Q: Is there anything I can do now as my garden dwindles down to save some of my annual flowers and vegetable seeds for next year?
Seeds are cheap – a heck of a lot cheaper than buying perennial plants – but those little packages do add up, especially if like me, you’ve got a seed-hoarding problem. Fortunately, there are tons of backyard plants that you can easily collect seed from this year and into the future that will save you from purchasing new each spring. In some cases you may yield enough to satisfy your own needs plus glean plenty of extras to trade with other seed-saving gardeners for plants and special varieties that you would otherwise buy.
What to Save
It’s important to know whether the seeds you are saving are from hybrid varieties, as they cannot be relied upon to produce plants that are like their parents. It’s hard to know how their progeny will turn out, and in some cases the seed may be sterile and won’t grow at all. That’s not to say that you can’t save them, just that you should be aware that they might not turn out the crop you had hoped for. Most seed packets and catalogues will tell you if the variety is a hybrid or not. Look for a mark that says F1. Your surest bet for saving seed are from open-pollinated and heirloom varieties as they will turn out a dependable crop. They are sometimes indicated with either OP or H.
Timing is Everything
When to harvest seed from a plant or a fruit is critical since immature seeds will not germinate. The trick is to leave them to develop on the plant for as long as possible until they are fully mature and crackling dry. When it comes to fruit that we eat such as cucumber, eggplant, and zucchini, the stage at which the seeds are fully mature is often well after the fruit is considered edible. Growing these fruits to full maturity is very taxing to the plant and will often bring an end to its productivity. In these cases it is best to wait until the end of the season and save seed from the last fruit.
How to Harvest
- Dry Harvesting (eg. beans, peas, zinnia, calendula, onion, mustard, lettuce, cosmos, marigold, California poppy): Try to catch seedpods when they are fully mature, but before they burst and spill their seed all over the ground. One simple way to do this is by tying a paper bag over a cluster of several seedpods when they are starting to turn brown but before they dry. When the seeds are dry you can snip the entire stem off with the bag intact and turn it over so that the seeds are caught inside.
- Fleshy Fruit (eg. tomatoes, cucumbers, melons): Allow these fruits to mature on the plant fully before harvesting. Tomatoes are best when they have begun to rot, and cucumbers should be allowed to grow big with hard, tough skins before harvesting.
- Peppers: Pepper seed requires no special processing. Simply wait until the pepper has turned red on the plant and has begun to shrivel. Cut the pepper open and scoop the seeds out onto a piece of paper to dry.
The trick to storing seeds long-term is to make sure that they are super dry before storing. Recycled newspaper and newsprint, old window screens, paper plates and trays lined with dry rags all make good, thrifty seed drying contraptions.
I prefer little paper coin envelopes for storage, as there is no risk of condensation forming inside. You can store packets in the fridge if you prefer, but I find that a cool, dry spot in a dark cupboard or old metal card catalogue is adequate for most flower and vegetable seeds.
Garden authority Gayla Trail is the creator of YouGrowGirl.com.