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November 25, 2014
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The joy of seed saving

This exemplary open-pollinated tomato variety called “Sioux” has been cut open to reveal its seed cavity.
Photos by Adrianne Picciano

By Adrianne Picciano (aka The Dirt Diva)

Gardeners and small farmers are the guardians of disappearing seed varieties. We have the ultimate freedom to decide what to grow in our gardens. Whereas commercial growers need to give consideration to yield, mechanical harvest and transport, we can select our varieties based on excellent taste, tenderness and eye appeal.

Stone-age people domesticated food plants by saving and replanting seeds. Immigrants from all corners of the world came to the USA with their family’s treasured garden seeds sewn into their hat bands and skirt hems to ensure continued enjoyment of foods from the old country. For centuries, farmers have grown crops using seed saved from the previous year’s harvest.

What can I save seed from?

As long as you are observant, you can save seeds from many kinds of plants. Vegetables, herbs, flowers and trees all produce seed that a person can save for planting in future years.

Ornamental flowers are a great place to start. Seed heads result when faded flower heads are left on the plant. Most gardeners snip off the spent blooms (called deadheading) to keep the plant looking neat and attractive. If you left a few of the old blooms on, you’d be able to harvest seed from those heads when the time is right.

Herbs are second in their ease of seed harvest, because the seed head is often obvious. If you let your basil, dill, cilantro, oregano, or chives get a little past prime eating stage, they’ll make flower heads, which will then produce seed if left on the plant.

Some vegetables are easy to save seed from, and some are more challenging. Beginner level vegetable seed savers can start with peas, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and lettuce. For other vegetables, obtain a book on the topic that will guide you through the growing, harvesting, cleaning and seed-drying process. See my reference list at the end of the article for such a book.

When is the time right to harvest seed?

On plants grown for flowers, look for dried, brown pods, pouches, or pockets and shake the suspected seed container and listen for a rattling sound. Columbine, Baptisia, Sweet Peas, Love in a Mist and Poppies behave this way. Sometimes the ripe seeds are simply dangling, brown and dry where the flowers were, as in the case of dill, calendula, Echinacea, daisy and sunflower. Sunflower seeds are arranged in a mesmerizing spiral within the center of the flower and are ready to harvest when they begin to fall out on their own. To collect seeds that are not encased in a pod or pouch, you must be observant and be ready to collect those seeds into a paper bag before they fall on the ground, or get eaten by birds.