Harvest is on its way, and it’s time to start thinking about the fall chores. Turning your compost heap. Canning, fermenting, preserving. And the all-important task of seed-saving!
If you’ve saved seeds before but run into difficulties, or if you’re thinking about it for the first time, here are the 6 things you need to know.
- Choose which plants you like best
- Wait till the seeds are ready
- Collect them
- Clean them
- Dry them
- Store them
STEP 1 – CHOOSE IT
Did you have a tomato that excelled this year? A squash plant with extra-sweet squashes? If one of your plants did better than another, don’t squander the distinction.
→ By selecting those with the tastiest food, year by year you'll improve your stock.
STEP 2 – WAIT TILL IT’S READY
Ready means fully mature. Note: fully mature is not the same as ripe.
Generally, we eat produce well before it’s actually mature. We like it best when it’s sweet, crunchy or supple; to put it another way, we want the fruit for ourselves. But don’t forget the primary purpose of a vegetable: reproduction. It’s there to nourish its seeds. So, let it do so.
→ Let the fruit ripen well past the point where you'd like to eat it yourself.
Of course, that looks different for different foods.
- Fleshy, fruity foods like bell pepper, tomato, cucumber and so on:
For these vegetables, “ready” means fully ripened, a little fermented, ready to fall off the vine, even discolored. Your cucumber, for instance, will be slimy. Your tomato will be very soft and red.
- For plants that harden as they mature:
For instance, eggplants and summer squash. Wait till they’re as hard as they’re going to get before you cut them open.
- For seed pods and seed heads:
Wait till they’re fully dry (no watering on harvest day!) and ready to disperse. Pods should rattle when you shake them. An onion, herb flower or lettuce head should be set to shake its mane and let fly.
STEP 3 – COLLECT IT
What with the overwhelming variety of vegetables out there, seed-collecting might seem like a daunting body of knowledge. Sure, details vary. But overall, it’s simpler than you think.
→ Seeds generally fall into one of the following categories:
- For the fleshy ones:
In most cases you can simply cut it open and pick out the seeds. If it’s a mess – think pumpkin strings – scoop the innards into a kitchen strainer and rinse while you sort.
- For tomatoes:
These are a special case. They need to ferment. Try scooping the insides onto a plate and leaving it out out till it’s dry – later you can pick out the seeds by hand. Another method is to scoop the insides into a glass of water and let it sit. The pulp will float; the seeds will sink. After a few days, spoon the pulp from the surface of the water and drain the seeds into a strainer for rinsing.
- For seeds inside a pod:
Just pick and shell them. They’re already clean and dry; no extra work for you.
- For seed heads:
These can pose a bit of a challenge. By the time they’re ready to collect, they’re also ready to disperse. To keep a head from letting fly when you’re ready to harvest it, tie a paper bag over it in advance. If the seeds disperse before you get to them, they’ll just be harvesting themselves. Otherwise, cut the stalk once it looks dry, bring it inside, and hang it over a bowl. The seeds will drop in as they mature. Feel free to give the bouquet a little shake from time to time, to help them along.
STEP 4 – CLEAN IT
When it comes to cleaning, use common sense and creativity – just don’t use water on a seed that’s already dry.
→ The point here is simply to remove any pulp or chaff attached to the seed.
- For the fleshy ones:
These will be pulpy. Use water and a strainer to rinse the seeds, or just peel off the pulp with your fingers.
- For seed heads:
Each little seed grows inside a thin, papery coat. When it’s mature, you need to remove that coat (the chaff). It’s easiest to get the seed to fall out on its own, by shaking it for instance. It’s also possible to remove the chaff with your fingers, though painstaking. You might try shaking the seed head in a strainer; the seeds fall through while the chaff stays behind. (Experiment!)
STEP 5 – DRY IT
Drying is a step that really only applies to seeds that come from the fleshier vegetables. Seed pods dry on the vine, so they come out of the husk ready to go. Seeds that come from seed heads, likewise.
For other varieties, spread your freshly cleaned seeds on a baking dish, a plate, a piece of newspaper, a strainer. What they’re sitting on is less important than where they’re sitting.
→ Place them where there's:
- No direct sunlight
- No breezes
- No humidity
Drying will generally take one to three weeks. You can test for dryness by fishing out one of your seeds and bending it. If it’s pliable, it’s not dry. If it snaps, it is.
STEP 6 – STORE IT
When you think storage, think dormant.
→ Give your seeds an environment opposite to the warm soil and spring rains that make them sprout.
- Stable temperature
- Cool and dark
If you don’t leave any of these out, you’re doing it right.
Pour the seeds into a mason jar and label the lid, using a separate jar for each variety.
If you want to save space, pour each variety into its own labeled envelope, and store all the envelopes in one or two jars.
You can keep these in a closet, a basement, a refrigerator or a root cellar. As long as it meets the above criteria, your seeds should keep at least a year, probably two; some varieties will last much longer.
Do you have a surefire method for collecting, cleaning or drying a particular kind of seed? Any tips or cautions to share? Please tell us your experience in a comment.
And happy saving!