It’s that time of year, when fruits are being harvested, and I teach you how to save seeds for the future, especially heirlooms. This is especially important as more and more varieties are lost as we continually buy just the few varieties offered to us in the grocery store. In my first book “Food Heroes,” I told the story of a seed saver in Berea, Kentucky who was saving heirloom bean and tomato seeds from extinction, in some cases there were only a few single seeds between a single variety and extinction. It is very important work, one that isn’t talked about often enough. There are two components to seed saving—harvesting the seeds and storing them. But the process really begins with choosing which plants to grow. Many seed growers sell hybrids because they are bred to have certain qualities—like long shelf life and disease resistance. These varieties don’t grow true to form when the seeds are saved and replanted. So if you are going to save seeds, you should only do it with nonhybrid varieties since these plants are self-pollinating and will grow again true to type.
How to Save Seeds for the Future, Especially Heirlooms:
To save seeds like peas or beans, simply let them dry out on the vine at the end of the season and shell them. For fleshy fruits—for example, the seeds of a tomato—let the fruit become overripe on the vine. Split it open, scrape out the seeds, and let them soak in a jar of water until they begin to ferment and the light white seeds and pulp float to the top. Pour off and discard what has floated to the top, then transfer the heavy, dark, fertile seeds at the bottom of the jar to single layers of paper towel on a flat surface. Let them dry, which takes a day or two, and then separate them as best as you can.
How to Store Them
To store the seeds, place them in an envelope and seal it. Make sure you label them clearly with the date they were saved and the specific variety of plant. Store them in a cool, dry, dark place. If they get wet, the seeds will be activated, depleting them of the nutrients needed for them to grow later. Adding silica packets to the envelope will ensure they stay dry.
Share your heirloom seeds with other growers to help keep them in circulation. Seed-swapping events take place all over the country and are facilitated by botanical and community gardens, as well as online.
Save the seeds from fruits that look most true to their form. Plant them again the following year to see if they stay true to type. If you plant your first seeds early enough, you can gain a season by planting a second crop from the freshly picked seeds in the same season.
Don’t plant all of your seeds of a particular variety at one time. Instead, save a few in case some don’t germinate or poor weather causes crop failure. This way you will never lose a variety completely.
Keep An Eye Out For Mutations
If you do grow heirlooms, keep an eye out for mutations. That is how family varieties start; one variety of vegetable or fruit mutates from a particular variety and when replanted, stays true to its new form. Give it a name and call it your own.
Only Plant Hybrids If…
If you want to grow hybrid seeds, plant them as far away as you can from your heirlooms to avoid crossing, or plant them at different times so the flowers don’t pollinate each other. This is especially true where there are a lot of bumblebees, which are aggressive about pollinating certain flowers, like the bean blossom.
Tip #1: Use a photo album to store seed packets. It is nice and neat and easy to sort through. Just make sure the seeds are stored in a cool, dry place. Alternatively, store them in the refrigerator or freezer.
Tip #2: When buying seeds, look for packets marked “OP” (open-pollinated), which means they were pollinated by insects, birds, the wind, or other natural mechanisms and will thus stay true to type when replanted. These may be hard to find at your local garden store, but they can be found online.
The Easiest Seeds to Save
- Cilantro (that has been allowed to bolt and go to seed)
- Dill (that has been allowed to bolt and go to seed)
- Lettuce (that has been allowed to bolt and go to seed)
The Shelf Life of Common Seeds
- Beans: 3 years
- Beets: 3 to 4 years
- Cabbage: 3 to 5 years
- Carrots: 1 to 3 years
- Cauliflower: 4 to 5 years
- Corn, sweet: 2 years
- Cucumbers: 5 years
- Eggplant: 4 years
- Kale: 3 years
- Lettuce: 4 to 5 years
- Melons: 4 years
- Onions: 1 year
- Peas: 1 to 3 years
- Peppers: 2 years
- Pumpkin: 4 years
- Radishes: 3 to 5 years
- Spinach: 3 to 5 years
- Squash: 4 years
- Swiss Chard: 4 years
- Tomatoes: 3 to 4 years
- Turnips: 5 years
- Watermelons: 5 years