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A Crash Course on Saving Some Seeds for Next Season

Q. Steve in Bigfork Western Montana writes: "I'm interested in saving seeds from this year's garden for use next year. I would appreciate a general discussion about this topic."

A. I suspect that a lot of cost-conscious folks are having the same thoughts right now, Steve; and the basics are just what they need, so let's bullet-point this puppy.
  1. Basic rule: Hybrid seeds are the result of 'crossing' the pollen of two different plants of the same species to create a new and unique variety. By law, all hybrid seeds and plants must have the word 'hybrid' before their variety name, and/or be designated as 'F1'. Because these plants co"ntain the DNA of two different plants, seed saved from a hybrid plant will not produce plants identical to the one you grew. Might be better; might be worse; might be weird. But hybrid seeds will germinate, so if you're a gambling man...

  2. The other side of the coin is/are 'open-pollinated plants'. Seed saved from an "OP" will be identical to the parent plant, unless its in the squash family, which we'll get to in a bit.

  3. Important note: Hybrid seeds have been around for centuries and are NOT genetically engineered, OK? Now let's get saving:
Easy Peasy:
  • Any kind of beans: green beans (aka string beans), wax beans, limas and 'storage beans' like pinto, Garbanzo, kidney and black beans. If you're eating some of the beans young off the vine, ala green beans, pick them small and frequently, but stop when there's about six weeks left in the season. Allow the remaining bean pods to become dry and brittle on the vine. Don't rush this step. When the times comes, shell them out and store the beans in a cool dry place. You can eat some of the dried beans in stews and such and save some for planting next season.

  • Peppers: The secret here is to allow the peppers--hot or sweet--to ripen up completely. No green peppers or in-between colors like purple. Leave them on the plant for about a week after you're CERTAIN they're ready. Then bring them inside, cut them open and place the seeds on a dish in a cool dry spot until you can snap a sample seed in half. Store in small envelopes on which you have written the variety name.
Moderately difficult:
  • Tomatoes. Select two or three of the nicest looking fruits from a single open-pollinated plant and let them sit on the vine PAST the dead-ripe stage to ensure that the collected seeds will be fully grown and viable. Bring the fruits inside and squish the seeds out into a bowl. Note that unlike the others we just mentioned, tomato seeds have a gelatinous coating that must be dealt with before storage.
  • Add water to the bowl; at least as much as there is juice. Stir well. Day two: stir well and don't discuss the smell. Day Three: skim off some of the scum that has formed on the surface, add more water, stir well, walk away for a couple of minutes and then come back and skim ALL the nasty stuff off the surface, including any floating seeds (these floaters will not sprout).
  • Pour the water containing the seeds that didn't float (the good ones) into a strainer and rinse them righteously. Keep rinsing and 'blotting' the bottom of the strainer with towels until all the nasty gelatinous stuff is gone. Then hang the strainer in front of a small-size fan; the kind used at the office or for camping. Keep blotting and gently stirring until the water is gone, then continue fanning until the seeds are dry enough to snap. Store in a cool dry place.
Squash, melons*, pumpkins and cukes. This is the Pro Bowl. Promiscuous squash bees will go from flower to flower of different plants in this family, and thanks to their cross pollination, the seeds you thought would produce another fabulous Connecticut Field pumpkin will instead deliver ghostly white dipper gourds the following year. Professional seed savers either cage and hand-pollinate individual plants or ensure that no other members of this VAST family are growing nearby. And since nobody really knows how far squash bees travel, 'nearby' is either a relative or a useless term. Or relatively useless. Or a useless relative. Or....

*The exception for some curious reason is/are watermelons. If you only grow one variety and its an open-pollinated variety, the saved seed should produce the same fruit. Just make sure its DEAD ripe before you pick it.

  • It's a numbers game. Wherever you store your seeds the temperature and humidity should add up to no more than 100 F. That means no bathroom, no kitchen, no damp corner of your basement. A thermometer and hydrometer will reveal the numbers you need to know.

  • Insurance: Your seeds must be bone dry before they go into their jars or seed-saving envelopes. If a sample seed bends instead of breaks, its not ready. Every SEALED jar of big seeds should contain one or more of those desiccating pouches that come in vitamin and supplement bottles to help keep things dry. Envelopes containing smaller seeds should be grouped together and placed in large sealed jars with several desiccating pouches.

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