In autumn, most of us clean up our gardens, put our perennials to bed and wait anxiously for next year’s seed catalogs to arrive. While the catalogs are exciting, other adventures await the gardener curious enough to save seeds for the following year.
In these times of industrial seed production, it is good to remember that the history of seed saving is as old as human settlement. People collected seeds from wild plants, grew them in gardens, and selected individuals that were productive and tasty to grow the following year.
If you grew open-pollinated (non-hybrid) vegetable varieties this year, you can save the seeds and grow them next year.
Avoid saving seeds from hybrids because they will produce plants that are not like the parent. Hybrid seeds are produced by controlled cross pollination of two different varieties and are usually listed as “F1” in seed catalogues. For saving, choose seeds from open-pollinated varieties (sometimes called heirlooms).
Best for beginners are species that self-pollinate, meaning that the flower has both male and female parts. These include beans, peas, lettuce and tomatoes. Pollination takes place within the flower itself, without depending on insects or wind. This ensures that the seed will produce plants that are true to type. Seed can be saved from insect- or wind-pollinated plants but require an isolation distance from others of the same species to breed true.
Save seeds from healthy plants. Allow the fruit to fully ripen before removing the seeds. For beans or peas, let the pods dry on the vine. Once you collect the seeds, let them dry on a paper plate in a well-ventilated area.
There are many varieties of open-pollinated tomatoes, and many gardeners save their favorites. Cut open the tomato and remove the seeds and surrounding gel. The gel prevents germination, so seeds do not sprout inside the ripe tomato. Put the seeds and gel in a container, add two tablespoons of water, and cover it with plastic wrap. Poke a couple of holes in the plastic and put the container aside for three or four days until the surface of the seed/gel mix becomes covered with mold. This fermentation process breaks down the gel and kills many seed-borne diseases. Once the mold has formed, pour the mess into a strainer and rinse with clean water until only the seeds are left. Dry them thoroughly on a paper plate in a warm dry place out of direct sun.
Once your seeds are dry, wrap them in paper or put them in a small envelope. Be sure to label them clearly with variety and date. Store your saved seeds in an airtight container and keep them as cold as possible until planting time. If stored properly, they will remain viable for four to five years. Collect seeds from more than one plant if possible.
As a seed saver, you become part of an ancient tradition. If you want to learn more, I recommend the book "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth, published in 2002 by Seed Savers Exchange. You can find detailed information on the science of seed saving, plus instructions for saving seeds of more than 100 vegetable varieties.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Connie Mehmel is one of four columnists featured. To learn more, visit wwrld.us/cdmg or call 667-6540.