Seed Saving Savvy hand lead
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Humans have been collecting and saving seeds for as long as they’ve tilled the soil. It’s all part of being self-reliant and creating a sustainable life.

But with the commercialization of farming, it’s become easy to buy garden seed every year. That’s why for many, it seems a mystery how to collect the seed, clean it, store it, and then prep for sowing. It’s actually not that difficult once you’ve learned the basics.

WHICH ARE KEEPERS

Most seed saving efforts have concentrated on food crops, especially those considered “heritage” varieties that can date back centuries. Some are prized for their special qualities—superior flavor, productivity, adaptability to specific climates, etc. Others have been traditional varieties saved and handed down from generation to generation.

A common trait though is that these heirlooms are “open-pollinated,” that is, there is no control over the pollination process and the plants produced remain relatively consistent from generation to generation. By contrast, hybrid seed is produced by carefully cross-pollinating genetically distinct plants to enhance some qualities, such as increased productivity, or to decrease detriments such as poor flavor. Typically, hybrids produce either sterile seed, or, the seed reverts back to the traits of the parent plants. The take home message is— don’t bother to save seed from hybrids.

You also won’t want to save every seed of your heirloom or open-pollinated variety either. If you observe that one particular plant seems more disease resistant, or its fruit is more flavorful, take note and consider collecting your seeds from these particular plants.

You don’t have to limit yourself to vegetables and fruits, though. For almost 30 years at our nursery, we’ve been collecting and growing seeds from native trees and shrubs as well as some annual and perennial flowers. We’ve even grown fruit trees; such as an heirloom peach and Italian prune plums from seed. Depending upon the species, it can take just a few years to produce a fruiting tree. Our plums, for example, began producing flavorful fruit within about four years.

While many of the species that we grow can also be propagated from cuttings, a process where new plants are rooted from stems cut from the mother plant, there is an argument that such production limits the genetic variation of the species. Seed production, by contrast, is considered to be a way of increasing genetic diversity within a species.

COLLECTION TIMES

When do you start collecting your seeds? The quick answer would be—when they’re ripe. But knowing when something is ripe can be tricky.

For plants with fleshy, wet fruit: We are talking about tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, for example. The fruit should be almost past full ripeness, with lots of color in the flesh. Ripe fruit can be picked, split open and the seeds simply scooped out for cleaning.

For plants with pods that naturally dry: With seeds such as beans, peas, chilies, the pods can be left on the plant at the end of the season and allowed to dry naturally. If you shake a pod and it rattles, it’s ready.

For other dry seeds: These include flowers such as zinnias, marigolds and sunflowers as well as veggie seeds such as carrots and onions. Once the petals of the flowers fade and drop, you can actually see the seeds that have formed. You may also notice that small birds will begin to peck at the flower heads, in search of breakfast. At this point, you can harvest the entire flower head and prepare to clean the seeds.

CLEAN, STRATIFY AND STORE

To clean dry seeds, separate the seeds from the flower head or pod. To make it a bit easier, ensure that the pods and flower heads are completely dried by putting them into paper—not plastic—bags to finish drying for a week or so. You’ll know that the sunflower seeds are dry by rubbing your hand over the seed to dislodge them from the head. Pods should easily split, discharging the seed. Sift or winnow the seed from the chaff and store it in a paper envelope or bag in a cool, dry location.

To clean the seeds from wet fruits: Place them in a jar and cover with water for a few days, stirring daily. This will allow the extra pulp clinging to the seed to ferment. For tomatoes, a fungus will form in the mix that helps remove the gelatinous coating.

Next, pour off the water and any remaining pulp and seeds that float—they’re immature and won’t germinate. Repeat rinsing the seed and pouring off pulp until the seeds are clean. Finally, pour through a strainer, pat the seeds dry and put them on a plate out of direct sunlight to dry out completely. Place in a paper bag or envelope and store in a cool, dry location.
Tree and shrub seeds are processed and stored much like vegetable seeds. Dry seeds are picked from the tree once they begin to dry and wet seeds such as elderberries are processed and stored like tomato seeds. Unlike vegetable seeds, most tree and shrub seeds must be stratified before they germinate. Stratification involves mimicking nature’s cold and moisture to stimulate germination.

Typically, the cleaned, dry seeds are placed in slightly moist sand or peat moss inside a plastic bag, and then refrigerated for several months. Check your seeds every few weeks for signs of cracking, which indicates that germination has begun. If mold develops, though, it indicates that there was too much moisture present. And it’s not likely that the seeds will germinate.

NUT & FRUIT TREES

Growing your own fruit and nut trees from seed seems like an economical way to establish a small orchard. And it can be as long as you understand the long-term commitment to the project.

Plums, peaches, apricots and nuts are the easiest and most reliable to grow from seed. Select the ripest fruit from the tastiest trees. Heritage varieties grow fast from seed. We’ve grown fruiting plum trees in about five years.

Clean the pulp from the pit, or in the case of nuts, remove the husks. Then place the seeds in a plastic bag and put in the refrigerator for three or four months. Some growers suggest, in the case of stone fruits, removing the hard seed shell. But we’ve successfully grown plum, apricot and peach seeds without doing so. It’s up to you.

In early spring, remove seeds from the refrigerator; soak them thoroughly in water and plant in a container filled with potting soil. They will take a few weeks to germinate. With wild-pollinated seed, not all will likely germinate.
As the tree grows in the container, you can train the branching habit to aim for shorter, more manageable trees. Once you get roots to fill the pot, plant them into your orchard.

HARD LABOR FRUITS

Other fruit trees are more difficult. Most common apple and pear varieties are propagated by grafting wood or a bud from the desired variety to dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock. Not only do you create a fruit-bearing tree more quickly, but you also ensure that you’ll get the fruit variety that you want on a tree that is easier to care for.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t grow an apple from seed. But it will be a standard sized tree—20 to 30 feet tall and wide. And it will likely be up to 10 years before you enjoy the fruit of your labor. Even then, the tree may have grown from seed cross-pollinated with another variety and your fruit may not be what you expected.

Bush fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, quince and currants are typically propagated by stem cuttings taken from healthy plants. The seeds can be successfully grown, but cross-pollination again makes it difficult to know what you’ll get. Other trees such as the wild elderberry come true to seed and are quick to grow.

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