Saving your own seeds provides many benefits

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By Chris Coulter

Agriculture Columnist

A few weeks ago, we discussed the practical obsession of seed saving. This week, I’d like to delve into the basics of saving your own vegetable seed.

Producing and collecting seed from your own garden has many benefits, with one of the greatest being cost savings. While seeds aren’t that expensive, my seed bill every year always shocks me.

As a commercial farm, we do use a lot more seed than a normal backyard gardener, but I’ll attribute most of the weight of my seed bill to my desire to try one of everything new. If I could bring myself to stick to the basics, much of the seed we use can be saved year after year, with plenty of cost savings.

In order to save pure seed that will produce fruit like its parent, we are limited to saving open-pollinated seeds. Seed you save from hybrid plants will produce something, but it often won’t have the attributes of the parent plant, and may actually be quite horrid, if still technically edible. Most hybrids are denoted by the F1 designation on their variety name. Most anything else is fair game for saving seed provided you provide proper isolation.

Some vegetables are self-pollinating, and others will readily cross with other types, whether by wind or by insect pollination. To prevent cross-pollination between two separate varieties, a certain amount of isolation distance is needed.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and beans all self-pollinate, so saving seed from different varieties in the same garden will likely result in pure seed.

Most of the cucurbit family — like cucumbers, squash, melons, and pumpkins — all readily cross pollinate within type. If you save seed from this group, stick to growing one variety in your garden at a time to insure pure seed.

Contrary to popular belief, cucumbers, cantaloupe, melons and different types of pumpkins will not cross between themselves, as they are different species. Instances where your cucumbers didn’t act right isn’t because there are cantaloupes planted nearby, but most likely some other factor.

Remember that if your neighbors have gardens as well, insects and wind can bring in pollen from quite a distance, making a little cross-pollination likely. A small percentage of crossing between types isn’t all that bad a thing, as you can cull out any off-types the next time you plant. Only saving seed from plants that produce desirable fruit will result in maintaining these pure lines of seed.

Once you have selected plants to save seed from, wait until the fruit is completely mature. You can harvest your veggies for most of the season and leave a few fruits to get fully ripe towards the end of the plant’s life cycle. Mature seed is often darker in color and has a firm seed coat. Saving the seed from most vegetables is as easy as removing them from the fruit, washing them a bit and then leaving them to dry out for a few days.

Some seeds, like those from tomatoes, benefit from a bit of fermentation to remove the gelatinous coating around the seeds. You can just take the pulp from the tomato and put it in a cup for a few days, where it will get foamy, at which point you wash them off and dry them. A colander and a paper towel makes a good combination to wash tomato seeds from pulp.

After seeds are dry, make sure you label them and store them in a cool, dry place. Heat and moisture are the enemies of seed longevity, so the cooler and drier the better.

Recycled spice containers or baby food jars make good seed storage containers, but a plastic freezer bag works just as well. We store most of our saved seeds in the freezer, where they’ll stay viable for years. In fact, we just recently acquired some heirloom bean seed from a family member who found some seed in their mother’s deep freeze. They had been in the freezer for at least 15 years, and they germinated just fine.

That leaves us with a final benefit of seed saving — you aren’t dependent on an out-of-state seed company for this year’s garden. Just pull a deposit from your own personal seed bank and start growing. And while you’re at it, share some with a friend.