Saving Vegetable Seeds
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated - September 01, 2004

I wish I had been able to keep “ alive” a tomato that my father-in-law grew. It was one of those varieties that circulate among a community of gardeners. He did not recall how he obtained it, but it was a family favorite for many years. It, unfortunately, is only a delicious memory.

Seed saving is, of course, at the origin of agriculture and is still practiced by some gardeners today. Tomatoes may be one of the most popular crops for seed saving, but there are some other vegetables and many herbs and flowers that can be grown from saved seed. Success means paying attention to some basics of seed biology.

The retail seed market tends to be dominated by hybrids, plants developed from crosses of pure parent lines. Hybrid cultivars may (though not always) produce viable seed, but the plants that result will not be the same as the original plant, they do not “come true’. Gardeners should not save seed from hybrids except as an experiment just to see what results.

Crops that are wind or insect pollinated can be a little tricky for seed saving. A well-known example is melons, squashes and relatives, many of which can cross-pollinate. This means that crops derived from saved seed will be very unpredictable and probably not worth growing. To attempt saving seed from these and other cross-pollinating crops, grow only one variety and hope that there aren’t others being grown in the area.

The best bets for saving vegetable seed are non-hybrid crops that are self-pollinating, though there is still no guarantee against an occasional cross. These include tomato, pepper, eggplant, beans, lettuce and peas. Non-hybrid herbs are worth trying as are many annual flowers, especially if only one variety of a species is grown.

Actual collection is pretty simple for seeds other than those borne in fleshy fruits like tomato. They must be allowed to mature on the plant and be collected before pods open or seed heads disperse or birds and other animals make their own “collection”. Paper bags are the seed savers best friend. Mature but unopened pods and seed heads can be placed in bags where they may release seeds. If not, the seeds need to be extracted and dried.

Seed-bearing flesh, like that of tomato, is extracted from the fruit and allowed to ferment with a little added water and regular stirring for up to four days. Then, with careful washing the “good” seeds fall to the bottom, separating from the other residue. The collected seeds must be allowed to thoroughly dry.

All will be for naught if collected seed isn’t properly stored cool and dry. The refrigerator provides the right temperature as long as the seeds are really dry and are packaged in moisture-tight containers. Don’t forget to label with name and date. Seed longevity depends on species and on storage conditions and can vary considerably. Keeping seeds more than one year can be risky.

There are a few downsides to saving garden seed. It is time consuming and may not provide the reliability of purchased seed. Certain diseases are seed transmitted so it is very important to collect seed only from healthy, normal-looking plants. Seed savers can’t have a neatly deadheaded flowerbed, and the life of those vegetable crop plants chosen for seed collection may be shortened. The up-sides are access to hard…or impossible…to buy varieties, cost savings, perhaps, and the pleasure of helping complete the garden’s cycle.