Seed Collecting: How to Save Seeds
“Seeds are, in a sense, suitcases in which people can transport their cultures with them…Many families have brought their favourite seeds on tremendous journeys.”
Saving Tomato seed is pretty darn easy. We consider it the “gateway drug” of the garden and seed world. An in-season, ripe, organic Tomato is often a consumer’s first introduction to real organic food. Success growing a Tomato is often a new gardeners introduction into heavier gardening. Saving seed of a favourite Tomato variety is often a new seed saver’s introduction into heavier seed saving. To top it off, ripe Tomatoes from the garden & farmer’s market come complete with mature seed inside. Be aware, though, that most commercially available Tomatoes are hybrids, and the seed you save from these fruits will not produce fruit identical to the one you saved seed from. Also, most Tomatoes from the grocery store are bred to hold their shape and colour through the rigours of mechanical harvesting, transport, and distribution, and usually taste like styrofoam, or worse. So be sure to taste the Tomato before you save the seeds! Or avoid the supermarket. Heirloom and open-pollinated Tomatoes are by definition not hybrids and usually taste delicious, so save seed voraciously.
To save Tomato seed, cut the fruit in half. Use your finger or a knife to scoop out the seeds and juice from their cavities, or squeeze the Tomato over a glass jar. Use a small jar, such as a jelly jar, if you are only saving seed from one or two Tomatoes. Once the seeds and all their juicy juice is in the jar, add no more than 25% water and slosh it around. Place the jar someplace warm for two or three days. Every day check on the concoction and stir it a little.
After a few days (depending on the weather), a mould should form on the top. When this mould forms it time to get excited. This method mimics the rotting of the Tomato in nature or the actions of the digestive system of an animal and breaks down the clear gel coat around the seeds, which prevents the seed from sprouting inside the Tomato or in your stomach. Once the mould covers the entire top of the liquid and the seeds have begun to sink, the gel coat has been broken down and they are ready for cleaning. Be careful not to leave the seeds in the jar for too long at this point because once the gel coat is broken down the seeds may sprout in the jar and you will have to start over.
You know seeds are ready for their final cleaning when most of them have sunk to the bottom of the jar. Add water to fill the jar and slosh it around. Let it settle for a moment. Carefully pour the water out of the jar. The mold, pulp, and immature seeds will all flow out with the water, but the mature seeds should sink and stay in the jar. Repeat this decanting process two to five times until you have only clean seeds and clean water. Pour out as much water as you can without losing the seeds or pour it through a fine mesh strainer. Pat dry through the strainer and then scoop the seeds out onto a small plate (we use the lid from a yogurt container). Allow to dry without intense heat. When they are very dry store the seeds in a moisture-proof container in a cool, dry place. It is very important to label the container with variety and date. Tomato seeds can last for ten years or more if stored cool and dry.
Another easy way to save Tomato seed is to spit out a few seeds onto a square of toilet paper as you are eating the Tomato. Just let the seeds dry down on their own, and they will stick to the toilet paper. This method is convenient because you can write the date and type of Tomato right onto the TP. BUT, because you have skipped the fermentation process, you will get lower germination, so make sure to save and sow extra if you use this process. You also will get sticky seeds stuck to paper, which is kind of problematic, but you can plant the piece of TP when it is sowing time.
Common Beans and Peas are among the easiest plants to save seed from. If you have Peas and Beans in your garden, all you have to do is forget to pick some toward the end of the season and let them dry down on the plant. For better quality and a higher seed yield, set aside a few of the best whole plants for seed saving. When you pull up the plant at the end of the season, dried seeds will be ready for you to save. All you have to do is shell them from the pod. Make sure the pods are crispy dry or the seed may not be as mature as would be ideal. Harvest before the rains start in the fall.
Snap Peas and Beans that are picked for market for fresh eating do not have mature seed, so you cannot simply dry these down and plant them. BUT you can plant any dry beans you grow or buy from the grocery store, such as pinto beans or black beans. Dried Peas from the grocer’s can also be planted, but make sure they are not split peas.
Peas and Beans are almost always self-pollinating in the Pacific Northwest. The flowers usually pollinate themselves before they open. This means many varieties can be grown close together and still maintain relative seed purity. Sometimes though, bumblebees can tear flowers open and introduce other pollen before the flower has self-pollinated. This can be viewed either as the exciting birth of a new variety or contamination. We usually see less than 1 in 100 seeds planted that appear to have been crossed, which is very acceptable to us and even entertaining. The potential for crossing is a good reason to grow out many plants of each variety in order to identify and rogue out (or save) off-types. Make sure to label these kind of crosses as crosses, not as the original seed variety.
Fava Beans (Vicia faba) and Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are both different species from the common bean, (Phaseolus vulgaris). They are both insect pollinated and will cross easily with other varieties of the same species. Isolate different varieties by planting them at least 300 ft apart. Save them as you would the common beans and peas. Favas and Runner Beans can be picked when the pods turn brown or black. Runner Beans are rot resistant in the pod, so fear no rain. Make sure to dry them well once shelled.
There are no hybrid beans or peas available for sale, so you are sure to get the same variety as you planted. Unless of course, there was a frisky bumblebee around.
For the best storage of Peas and Beans the seeds must be very dry. They must shatter when hit by a hammer and not squish. When dry freeze them for 3 days to kill bean weevils that may be living inside the seed. Seal in a moisture proof container stored in a cool dry place.
The incredible diversity of the legume family makes it one of the most rewarding families to save seed from. We can also use more protein and nitrogen fixing in our gardens.
Corn seed is another easy-to-save annual, but, though similar, growing corn for seed is a little different than growing it for fresh eating. The big question is… what type of corn do you want to grow? The varietal diversity of available corn seed is amazing. Your basic type choices are: dent, flour, flint, pop, sweet and parch. Flour types are dry corns with a powdery texture when ground and are good used for tortillas, cornbread, & cakes. Flint types are dry corns with a glassy coarse texture and are good for polenta, grits, hominy, and tamales. Dent types are half way between flint and flour. Popcorn pops and sweet corn is sweet, when you pick it in the milk stage. Parch types are dent corns that pop a little when dry roasted and turn into a kind of corn-nut. Even a dry corn variety can be eaten in the milk stage. Although it may be not-so-sweet corn, it tastes great cooked up & smeared with butter and is more hearty, too. Most sweet corn available today are F1 Hybrids, so if you grow corn and want to save seed, make sure it is an open-pollinated variety.
Corn is very much an out-breeding, wind-pollinated plant and optimum pollination and seed quality is achieved when it is planted in wide blocks of a 100+ plants. As the classic textbook out-breeder, corn is very susceptible to inbreeding depression: the seed saved will be weak and low quality if the population is not large enough. The tassels on the top of the plant are the male parts, and the cob contains the female parts. Each strand of corn silk is a pollen receptor for a single corn kernel. For a full cob, there needs to be enough pollen around at the right time to pollinate the several hundred kernels on each cob.
Corn pollen is very light and can travel very far, so isolate your corn from other varieties. This can be done with at least 2 miles distance (it is less important if you live in a wooded or urban environment with no giant fields of corn nearby). Or you can grow a very early variety and a late variety for “time isolation.” Time isolation is also very useful when you live in a GMO growing region. Extra early corn varieties shed pollen earlier than the later tasseling GMO varieties.
Some people eat the first bigger ear on each plant and save seed from the smaller second ear. Others think this selects the lowest quality seed. We recommend always saving the best ears for seed and the best of the best for stock seed for your own seed in the future.
To save seed from corn, leave the ear on the plant until it dries down and the whole plant looks (and is) dead. Pick the cob, peel back the husk and let it dry for a few weeks. When it is crispy dry, thresh the kernels off of the cob with your hand or by rubbing two cobs together. If the germ peals off the kernels they need to dry a lot longer. If the seed shatters and doesn’t smoosh when smashed with a hammer, it is dry enough to seal up in a moisture proof container. A dehydrator set below 95° F is very useful for drying corn kernels completely. If properly dried your corn seed will be viable for 5 or more years. Flint and flour corn types can survive for decades.
Cucumbers, Melons, Pumpkins, Summer and Winter Squash, Watermelons.
While saving seed from most vegetables and garden fruits (as opposed to tree fruits) is relatively easy, winter squash and melons are probably the easiest. Both winter squash and melons are picked when ripe and have mature seeds inside, ready for the spooning out into a bowl, rinsing, and drying.
But while the processing of the seed is easy, the pollination and cross-pollination is a little complicated. If you want to save pure varieties, you need to isolate species (see below). All Cucurbits are outcrossing plants with male and female flowers usually on the same plant. As a general rule the different species do not cross-pollinate. Varieties in a different genus like watermelons and cucumbers certainly will never cross. So you can grow one variety of each species in your garden with little or no crossing. Since you probably don’t want the jack-olantern doing it with the zucchini without your permission you will need isolation of about 1 mile, as the bees do the pollination with this one.
Melons, watermelons and winter squash all contain ripe seed when it is eating time, so just cut your squash-o-melon-like fruit it in half and scoop the seeds out into a bowl, avoiding as much pulp as you can. Rinse the seeds off in a strainer, removing the pulp. With a towel pat them dry, patting through the strainer works well. Leave the seeds out in an airy place until they dry thoroughly. When the seeds are dry, put them in a moisture proof container, preferably in a cool, dry, place, or in the freezer. Truly dry seeds snap in half when bent and they do not bend with dampness.
Don’t forget to label them with the type of seed and date.
Summer squash and cucumbers are different from melons and winter squash because they are usually picked as immature fruit. For seed saving they need to be left to fully ripen, preferably until the plant dies in September/October. Cucumbers will turn into little orange blimps when the seeds are ripe. The summer squash will look like winter squash with the requisite tough, dull skin, and zucchini-shaped squash should be about the size of your leg. Or at least as big as your arm. It is also a good idea to let the fruit after-ripen for a week or more after you have picked it before processing for seed. Once fully ripe, seed saving is the same as for melons and winter squash.
The species rundown is: — Citrullus lunatus (all watermelons and citron melons), — Cucumis melo (all musk melons, cantaloupes and honey dews). — Cucumis sativum (all common cucumbers, except Armenian cucumbers), — Cucurbita ficifolia (fig-leaved gourd, Malabar gourd) — Cucurbita maxima (winter squash with corky stems such as Buttercup, Hubbard, Kuri & Sweet Meat), — Cucurbita mixta (winter squash such as: Tennessee Sweet Potato, Cushaws and Japanese Pie). — Cucurbita moshata (Butternuts, Cheese, Futsu Black and Tromboncino), — Cucurbita pepo (summer squash such as: Zucchini, Crookneck, and Patty Pan; winter squash such as: Pie and Jack-o-lantern Pumpkins, Acorn, Delicata, Sugar Loaf, and Spaghetti). — Lagenaria siceraria (Bowl/Bottle Gourds, Calabash or Cucuzza).
The different squash species usually do not cross-pollinate. For more information on how to tell them apart and hand pollination techniques, consult Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth (more details in the Read More! section).
If you buy a melon or a winter squash from the store or the farmer’s market and save seeds, you will probably get something entirely different from the fruit from whence it came. Most squashes and melons grown today are hybrids, and most are grown in fields with other varieties of the same species so there is a good chance they are cross-pollinated. Because melon genetics are complicated, you may or may not get something good enough to eat, so save seed at your own risk!
Cilantro, Basil, Dill, Celery, Fennel and Parsley
Saving seeds from most herbs is easy and beautiful. Cilantro, dill, parsley and fennel are all in the Apiaceae family. Their flowers form in little umbrella shaped clusters, usually sooner than we, as gardeners, want them to.
Saving seed from herbs like cilantro, dill, and fennel has the secondary benefit of providing you with ample seeds for culinary usage. If you want, you can grind the seeds up in a coffee grinder to get a powdery version of the seed. This works really well for cilantro seed (coriander), but maybe not so well for dill.
When you grow cilantro & dill in your garden, they are somewhat quick to go to seed. All umbels are outcrossers, so you get higher quality seed for the coming years by saving seed from more than one plant. You can start garden plants of each of these herbs from seed purchased in the bulk bins at your local natural foods store, or you can buy a specific variety from a seed company.
When the center stalk begins to elongate, just let the plants remain where they are growing. They will soon flower and within a month or two you will have seed dried down and ready to harvest. Once the seed stalk is pretty dry, cut it off at a comfortable length for you to deal with, and put it upside down in a bucket, tote, or paper bag. There may be bugs on it so it might be good to leave it outside (out of the dew) and let the bugs leave. This has the added bonus of letting the seed dry down even more, and it may shatter into the container you have put it in. When the seed is fully dry, thresh by hitting the seed stalk against the sides of the container. You can also break the seeds free with your hands. This has the added bonus of making your hands smell nice, like the herbs.
After the seeds are separated from the seed stalk, winnow them free from the rest of the debris by pouring them back and forth between two containers in a breeze or in front of a fan.
Basil is not an umbel and is self-pollinating, but its seeds are processed in the same way as the other annual herbs. Grow 3 or more plants and rub the seed free from the seed stalk, once the stalk has turned brown. Varieties should be separated by 150 ft. As with most herbs, you can cut some leaves and stems to eat and you can get a seed crop as well.
Celery, Parsley and Fennel are biennials, so they usually flower only after going through the winter months. They need several plants to produce good seed, and the tiny seeds can be saved using the same process as the annual herbs mentioned above.
With all herbs, some seeds are likely to fall off the plant before you process the bulk of the seeds, so you may get some volunteers in the next season, if you’re lucky!
The lettuce available for sale in stores or at the farmer’s market is an immature plant that has been chopped off right at ground level. So you have to start with lettuce seeds or a young plant start. You should probably start with more than one plant, though, so you can eat a few leaves if that is your inclination.
Lettuce is self-pollinating, so you only need one plant to save seed. All you have to do is put the plant in your garden in the spring, and not eat it, or only eat a few of the outside leaves. After a month or two (depending on the variety and the weather), the plant will start to bolt. The center of it will elongate and it will grow to 2–3 feet high and then begin to flower. Lettuce plants make hundreds of small compound flowers, and each makes a cluster of seeds that look a bit like fingernail clippings or mouse poop. The seeds often have little duff parachutes on them. Birds will usually tell you when the seed is ripe, because they will start to eat it. But you will also know because of the duff, which resembles a dandelion, as they are in the same family.
Pull up the whole plants when most of the seed is ripe. Let the plants sit for a day or two on a tarp (optional). This will cause much of the under-ripe seed to after-ripen. Covering the plants with row cover or a sheet will keep the birds from eating the seed. Next take a paper bag or a 5-gallon bucket and break off the top of the lettuce plant into it. Try not to get any dirt into your container. Using a bucket is easy, because then you can grab the bottom of the stem (while the plant is upside down in the bucket, which is right-side up), and whack it against both sides of the bucket. This will shake the seeds out from the plant. Do this until you get all of the seeds off, or as many as you want, and throw the lettuce flower stalk into the compost pile. Alternatively if you have a lot of plants, you can leave the plants on a tarp and whack the seed heads with a stick. This knocks the seed onto the tarp and you can then remove the seedless plants. Now you should have a good amount of seed, duff, and bugs in the bottom of your bucket or tarp.
You may want to take a break at this point to let some of the bugs leave and let the seed dry out a little. Maybe even over night, if you have lots of aphids in there. Lack of critters also makes winnowing easier. Make sure to cover your seed if rain or dew threatens. Next take a handful and rub it between your hands to separate the seed from the duff, and continue until most of the seed is separated.
The last step is to winnow the seeds out from the rest of the junk in the bottom of your bucket. It helps if you have a light breeze, but if not you can use a fan. If you use a fan, put it on the lowest setting, because lettuce seeds are very light and blow away easily. You will need a second bucket or small container. Pour the seed mixture back and forth between the containers, varying the drop distance depending on the breeze. The mature seeds should drop into the other bucket and everything else should float away. You may need to do this several times before the seed is clean. And if you have never winnowed anything before, it might also be good to put a tarp on the ground below where you are working so a slight variation in breeze doesn’t blow all of your seeds away, too. Since these seeds are just for you and your friends, they don’t have to be super clean — you can stop whenever you have had enough or have enough.
Put the seeds on a cookie sheet or a plate so they can finish drying thoroughly, if they are not already. Be sure to mouse- proof their location (either by putting them in a jar or a small hard plastic container), as they are a favourite of mice. If it is stored very dry lettuce seed will stay viable for 5 years or more.
The eggplant that we eat is the unripe fruit. To save seed it is important to forget to pick a fruit or two early in the season and leave it on the plant until it changes color to a dull brownish-purple (for purple eggplants, at least). Others like green or white eggplant turn a kind of dull yellow when ripe. It may be best to wait until the fruit even begin to rot. It is also good to let the fruit after-ripen for a few weeks before you process the seeds, to make sure the seeds have gotten every speck of goodness from the mother fruit.
Processing of eggplant seed is the same as for tomatillos and ground cherries (a sweet relative of the tomatillos). Cut the fruit in half and scrape out the seeds and pulp. Put them in a bowl or jar and add water. Stir it up, helping the seed to become free of the pulp by smooshing it with your fingers. When you stop stirring, the ripe seeds should sink and the pulp and immature seeds will float. Carefully pour off (decant) the water, making sure not to go so fast as to pour the seeds that are at the bottom of the jar out with the current. Repeat as many times as you need to, until the seed is clean.
If you have a tea strainer, pour the remaining seeds out quickly into the strainer. With a cloth pat the water out through the bottom of the strainer, then dump the seeds onto a small plate (or yogurt container lid) to dry. Try to keep the seeds only one layer thick to discourage mould. Once the seeds are thoroughly dry, place them in a clearly marked, airtight container. The seeds should last for five years or more.
Peppers are easy to save seed from. Remember that green peppers and some wax/yellow peppers are not ripe until they turn a different colour. The seeds inside are immature. Also, many commercial varieties are F1 Hybrids, so the seeds will not grow true-to-type. Be sure to select fruit that is fully ripe (usually red, orange, or yellow, and sometimes purple).
To process the seed of fresh peppers, begin with an exceedingly ripe fruit. No green on the skin. If you have a bell pepper, cut a circle around the calyx and pull out the top. The seed cluster should be attached. Scrape the seeds off the seed cluster, place in a jar with water, mix it up, and proceed as with eggplant seed. The ripe seeds should sink and the immature seeds and whatever other junk you may have gotten in there will float. Decant and refill the water a few times until the seeds are clean.
You can save seeds from dried peppers (but not smoked or roasted ones) more easily than you can from fresh fruit, since the seed is already mostly dry. The germination will be lower because you will not have floated off the hollow seeds. Just scrape the seed out, label, dry more if necessary, and store. If the peppers have been dried in a high temperature food dehydrator or in an oven, the seeds may have a lower germination rate or be dead.
Remember when working with hot peppers to wear gloves. Cut the fruit in half and scrape out the seeds. If you don’t have gloves handy, you can hold the fruit down with a fork and use the tip of a knife or tweezers to scrape the seeds from the fruit so you don’t get capsaicin on your fingers. If you must touch spicy peppers with bare hands, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly several times, and don’t touch anyone’s sensitive parts (like eyes) for the rest of the day. Pepper hotness doesn’t wash off easily and can hurt badly.
Most modern varieties of spinach were bred by the giant seed producing companies for spring and summer production or year round production on the California coast. These commercial hybrids were also developed for the freezing and canning industries and a few for the new baby leaf salad market. Locally adapted varieties and winter hardy types have almost been completely lost.
There are some great open‐pollinated spinach varieties out there, but most seed catalogs focus their offerings on commercial hybrid varieties that are not very suitable for seed saving. The 31 open‐pollinated varieties that are still available (down from 100 in 1981) are disappearing fast and they need stewards to sweep them up and save them from extinction. Farmers and gardeners who routinely grow spinach could benefit from saving their own seed, as succession sowing consumes a lot of seed.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is relatively easy to save seed from. Most people who have grown spinach in their gardens have had at least a few plants bolt on them. The proper way to save spinach seed is the same process as for any dry‐seeded plant (see pg. 6), with a few small refinements.
Spinach is an out‐breeding, wind‐pollinated crop. As such, it needs at least 20 plants (ideally 50‐100) and isolation from other varieties by 1/2 ‐ 1 mile, depending on obstructions and the wind. Spinach is set apart from most other garden plants because it is dioecious: each spinach plant will be male, female, or, rarely, hermaphroditic. Additionally, in the absence of male plants, some females will “revert” and begin producing male flowers.
Male plants are usually the first to bolt and hold their flowers high above the leaves. They are easy to identify because they shed copious amounts of very fine pollen. Female plants tend to be a bit stockier, and hold their flowers in the leaf axils (where the leaf stem meets the main stem).
Aside from planting out spinach in the spring and waiting, there is a level of sophistication that many spinach seed stewards enjoin. This usually includes over‐planting by at least 50% and removing the least desirable plants, including many early bolting males. Only a few males are needed to pollinate a female population, so if you rogue out 90% of the males you will allow the females more space and more access to nutrients, and have higher seed production relative to the total population.
Other annual salad and cooking greens are easy to save seed from as well. Greens such as leaf amaranth, orach, elkhorn plantain (Plantago) and purslane are all hermaphroditic (male and female flowers on the same plant), so one needs only to allow the plants to do their thing and harvest seed when it is dry. Annual Brassicas like arugula; Brassica juncea mustards and Brassica rapa mustards may be grown for seed as annuals if planted out in the spring, or may be treated as biennials in mild climates. Harvesting seed when the pods are dry (in mid‐late summer), threshing and winnowing is a similar process for most “dry seed” species.
The important thing to consider is cross‐pollination. A large enough population for genetic diversity is needed and isolation from other varieties of the same species is important.
Plant out a good‐sized population of plants (20+) early enough in the season to allow for seed production by fall. We plant out these types of plants in the spring after the last frost or earlier for hardy varieties.
Beets, chard, carrots, turnips, onions, parsnips & leeks
Ok, onions & leeks aren’t actually roots, they are a modified leaf. And of course chard isn’t a root at all, but it is the same species as beets — it has been selected for a larger leaf instead of a bulbous root. And Beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips and onions are all in different families and have different pollination mechanisms (beets are wind-pollinated, preferring at least two miles isolation, and the others are mostly insect pollinated and need about one mile). But their seed is processed in much the same way, so we’ll just make a seed saving soup out of them all by putting them in the same pot. Or on the same page, as it were.
All of the plants listed here are biennials. As a rule, biennials are out-crossers and need large populations (30–100 plants) for seed saving to avoid inbreeding depression. Also, most of the commercially available carrots and onions (and a good amount of beets) are F1 Hybrids, so the seed they produce will not be true-totype. So, if you want to have good seed, start with seed of high quality open pollinated varieties to begin with.
For beets and chard, parsnips, carrots, turnips, onions, and leeks for seed production, sow seeds as you normally would for these crops, at the same time you would for an autumn harvest. Don’t sow carrots for seed saving in April; wait at least until June or they will get too big.
It is a good idea to plant two to three times the amount needed for a seed crop so you can have some to eat AND cull out the misshapen or off-type ones. Though it may be tempting to eat the most beautiful beets and carrots, those are precisely the ones you want to be saving for seed as you steward the variety into its next generation. So eat your edits!
It is good to dig up all of the crop at once in late fall so you can look at all the roots (and taste a small piece if you want). From the hundreds of beets or other biennial roots at your feet, select the most beautiful and/or vigorous (or whatever you are aiming for) 50 plants. In the Maritime Pacific Northwest you can re-plant right away or in colder climates return them to earth in early spring with at least one foot in each direction.
The plants should settle in easily and start to grow shortly after planting. Sit back and watch as they grow more leaves and then start to bolt, then flower. Then watch the bees visit the flowers, and the birds visit to eat some of the seeds. When the birds have discovered your seed crop, it is usually time to harvest. Biennial root seeds need to be dry processed, so make sure the seeds are completely dry on the plant before you harvest them. If the seedy part of the plant is dead brown and almost crispy, the seeds are ready. If the seeds are mostly dry and a rainstorm is coming, go chop the seed heads off and bring them inside to dry down the rest of the way before processing the seed. It is even better to pull up the whole plants and hang them up in the garage to finish drying. Place a tarp under them to catch the shattered seed.
Seed processing for biennial roots is similar to that for lettuce. Chop the seed stalks down into a bucket. Leave the plants in buckets or paper bags for a day or two so they can continue to dry down and the bugs may leave. When you are sure the seed is dry, whack the seed stalk against the sides of your bucket or tote, or dance on top of a pile of seed stalks on a tarp or in a tote. Then winnow the seed from the debris using the breeze or a box fan, as you would with lettuce. For parsnips and onions it is better to hold the seed head and hit it on the inside of a bucket to collect the shattered seed with as little debris as possible, as it is hard to winnow. Let the seeds dry a little more, and when you are sure they are completely dry, label and store them in a cool, dry place.
Please note that the germination rates of onions and parsnips drops severely after the first season, so be sure to share or sow all of your parsnip and onion seeds the spring after you harvest them. If you are unable to do so, storing in the freezer will preserve them for 5 years or more.
Broccoli, Collard Greens, Kale, Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, Rutabagas, Turnips, Radishes, Napa Cabbage
Oh! the Brassicas. Where would we be without them? What would we make our sauerkraut from, or our kimchee? (Ok, other greens, like pigweed or dock, but that’s beside the point.) What would our aloo gobi be made from?
Brassicas are one of the most important vegetable plant families in our diets today. They are nutritious, delicious, and productive. In the past 100 years, we have lost up to 90% of the cabbage and cauliflower varieties I the US, as well as huge percentages of other Brassicas that were once available through seed companies. This is partly because of the massive consolidation in the seed industry, and partly because of the shift within the industry towards F1 hybrids whenever possible. Brassicas are outbreeders and lend themselves easily to being hybridized. This hybridization is good for the seed companies because hybrids produce a uniform crop, perfect for industrial agriculture. Furthermore, the seed from F1 Hybrids does not come trueto-type, so if you save seed from a hybrid you may get something very different from what you hoped for. This in essence provides a proprietary mechanism for the control of the seed.
These factors combine to make Brassicas one of the most important threatened food plant families to save seeds from in our gardens. If we don’t, the seed companies won’t, and then we are in danger of losing very valuable food sources. For seed saving, they are a little more complicated than tomatoes and beans, but the effort is well worth it!
Most of the Brassicas we eat in the US are biennials (flowering and producing seed their second year), and most of them are Brassica oleracea. If you leave a broccoli, a collard, a cabbage, a Brussels sprout, and a cauliflower in your garden, let them flower, and let the bees do their part, you will wind up with hundreds of different Brassicas. It is pretty likely none of the next generation will look like what you started with, due to crosses from such diverse parents. Brussels Sprouts on a giant kohlrabi base? A collard-leaved cauliflower? A hairy kale?
If you want to save seed from any of these, and you are concerned with getting the seed to produce the same sort of plant you started with, there are three things to know before you start. One is, most Brassicas on the market now are hybrids, and if you save seed from them you WILL NOT get the same variety. Secondly, if you are saving a particular variety of Brassica oleracea, you need a large population (50 plants minimum) to maintain a healthy genetic variability.
If you want to cross a Brussels sprout with a kale, you can use fewer plants because these two parents are very genetically different from each other. Third, all Brassica oleracea will cross with each other, so you must be sure your neighbors aren’t letting their collards flower when you are trying to save a Purple Sprouting broccoli seed crop. Unless of course your goal is Purple Sprouting collards (that would be awesome).
For most Brassicas you need to start with seeds or from garden starts. If you sow the seeds in late July, plant the seedlings out by late August, the plants will have sized up enough by fall to hold through the winter and produce flowers the following spring (late April-June). In harsher climates you will have to dig up the plants and store them potted up in a root cellar or greenhouse. The seed usually dries down by August, and forms in dried seed pods all along the branches. If the seed is close to dry and the rains are coming, go clip off the plants and bring them inside. We once lost an entire broccoli seed crop because the seed didn’t ripen before the rains came.
To clean the seeds, just clip off the tops of the plants into a bucket or tote, strip the seed pods from the branches, and dance around in the mess you’ve made in the bottom of your tote. The dancing should open the seed pods and the seeds should all fall out, especially if you do the twist. Get another tote or a bucket, and winnow the seed by pouring it from one container to another in a breeze (or in front of a fan), allowing the chaff to float away.
Permaculture New — How to save seeds
Mother Earth News — Save Vegetable Seeds in Your Backyard
The Old Farmers Almanac — Start Saving Those Vegetable Seeds
International Seed Saving Institute — Basic Seed Saving
Planet Natural — Saving Garden Seeds
Rodales Organic Life — 6 Tips For Storing Your Saved Seeds
Royal Horticultural Society — Seed: collecting and storing