LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(05/29/20) As people are staying at home during the pandemic, many are developing a green thumb, passing the newfound time on their hands with gardening. For some, this newfound hobby and interest in gardening are an attempt to ensure they have access to fresh food caused by shortages of produce in grocery stores.
Home vegetable gardening has reached a surge across the country for many Americans and has led folks to empty nurseries and garden centers of vegetable transplants and sweep the shelves clean of seeds and gardening tools of retail stores.
So, during this time when seeds are scarce and our newfound or fortified love of gardening and vegetable gardening is at its peak, how do we ensure our gardening future? I suggest you consider saving your own seeds.
Growing vegetables from your own seeds is probably one of the most fulfilling achievements of vegetable gardening. Planting a garden, enjoying the harvest and then collecting the seeds to grow again for next season is the most complete and perfect form of gardening I can think of. In fact, I’d call it extreme gardening.
The easiest and quickest plants to start your hand at harvesting your own seeds are from annuals. By definition, annuals complete their life cycle in one year. That means the plant will flower, set seed and then die in one year’s time.
Choose open-pollinated varieties over hybrids because they will be true to plant type. Some open-pollinated varieties are “heirloom,” meaning they may be passed down through the generations (some are recent selections). Hybrids are a cross between two different varieties that combines the traits of the plant parents.
It is important to note that plants grown from hybrid seed are not identical to the hybrid parents. They will be a new combination of all the traits (good and bad) of the initial plant cross, therefore making fruit quality hard to predict. Some examples of hybrid tomatoes are Beefmaster, Big Boy and Early Girl.
Some examples of easy-to-save seeds are beans, lettuce, greens, herbs, okra, peas, peppers and heirloom tomatoes. They all produce seed in the same season they are planted. All are all self-pollinating, and with just a couple of fruits, you can reliably harvest seeds.
Some things to get straight before you begin: There are dry fruit and wet fruit. Dry fruit are the easiest to collect seeds from because you can essentially walk to your garden, harvest a few mature seedpods and bring them into the house to dry, clean and store. Viola. All done.
Fruits that are considered wet fruit crops, such as squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants, must be picked when their seeds are mature and must be processed according to the fruit type.
And then an added concern is that seeds are not always mature when the fruit is ready to eat. For example, eggplant, cucumber and summer squash are eaten when the fruits are immature and still edible before the seeds are actually mature. Don’t worry. That just means that a couple of fruits need to be left to fully mature in the garden to save for seeds.
The best technique for achieving reliable seeds is to dry them appropriately. Do not dry seeds on paper towels, plates or anything they will stick to and become damaged. Surfaces such as mesh that allow air flow are the best. Turn drying seeds a couple times a day and avoid direct sunlight. Use a fan to increase air circulation.
Let’s get stated with some of the easies seeds to save and a few techniques for each type.
Peppers are a cinch. When the vegetable is ready to eat, the seeds are mature. Cut the central stem of the pepper with the seeds, brush the seeds onto a screen or metal mesh (plastic, ceramic or glass plates are okay) and let them dry out.
Squash, zucchini, pumpkins and all other plants in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae are done similarly to peppers. Open the vegetable and scrape out the seeds. Wash the seeds, and as the water goes over them, rub the seeds with your fingers to remove debris. Once again, put them on a plate to dry.
For melons of any type, remove seeds from the center of the fruit and rinse them in water. As you rinse them, rub the seeds to remove debris and get that slimy feeling off. Put the seeds into a container filled with water. Good melon seeds will sink, so remove everything that floats. Rinse the seeds again and then lay them out to dry. Cucumbers seeds can also be harvested this way, but wait until the cucumber is beyond ripe, changes color and becomes soft.
Peas, beans and okra all have pods and are easy to gather and save. For the purpose of seed saving, wait until the pods mature on the plant — usually after they turn brown. Remove pods from the plants, then remove the seeds from the pods. Put seeds in a container and stir them often to help them dry. Peas or beans take about six weeks to air dry.
Greens such as lettuce, collards, mustard greens, kale and her such as fennel, dill and basil are rather simple. Let the plants go to flower and let them set seed at the end of the harvest season. Seeds can dry in their pods on the plant, and then “bag the heads” by placing a paper bag over them and pulling off the seeds.
Tomato seeds are a wet fruit and are covered in gel-like substance that must be removed before they dry. It’s a bit of a fermenting process. Remove seeds and place them in container such as a glass jar or plasticware with equal parts water to seed mass. Stir the seed mixture once a day for a few days. After a couple days, viable seeds will sink. After five days, throw away anything that floats. Separate and wash the seeds and dry them by placing them on a screen or wire mesh (plastic and glass are okay, too) in a single layer in a warm area. Keep them away from sunlight throughout the entire process and dry as quickly as possible.
Be sure to properly store your seeds in an airtight container or dry paper bag placed in a cool, dark and dry area. Seeds can be viable for many years, and many more if you freeze them. Don’t forget to label your seeds. That would be a rookie move.
Saving your own seeds ensures you have a garden to grow every year. It’s extreme gardening, and it saves money, too.
Bean seeds take up to six weeks to air dry. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Pepper seeds are a cinch to save. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Wash squash seeds, and as the water goes over them, rub them with your fingers to remove debris. Then put them on a plate to dry. LSU AgCenter file photo