By Mark Barnes
Any gardener worth his or her salt saves a few seeds every now and then. I have my own favorite plants that I save seeds from, mostly flowers, but for other types of seeds, you probably need to buy them fresh every year. This is because many types of plants are either too difficult to gather seeds from because they are too small or require special preparation, or the species tends to hybridize with other plants and you cannot get true seed. Some seeds, such as coriander and celery, can also be used as spices either whole or ground.
If you are interested in saving seeds, here are a few guidelines.
Root crops such as beets, parsnips and carrots, along with other similar plants like parsley and cabbage, are biennials. They do not produce seed the first year. During the second growing season they will put up flowers that will then produce seed. The other benefit of having these types of plants is that the flowers produced by them attract beneficial insects to your garden. After the flowers have wilted and died, for a plant such as carrots with small seeds, you can tie a small bag over the seed heads to catch the seeds.
Some plants are hybrids and only a cross between two unique parents will produce true seed, not the hybrid offspring. Another thing to consider is that for open-pollinated plants, you need to make sure you don’t have similar varieties in your garden otherwise you may create your own hybrid seeds. Tomatoes are the exception. They are mostly self-pollinated and will produce true seed from their fruits as long as they are not hybrids to begin with.
Peppers and eggplants are great to save seeds from but you need to separate varieties by at least 500 feet to avoid cross-pollination. Squash, cucumbers, gourds, and melons are pollinated by insects and need a half-mile or more between varieties. A gardener friend of mine once saved seeds from a cantaloupe and grew them the following year. He grew a magnificent punkaloupe, a cross between a cantaloupe and a pumpkin. It was large like a pumpkin but had the skin of a cantaloupe and smelled great. Not all curcubits will cross-pollinate but it is usually safer just to buy new seed every year.
Saving tomato seed takes a little care. Harvest ripe tomatoes and squeeze out the seeds from the fruit. Then let that gooey mixture of seeds and goop ferment. This removes the coating on the seeds that prevent them from sprouting inside the fruit. It will take about three to four days for a bowl to get sufficiently ripe. This mimics the natural rotting process that would happen out in the field. Don’t be afraid of any mold that forms on the seeds. It is part of the process. Keep it outside in the shed or garage as it will most likely stink up a bit. Once it starts bubbling, add water and stir. The good seeds will fall to the bottom and you can drain off the mold and water. Dry them quickly in a low-temperature dehydrator or with a fan as you don’t want them to begin germination.
As with any seed saving, you want to keep them dry and out of the sun.