With summer days waning and autumn quickly approaching, now is the time to enjoy the remaining bounty of your garden harvest and begin preparations for future growing seasons. One way to help prepare for the future is to become a seed saver. Humans have been saving seeds for hundreds of years, but in the last few decades the art of seed saving has been dwindling. In the past century over 90% of our world’s vegetable seeds have disappeared. However, you can help promote diversity and resiliency through the simple act of saving and exchanging seeds. Saving seeds can help you save money and promote diversity in our food system and natural environment. Late summer and autumn are also the ideal time for collecting seeds from trees, shrubs, and wild plants. Many seeds require a period of dormancy with cold temperatures, followed by warmer spring temperatures to promote germination.
For saving wildflower seeds, begin hand harvesting seeds about 4-6 weeks after flowering. Freeing your seeds from their pods is known as “threshing.” Lay your seeds out to dry, then rub the seeds between your fingers to free the seed. You can then screen away the seed husk (aka chaff). You may not even need a special seed screen since many of our kitchen colanders will do. Some wildflowers like lupines have hard coats. To save lupine seeds, soak them in hot boiled water, then place them in cool water overnight. Once dry, you can store the seed over the winter in your refrigerator. For most wildflowers, you can simply spread the seeds around your garden in the fall, letting nature do most of the work.
Saving seeds from your favorite vegetable plants is also a great way to select for difficult to find varieties like heirlooms, and plants that grow well in our high-elevation climate. Save seeds from the best performing plants that have your desired characteristics such as flavor, yield, hardiness, germination rates, disease resistance, etc.
Plants can be self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. Self-pollinated plants pollinate themselves usually before the flower opens, versus cross-pollinated plants that are usually isolated from other plants and need pollen via insects or wind. Self-pollinated seeds will produce plants like the original parent plant. If you can, save seeds from as many plants as possible to help ensure genetic diversity.
The easiest seeds to save include peas, beans, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. For legumes, allow the seeds to dry on the plant before sifting seeds through a screen. For tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants, allow fruit to become very ripe before harvesting seeds. Tomatoes and cucumbers have wet seeds that have a gel sac surrounding the seed that needs to be removed. Soak the seeds for a couple of days to remove the gel coating. Add more water after soaking to allow the good seeds to sink. Strain the water, then dry the seeds on newspaper in an airy, cool place. You can carefully break up any dried seed clumps before packing away for storage in either paper envelopes, plastic bags, or glass jars.
Most seeds store best in a cold environment like your refrigerator or freezer. Storage time for seeds varies depending on the plant. For example, lettuce and cucumber seeds can often last for five to six years; beets, eggplants, tomato, squash, and brassicas can be stored for up to four years; legumes and carrots for up to three years; peppers for two years, and onions, parsley, and parsnip for one year.
These are just a few tips for saving seeds. Most importantly, have fun seed saving and learning about varieties that grow well in our local area. Choosing to save and plant seeds from open-pollinated, meaning non-hybrid varieties (not a cross between two different parent varieties) can help save rare plant varieties and ensure genetic diversity and resiliency in our food system.
Jennifer Werlin is an Extension Educator in Community Food Systems for the University of Idaho in Teton County. University of Idaho Cooperative Extension offers research-based educational programs and publications in the areas of agriculture, community development and family and consumer science. Learn more at www.uidaho.edu or call 208-354-2961. The University of Idaho does not discriminate in education or employment on the basis of human differences, as required by state and federal laws.