Seed Saving Hybrids, Heirlooms and Open-Pollinated Plants
When you’re just getting started seed saving, the first thing you need to know is whether or not the plant you want to save seeds from is an open-pollinated, heirloom or hybrid plant.
You only want to save seeds from open-pollinated plants because these plants will produce seeds that will reproduce true to their parent plant (meaning the seeds will regrow into the same type of plant as they came from).
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds that have been carefully selected from the healthiest, most productive plants and passed down through generations. These are a fantastic choice for seed saving! All heirloom plants are open-pollinated plants, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirloom plants. Still, either or will produce seeds that can be saved.
Don’t waste your time trying to save seeds from hybrid plants.
Open-pollinated seeds will be marked with the abbreviation “OP”. Hybrid seeds will be marked with “F1,” short for Filial 1, which essentially means the first generation of a plant from two cross-bred parent plants.
Cross-Pollinating Vs. Self-Pollinating Plants
Cross pollinating plants require pollen from other plants in the same species in order to become fertilized. Self-pollinating plants fertilize themselves. This difference is important because cross-pollinating plants can actually cross with different varieties of plant in the same species, which can result in seeds that grow into plants that are a strange mix of the two parent plants rather than the plant that you saved them from (similar to the offspring from hybrid plants).
So, for example, squash are cross-pollinating plants and different varieties are notorious for crossing with each other. Pumpkins can cross with spaghetti squash, zucchinis can cross with butternuts and the resulting offspring can be a strange mix of both parent plants that’s actually quite unlike the plant that you saved it from. Plants in the brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, etc), will also cross-pollinate with each other.
While it is possible to save seeds from cross-pollinating plants, it can take a fair amount of time, effort and experience to get it right.
Self-pollinating plants, on the other hand, are incredibly easy to save seeds from even if you’re a new gardener or seed saver. Seeds from self-pollinating plants will breed true, meaning they’ll produce offspring that are the same plant as the one you saved them from.
Self-pollinating plants include peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce.
Choosing Which Plants to Save Seeds From
When saving seeds from the plants in your garden, select the healthiest, best producing plants to save seeds from. Just like humans and animals, plants take on the characteristics of their parents, so if you want to produce strong, healthy, high-yielding offspring, start with strong, healthy, high-yielding parent plants.
Next, let the fruit ripen completely before saving seeds. Let it over-ripen, even. This helps ensure that the seeds have matured as much as possible and mimics the natural conditions of a plant that is ready to seed itself.
How to Save Pea and Bean Seeds
Heirloom peas and beans are open-pollinated, so they set seed that will grow into plants similar to the parent plant. Allow the peas and beans you plan on saving to dry on the plant. Once the pods turn brown and the seeds rattle inside, they are ready to harvest. This is about 6 weeks after you harvest beans for eating and about 4 weeks after the normal picking stage for peas.
Protect plants from frost or pull them out of the ground and hang them in a cool dry location, so the pods can finish drying. Remove the pods from the plants and allow them to further dry indoors for about two weeks.
Remove the seeds from the dried pods, store in an airtight opaque container in a cool dark location. Label with the varietal name and date the seeds were collected.
How to Save Seeds from Tomatoes and Peppers
Tomato and pepper seeds grow inside the fruit, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve ever cut into one of these common fruits/vegetables (and who hasn’t?)
Let the tomatoes or peppers you’ll be saving seeds ripen fully on the vine before harvesting them. Then, to save seeds, simply cut them open and remove the seeds from the inside.
For peppers, all you need to do is lay out the seeds and let them dry just like peas and beans. For tomatoes, technically you can do the same, but allowing them to ferment for a couple days actually makes it easier to save seeds from them AND makes the seeds more viable in the end.
To ferment tomato seeds, remove them from the tomato and put them in a jar along with whatever pulp that’s naturally attached to them. Then, cover with a couple inches of water and place a coffee filter or some cheesecloth on top (just to keep bugs out).
After three or four days the seeds are ready to be dried. First of all, discard any seeds that have floated to the top. Usually this is a sign that those seeds are not viable, so fermenting helps to weed out the “bad” seeds. Next, dump the water out and strain the seeds through a fine mesh sieve. Run them under cold water and gently rub them against the sieve until all of the pulp washes away. You’ll be left with nice, clean tomato seeds.
Lay clean tomato seeds out to dry (I like to put mine on a paper towel) and allow them to air dry for a few days until completely dry, then store.
How to Save Lettuce Seeds
Lettuce seeds are easy to save, but a little more finicky. To save lettuce seeds, allow the plant to flower and let the flowers die and go to seed. The flower heads will turn white and fluffy, similar to what dandelion flowers look like once they’ve gone to seed.
Pull out the white fluffy bits and the seeds will be attached to the ends. Gently pull the seeds off and discard the fluff. Dry seeds and store.
Saving Seeds from Biennial Plants
Some plants are called biennials which means they take two years to produce seeds. Biennials include carrots, beets and onions.
In order to save seeds from these plants, you’ll want to leave them in the ground to over winter. Then they’ll start growing again in the spring and by late spring/early summer you should be able to collect the seeds.
How to Store Seeds Properly
All seeds should be completely dry before storing.
They should be kept in a paper envelope or paper bag to ensure they are well aerated and won’t go moody if there’s any hint of moisture left in or around them. However if they are really dry, you can store them in a Mason jar or even a plastic ziplock bag. Paper envelopes are best though, which is why store-bought seeds are sold in similar style packets.
Store seeds in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
Most seeds will be viable for up to four years after saving them. Some will stay good much longer than that. But as a general rule, germination rates drop with every year that the seeds are not planted, so newer seeds are better.
Finally, ALWAYS label your seeds! You think you’ll remember which are which, but you won’t always, especially if the seeds are from the same species of plant but different varieties and the seeds look similar.
- Only save seeds from open-pollinated and/or heirloom plants.
- Choose self-pollinating plants if you’re just getting started or want to keep things simple.
- Save seeds from your healthiest, most vigorous, highest-yielding plants.
- Allow fruit to ripen completely before saving seeds to ensure the seeds have had enough time to fully mature.
- Air dry seeds completely before storing. Keep them out of direct sunlight and high temperatures.
- Store seeds in a cool, dark, dry place, preferably in a paper envelope or bag to ensure good airflow and no chance of mold.