For thousands of years, humans have been collecting and saving seeds for their own gardens or to distribute to others. If you scour the catalogs of any heirloom seed company, you’ll find countless stories of how home gardeners of long ago brought seeds with them as they immigrated to the U.S. in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
If you search even further about seed-saving, you may find stories of how African women transported seeds to the Caribbean by braiding rice seeds into their hair. Or you’ll learn about a bean variety that was carried with the Cherokee people as they trekked along on the infamous Trail of Tears.
I mean, think about that for a moment. If you were being thrust into a situation where you had to leave your home for good, facing an unknown future with possible food insecurity, would seeds be the first thing you thought to bring along? Probably not.
A critical part of farming (and let’s face it, surviving) was, in fact, saving seed. You had to save seed in order to use it to plant for next year. However, for many reasons, our entire agricultural mindset has shifted. Specifically, the rise of plant patents, plant hybrids, and large seed companies with heavy investments in plant breeding have made seed saving a thing of the past (and that’s a whole topic for another day).
Even as a home gardener, it’s typically easier to purchase new seed every year rather than save your own seed. In fact, if you’re growing hybrid flowers or vegetables, saving seed is ultimately useless unless you’re planning to conduct your own plant breeding experiment. (This is because the plants that grow from seeds saved from hybrid plants won’t look like their parent plant at all. In fact, they might not even look like each other.)
However, seed saving is just as important now as it was 200, 500, or even 2,000 years ago. In fact, it may be even more important now, as more plant varieties are lost each year due to crop failures or failure of a grower to save a variety, be it intentional or unintentional.
Why You Should Save Seed
So why should you save your own seed? Or at the very least, why should you learn to save your own seed?
As we saw during the COVID pandemic (ick, I hate to even mention that word), our supply chains are not perfect. Layoffs, shutdowns, shipping… It was a mess. And it still isn’t back to normal. I would venture to say that our supply problems were way better than they could have been, but still, this time created some unease within me.
I’m not here to fearmonger. But it did raise the question, shouldn’t we be thinking more intentionally about our garden as a complete system? We’ve been trained to think that our garden should start with a seed catalog and fresh, unopened packets of seed. Maybe we even think our garden should start with baby plants. Let’s just skip the seed stage and get on with it, right?
But what if we started saving our own seed? What if we created our own system in which we weren’t dependent on another to grow something, anything. What if we were able to pass these skills and seeds down to our friends and family? What if we were able to preserve life that might otherwise be lost?
A big step towards self-reliance, discovering new plants, or preserving old plants is by gathering and saving your own seed. So, without further ado, let’s dive into how you can gather and save your own seed.
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How to Collect Seed
Fall is a great time to collect seed from most plants because the plants are done flowering and the seedheads have begun to dry out. If you pay close attention to your surroundings, you may even be able to find seeds for some really neat native plants, too.
A few years ago, I spent an entire afternoon collecting seeds from several Illinois native plants. I had a bit of trouble identifying the plants at the stage they were in, but with some time, a plant I.D. book, and Google image search, I was able to figure it out. Later, I ended up growing my own giant hyssop, Illinois bundleflower, and partridge peas. I even used the giant hyssop in some cut flower arrangements for my customers.
Now, let’s dive into the top tips for collecting your own seeds!
Collect Seed from Multiple Plants If Possible
The important thing to remember when saving seed is to collect from multiple plants in a single population if possible. This helps preserve genetic diversity, especially if you are going to continue saving seed from the plants that you germinate. Eventually, if a single population of plants continue to cross with only each other, you’ll see reduced vigor, which is why genetic diversity is so important.
There are many great resources out there that specifically talk about saving seed. One book in particular that I have enjoyed reading is Starting and Saving Seeds by Julie Thompson-Adolf. I would advise purchasing this book if you’re looking to be serious about saving seeds.
You need to be wise with collecting and propagating seed from the wild, however. In some states it can be illegal to collect off of roadsides and you need to make sure you are not propagating a plant that may get out of control because of its invasive nature.
Save Seed from Open-Pollinated Plants
Some seeds that are saved from certain plants, specifically hybrid plants, will not grow true to type. This means that the offspring produced from seed of a hybrid plant will look much different from the parent plant and much different from each other. This happens because of the inherent genetic diversity of the hybrid plant that is created by cross-pollination.
Cross-pollination occurs via insects, wind, or by human intervention. We create hybrids by purposefully cross-pollinating two parent, or “inbred”, lines. The parents are typically very different from each other either physically or, at the very least, genetically.
Open-pollinated plants are those plants that will ultimately produce offspring similar to themselves. Heirloom varieties are usually open-pollinated plants, which is why they are easy to save seed from. A variety is an heirloom variety if it is older or has been passed down for many generations.
Many open-pollinated plants are self-pollinating. Self-pollinated plants usually produce reliable true-to-type offspring from their seeds.
Some examples of self-pollinated plants in the garden are tomatoes, peppers, beans, and peas.
Some plants, like dahlias, have a complex genetic makeup. Because of their high chromosome count, even when purposefully crossed with a dahlia of the same variety or with themselves, the offspring of that cross will still be highly variable. It is only by a series of crosses throughout multiple generations that the seeds saved will produce plants that have many similar traits.
For a deeper dive, you can check out other resources about plant genetics and breeding that will explain the science even further. I am a big fan of Kristine Albrecht’s book called Dahlia Breeding for the Farmer-Florist and the Home Gardener. She does a great job breaking down plant breeding. Learning about dahlia breeding in general is just fascinating, too!
Wait Until Seeds Have Formed
You’ll have to learn patience if you’re wanting to save your own seed. Most of the time we are harvesting fruit, vegetables, and flowers when the plants are in their prime. But when we save seed, most of the time we have to wait until the plant fully completes its life cycle so that the seed is fully mature.
For flower seed harvest, you’ll want to wait until the flower head has faded and is starting to turn brown. This is usually a good indication that the seeds are maturing in the flower head.
Some flower heads (usually arranged as a spike) are actually made up of multiple little flowers called florets. The florets typically bloom at the bottom of the spike first, and then continue up to the tip. These flowers, like celosia or cockscomb, still have a bright color to them, but you’ll notice small seeds starting to fall out of florets at the bottom of the spike that have bloomed at a much earlier time than the rest of the flower head.
Some plants produce small pods, like peas or beans. These will turn brown and brittle when they’re ready. When you shake the plant you may hear the small seeds rattling inside the pods.
Other plants produce a structure around their seeds, like a fruit (side note: did you know tomatoes are botanically considered berries?!) Tomatoes and peppers are examples.
For peppers, you’ll usually want to wait until the fruit has ripened past the point that you would harvest it for consumption. The peppers will start to soften. Slice open the pepper and pluck out the seeds for storage.
Tomato seeds are ripe when the fruit is ripe, but to harvest tomato seeds, you’ll have to go a step further and ferment the seeds before storage.
To harvest tomato seeds, split the tomato open and scrape out the inner flesh and seeds. Place all of this material in a jar and let it ferment for a few days. The fermentation process breaks down the gel seed coat which prevents the seed from germinating prematurely. In the garden if you let tomatoes drop onto the ground, the fermentation process occurs naturally as the fruit rots on the ground.
Only Collect Seed from Healthy Plants
It’s important to make sure you aren’t passing on any diseases, so you want to collect seeds only from healthy plants and fruit. Some plant pathogens can infect the seed and thus are considered seedborne diseases.
Also, healthy, vigorous plants will more than likely produce healthy, vigorous offspring. An unhealthy plant will sometimes have trouble setting seed, if at all.
In some instances, you may have a healthy plant, but seed production may be low due to poor pollination. I’ve had this happen one year when I planted ornamental corn. I only had two rows of corn, and many of the ears were not filled out when Fall rolled around.
Corn is pollinated by wind when the pollen from the tassel at the top comes to rest on the fresh, blonde silks where the ear will form. Planting multiple rows together would have boosted my pollination rate.
Another option to reduce your chances of poor pollination is to hand pollinate. This is done primarily in instances where you are purposefully making crosses for a desired outcome.
When I worked in the corn breeding nursery for a seed company, we would bag the corn tassel, smack the bag to release the pollen, and then quickly shove this bag over the top of the silky shoot.
In other cases of purposeful pollination, you may need to use a paintbrush to hand pollinate, as many plant breeders do for flowers and vegetables.
Cleaning Your Seed
Sometimes the seed does not easily separate from the seedhead. Or maybe the seed separates fine, but you’re left with all sorts of broken down plant material and chaff.
The simplest way I’ve found to “clean” the seed is to pour it into a stainless steel colander (or any colander with small holes). This will separate most of the chaff from the seed. You may need to run it through a few times or use colanders with different size holes. Mesh sieves can also be great to use, too!
If you’re finding there’s still really small bits of plant material, you can try blowing on the seeds to see if some of that loose, light plant material blows away. Sometimes if you shake a bowl you’ll see the seeds start to separate from the chaff, and then you can just use your fingers or a spoon to scoop out as much chaff as you can.
Ultimately, a little chaff won’t hurt. It just might make storage or planting more difficult. I do the best I can, but I’m not a seed company so I don’t really need it to be perfect.
How to Store Seed
You did it! You successfully collected seed from your flower or vegetable. Now you’ll need to store the seed for a bit until it’s time to plant it in the garden or sow it in propagation trays.
My go-to method for storing seed is using a plastic container with a lid. This keeps moisture out and also keeps it fairly air tight. Remember, seeds are still living. They are still respirating at a very miniscule rate, so they still need oxygen.
On a side note, that doesn’t mean that seeds can’t live in extreme conditions for years with little to no oxygen. But this also depends on the plant. Some seeds are more sensitive than others to storage conditions.
In fact, there have been studies conducted that involve burying different species of weed seed and then testing their germination rates over time. The results show that germination rate after a long period of time without optimal storage conditions depends on the species.
Within my airtight container, I store seeds in coin envelopes. I find that these little envelopes are the perfect size. They’re easy to fill, easy to label, and I can reseal them with a piece of tape if I don’t use all of the seed when it’s time to plant.
Keep it Cool, Dry, and Dark
Once your seeds are safely tucked away in coin envelopes, labeled properly, and organized in your plastic storage bin, find a spot in a cool, dry, dark place.
In the off season, I like to store my seeds in the basement. It gets cool, but never freezing, and ultimately they’re out of the way.
In the Spring and Summer, I bring the seeds up to the garage because I’m usually rifling through them for several weeks as I plant over and over again. The garage can get a little warm, but I try to store them in a space that’s out of direct sunlight when I’m not using them so they stay a little cooler.
I say this but this past Summer my seeds sat right on the countertop by a south-facing window. Oops!
Freezing Seed for Storage
While not my go-to method, you can also freeze seeds if you know you’ll be storing them for a long time.
The most important thing to consider when freezing seed for storage is to MAKE SURE YOUR SEEDS ARE FULLY DRY. As we know, water expands as it freezes. If there is any hint of moisture in your seeds, the water that freezes may destroy the tissues in the seed, making the seed non-viable.
I have stored Rudbeckia and Bells of Ireland seeds in the freezer for over a year and have had success with germinating them later. Sweet pea seeds were another candidate for storage in the freezer, but I have not tried that out yet. As always, it is usually seed dependent.
Some seeds are not good candidates for long-term storage, particularly seeds of the allium family, according to Cornell University. The allium family includes plants like onions, shallots, leeks, and chives. Some herb seeds do not store well, and additionally parsnips, celery, and fennel have reduced germination in long term storage, too.
Try harvesting and saving your own seeds this year!
If you’re eager to start saving your own seeds, then what’s stopping you from trying it out?! I would suggest picking 1 to 2 plants to save seeds from in your first year so you’re not overwhelmed.
Also, make sure you’re saving seeds from plants you actually want to grow. I did not take my own advice a few years ago when I went on my native plant seed-collecting spree, so now I’m storing a bunch of seeds that I don’t know what to do with. Regardless, it was a fun experience, and I enjoyed sharpening my plant identification skills as well!
If you’ve enjoyed this article, leave a comment below! We’d love to hear about your own seed-saving experiences. Do you have an heirloom variety that’s been passed down in your own family for generations? We’d love to hear about that, too!
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Happy seed saving!
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