinated plant may not be an heirloom. These were not your grandparents seeds.

Black Cherry Tomato from Heirloom Seed

Black Cherry Tomato from Heirloom Seed

Hybrids are when a plant breeder purposely crosses two varieties. They are breeding for colour, bloom size, disease resistance, flavour or production. These seeds are often marked with F1 on the package meaning 1st generation. These sometimes have a patent. You can save seeds from these, but you will likely get a variety of plants. Some will likely resemble the original plants used in the cross pollination and some will look like the plant you gathered the seed from. Think of Forrest Gump “Life is like a box of chocolates”. Seed from a hybrid is often referred to as unstable, meaning you don’t know what you will get. Only by isolating the blooms that resemble the first plant with an organza bag or netting, saving the seed , then repeating the process over 7 or 8 growing seasons will you end up with a stable seed. A stable seed produces a plant identical to the original plant the seed was first saved from. Personally I’m a tad too long in the tooth and lazy to do this. I’ll take the box of chocolates and embrace the variety.

You can save seeds from annuals, a plant that completes its life cycle in one growing season. We have saved seeds from petunias, zinnias, poppies, nicotiana, cucumbers and tomatoes. You may also save seeds from biennials. These need two years to set seed. We have collected seed from parsnip, carrots and hollyhocks.

One can also collect seed from perennials. We have saved seeds from yarrow, delphinium, coneflower and helenium.

How to Save Seed
Seeds need to be collected from a mature bloom or fruit. For items such as poppies, allow the pod to ripen or dry in the garden. Flowers like petunias can be collected if you do not deadhead, allow the seed pod to turn brown, but collect before it breaks open. Remove from the plant, place the pod in a shallow dish and allow to dry until it is hard. Once hard break the pod to release the seed. Tiny seeds such as poppy, nicotiana and petunia can be separated from the chaff by pouring seeds through a fine strainer. Larger seeds such as carrot can be separated from the chaff by pouring seed from one container to another with about a foot or more space between the containers. The seed is heavy enough to drop into the container but the chaff is light and will blow away in a light breeze.

Seeds can be stored in small containers. Our preference is coin envelopes such as these ones . Mark the envelope with the name and year collected. I like to also take photos of the plants I saved the seeds from and label with a system such as zinnia 1. This system allows me to find the pictures of the zinnia next spring when planting. Seed packages should be stored in a cool, dry and dark location. I use a plastic tub with a lid in our cold storage room to store all our paper seed envelopes.

Some seeds such as tomatoes or cucumbers have a jelly like coating. This should be removed before saving the seeds. A great method is to ferment the seeds. Place the seeds into a small jar with a small amount of water. Place a coffee filter on top and set aside for 3-4 days in a warm spot. After 3-4 days there will likely be mold on top. Remove the mold, then pour the contents into a strainer and rinse with cold water. Lay out the seeds to dry. Seeds can be tested for dryness with pliers. If the seed cracks under pressure it is dry, if it squishes it is not dry enough.

Germination Rate
Before storing away you seeds, it’s a good idea to confirm your germination rate. Doing this during the growing season gives you time to save more seeds if necessary.
To check your seeds dampen a piece of paper towel. Place 10 seeds on the paper towel and place into a resealable plastic bag. Set aside and check every few days to ensure the towelling is still damp. Depending on the seed in a matter of 10-14 days the seeds will have sprouted. Count the sprouted seeds. If 8 of the 10 have sprouted that’s an 80% germination rate which is pretty good. Mark that on the package. If only two have sprouted that’s a low germination rate. One option is to try saving more seed and checking the germination rate again. The other option mark the package as low germination and the number such as 20%. The next growing season you will want to perhaps sow 80% more than the number of plants you wanted but there’s no guarantee you will get enough. It’s a fingers crossed situation.

When saving seeds certain plants such as tomato, peppers, beans and lettuce have blooms with male and female parts. These are referred to as self pollinating and a good candidate for seed saving. Now unless you take measures to isolate blooms by growing only one variety and growing at a distance from any other garden, or netting the blooms to avoid cross pollination it is possible that you will develop a hybrid. We don’t get fussy about this but take any hybrids as a surprise and a marvel of nature.

Benefits of Seed Saving
Seed saving is a great way to preserve a variety. It will be hardy, with traits such as taste and disease resistance. It is also well suited to your garden as that is the environment it was raised in.

Seed saving is economical. I will spend gobs of money as I go through seed catalogs. Yes an addiction I’m afraid. Every year I find other items I want to try. By having some of my own seed I can lessen the burden on my wallet and not feel guilty about ordering seeds of something new.

Seed saving is a great way to increase your plants. Some communities have garden clubs where seeds can be traded.

We first started to save seeds due to the seed shortage of a particular variety. For us it was a pastel coloured zinnia. By saving our own seed we avoided not being able to get the seeds the following year as they were sold out everywhere.

All it costs is a bit of time. It’s fun to see what the next years flower may look like. It is a wonderful way to involve children and perhaps even a legacy for the next generation. Who knows in years from now perhaps a great grandchild will be planting sweet peas the family named after you, because you took the time to start saving seeds.