BELMONT, N.Y. — What is it? For most gardeners, it’s a means to help save money, while also providing the opportunity to express your creativity. In this I mean, you are able to select the exact qualities and characteristics you find desirable in the plants you are growing. You can target select traits: high yield, great fruit quality, preference in maturity date and overall attractiveness of the plant. This primarily plays into the fact that the given plant is well suited for your location, another good reason a gardener may choose to seed save.
If you’re interested in seed saving, we’d recommend some planning and observation. Monitor your plants throughout the growing season and watch for disease, rate of growth, keeping an eye on the plants’ tolerance to both weather and pests, along with blooming dates and yield/quality. These are all essential characteristics when choosing which seeds you plan to dry and keep in storage.
After you’ve determined the mother plant, seed saving is an easy process, in most cases.
FOR DRY SEED CROPS: peas, beans, brassicas etc., you’ll want to leave the seeds on the plant until their pods or heads begin to dry and turn brown. Then, just harvest the seeds and store them in a paper bag with a label, making sure to date and mark the type of seed you’ve decided to save. Note: you’ll want to be sure that the seeds are completely dry, if unsure, you can put the seeds in a dehydrator or place in the oven on a low temperature for a couple hours, otherwise they will get moldy.
Winnowing: this is a process used to help select the best seeds in your harvest. This is an older practice that was done by hand, using a winnowing fan, however most of the seeds you buy from stores have gone through a machine. Not only does winnowing allow you to find the heaviest and arguably best seeds, but this method also helps remove debris and lighter, undeveloped seeds. Winnowing involves throwing threshed, loose grain in the air, allowing the wind to blow away and separate light chaff, while the heavier grain fall back into the fan.
SEED SAVING IN FRUITED CROPS: tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squash, etc. – You want to find a clean, disease-free fruit for this. Cut open the fruit and remove the seeds, then place them in a clean container with water, storing at room temperature. Allow the mixture to ferment, stirring daily, do this process for several days. When you notice the mixture has become frothy (looking foamy, covered with bubbles) you will notice floating seeds. You will want to remove the pulp and the seeds that have settled on the top, repeat the process of adding water and stirring several more times to weed out unwanted seeds. The seeds that have sunk to the bottom are the seeds you want to keep.
The final process is to dry your seeds, either on a paper towel or mesh bag. If you’re using a bag, hang the seeds, shaking several times a day to help the drying process. Do NOT dry in direct sunlight, and don’t let the temperature go above 96 degrees F. It was once suggested to using the warmth from the top of refrigerators to dry and germinate seeds, however if you have a newer fridge the heat is no longer dispersed on the top like old fridges, so this is not recommended.
Finally, for storing seeds, we recommend using coin envelopes for smaller seeds and an airtight container for the larger seeds. Keep them in a cool and dry location, the seeds’ longevity is based off their storage conditions. Larger seeds tend to last longer in storage than smaller seeds. When you decide to plant, it’s important to test germination rates. If you have the seeds to spare, test more than you need, as failed germination is very possible. We suggest creating a log counting the number of seeds you germinated and your success rate, this will determine how many you should save for next season.
–Cornell Horticultural Educator Jeremy Baier
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