The Lost Art Of Seed-Saving

For centuries, those who worked in the soil saved the precious seeds of the crops they grew, stored them over the long winter and then planted them in the spring, perpetuating nature’s cycle. 

Gradually, as seedsmen introduced new varieties, and we became busier, the process of saving our own seeds has grown out of favor. It’s so much easier to order a packet of seeds from glossy color catalogs or pick them out of spinning cardboard racks at the "we sell everything" stores. 

But it’s easy and fun to save seeds from our gardens. There is a real sense of accomplishment that comes with successfully germinating our own seeds, and best of all, it saves money too. A packet of seeds can run anywhere from 10 cents to several dollars, but seed-savers can collect thousands of seeds of certain plants for nothing. 

Although the seed we buy is decent, we’re not getting the best of show. There’s an old saying that says home gardeners get the sweepings off the seedsman’s floor. The highest-quality seed always is sold to commercial growers who depend on the seeds for a living. I was surprised when my first-year tomato seeds showed 100 percent germination. Fresh seed, harvested and stored properly, will always be better than seeds with an unknown history of storage, shipping and other variables. 

Gardeners must learn when the seed of a certain plant is ready to harvest before the seed is gone.

Saving seed has become somewhat of a lost art. There’s really nothing simpler to do, but understanding the life cycle of different plants is essential in harvesting seed at the right time. Most plants grow, flower or fruit, set seeds and then drop them to the ground hoping a few will germinate to perpetuate the species. Gardeners must learn when the seed of a certain plant is ready to harvest before the seed is gone. 

When it comes to tomatoes, peppers or eggplant, it’s easy. Pick a fruit that’s a little overripe but not rotten, and you’ll find mature seed. 

Annual flowers usually produce their seed as the plant ends its blooming cycle. When a marigold is done blooming, it will drop its petals, then the bud will swell and turn brown. When it dries, the bud falls downward and the seeds are released. An experienced seed-saver will get to the seeds right before the plant scatters them. 

It’s essential, though, that gardeners determine if the plant is a hybrid-cross or an open-pollinated variety. Hybrids are created by crossing two plants in an attempt to perpetuate certain traits each possesses. Seeds saved from a hybrid will not grow true. In other words, they will not produce the same plant; they revert to one of the parent plants, and they can also can be sterile and won’t sprout at all. 

Open-pollinated plants are the type to save seed from, although hybrids can be a fun experiment to see what might be produced from their seed.

To determine if a plant is hybrid or open-pollinated, check the plant tag; or if you know the variety of the plant, look up the information on the Web. Hybrids are always marked as such: If the word hybrid is not in the name, the plant is open-pollinated. 

Another advantage of saving seeds is that plants actually produce varieties bred for their own microclimate. Basic genetics tells us that plants change slowly over the years depending on the climate and other factors in the specific region. We might never see the difference in the plants, but the evolution of the plant is happening over a period of years. 

Once the seed is harvested, it must be dried and stored correctly. Seeds should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. I like to use mason jars made for canning. My basement shelves are filled with jars of paper envelopes full of seeds. Some were harvested last season, and others are from 15 years ago. The biggest factor in preserving seed for long periods is making sure they stay dry. I like to put a little bit of silica gel in each jar; it’s a powder that absorbs moisture. You can find it at craft stores. 

When a variety hasn’t been grown out in a few years, it’s a good idea to check the germination rate. Take 10 or 20 seeds and place them between moist paper towels. Put the paper towels in a sealed plastic bag, then put the bag into a warm spot. 

Check the bag after a week and then every few days to see what sprouts. If there’s less than 50 percent germination, discard the seeds. 

In addition to tomatoes, good candidates for seed-saving are beans, lettuce, peas, peppers and many types of flowers. Beans are always recommended for beginners because it’s easy enough to leave a few pods on a plant until they turn brown. The swollen beans inside are the seed, and when dried, these seeds harden and will store for years. 

Saving seeds is a rewarding endeavor that links gardeners to their past and connects them to the future in the form of vegetables and flowers that have a special meaning. 

Note: Tomato seeds need a little special care for saving. One note for beginners: Be sure to have something with which to label the seeds, because all tomato seeds look the same: Take the slightly overripe tomato, cut it in half and then squeeze the seeds out into a small, labeled glass of water. Stir the seeds once a day for three or four days while they ferment. This process eliminates the gelatinous coating that prevents the seed from germinating inside the tomato. It also helps kill seed-borne diseases. I prefer to pour the seeds onto a coffee filter for drying because they don’t stick to the filter as they would on a paper towel. In a couple of days, they will be ready.

Doug Oster is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s "Backyard Gardener." Log on to post-gazette.com/garden to read his columns, to see photos of his garden or to ask garden questions. He’s also host of the popular radio show "The Organic Gardeners," which airs every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KDKA Radio, AM 1020. For past shows log on to kdkaradio.com and follow the links to the show.  

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