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Seed saving is as old as gardening. Long ago gardeners considered seed from their favorite plants to be treasured and worth saving from year to year. Today seeds and seedlings are relatively inexpensive and there are new plants to try every year. So why become a seed saver? Aside from the politics, capitalism and biotechnology arguments presented by growers, the bottom line reason for saving seeds is because we have plants we love and want to grow again. It could be the perfect pink flower, the best tasting tomato or a champion zucchini. Gardeners never know when a seed company will discontinue a favorite seed to make way for new varieties. Saving seed is the only guarantee.
By Charleen Barr
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County
How to know what seeds to save is critical. Garden plants are wind, insect or self-pollinated. Open insect pollinated plants, heirlooms or self-pollinated plants are the only varieties that will grow true from seed, meaning the seedlings will be exactly like the parents. These seeds are worth saving.
Seeds that have been hybridized will grow into a variety of plants with some characteristics of either or both parent plant. Many hybridized plants are being currently sold in garden centers and stores. Hybridizing creates plants with desirable traits, such as color, multiple petals, disease resistance or size.
There are many plants that will grow true from seed, and saving and sharing these seeds have given birth to the seed savers phenomenon. Self-pollinated plants are the easiest to save and include beans, chicory, endive, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes. Heirloom flower seeds from cleome, foxgloves, hollyhock, nasturtium, sweet pea, and zinnia are easy to save.
In order to have pure seeds from plants that cross pollinate with others in their species means needing to physically separate the different species from one another by (a) planting only one variety of species; (b) planting different varieties a great distance from each other—even as far as one-fourth mile radius or more for peppers and squash; (c) Plant varieties that flower at different times; and/or (d) use a physical barrier, such as a row cover to cover one variety at a time so that each variety is allowed enough exposure time to be pollinated among its own kind.
The method and timing for saving seeds includes choosing the best quality plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables from which to save seeds. Look for the crop with the best disease resistance, vitality, flavor and productivity. Next year’s plants will only be as good as this year’s seed.
Harvest seeds when the seed pods have dried on the plant (flowers, beans, broccoli, lettuce). Keep an eye on seed pods as they start to brown as they will disperse on their own. Catching seed may be accomplished by placing small bags over the seed heads when they look ready to pop or pull the plant just before completely dry and store upside down in a paper bag.
When the vegetable is fully ripe (tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant) they will be well past their edible stage when the seeds are ready. Scoop out and dry the seeds. Store the seeds only when they are completely dry, or they will rot or mold in storage. Remove the chaff and store in a paper envelope labeled with the variety and year. Place the envelopes into an air tight container, such as a canning jar and store in a cool, dark, dry place. Stored seed is best used the following year.
As vegetables mature and flowers begin to wither, consider collecting seeds for planting next year. Knowing what to save and how to save it can be an easy and enjoyable activity. Saving seeds gives the satisfaction of knowing what will be harvested in the future plus continuing a lineage of special plants adapted to your garden.
Help and specific instructions may be found at http://www.cmg.colostate.edu/pubs.html. Refer to Fact sheet #7.602, Saving seed; Fact Sheet #7.409, Growing Plants From Seed; PlantTalk #2020, Seed Storage; Fact Sheet #7.222, Storing of Vegetable and Flower Seeds.
Seed saving and seed sharing are currently targeted by several initiatives in the name of “improving” seed quality and availability. There is a looming threat of international treaties being finalized and signed into effect that could making collecting one’s own seeds an offense, let alone sharing them without government approval which would be impossible to get except for a few large companies.