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The author finds a treasure trove of Cosmos seeds while on vacation. Photo by Jano Nightingale
Columns Jano's Garden

Jano’s Garden: The art of saving your garden’s seeds

On a recent trip to Big Bear Lake, to celebrate my birthday with my son, we stayed at a lovely lodge with small gardens decorating all of the patios.

I complimented Dave, the gardener, and he gave me a tour of the flower gardens. Cosmos, daisies and purple flax thrive in the cooler mountain climate, and as I admired the Cosmos, I was delighted to see lots of dark brown seedpods atop some of the mature flowers.

I reached down to pick a few of the pods and gently crushed them until the dark brown seeds emerged. I quickly found an envelope in which to store my prize bounty and marked it “Big Bear Lake/Birthday Cosmos/2020.”

Although Dave had been a gardener for many years, his expertise was clearly in pruning and keeping the lodge gardens looking neat and tidy. He had never collected seed before, so we got into a discussion about how to save seed for future use and save money.

Many gardeners simply clean out their beds at this time of year to begin their fall crops.

But if you look closely at the vegetables that are remaining, you may have a wealth of free seed just waiting for you to harvest.

Considering that one packet of seed can cost over two dollars, and a three-inch tomato plant as much as three dollars, it is worth the time to learn how to preserve them.

Some crops like peas, beans, lettuce and tomatoes are great for beginning seed savers. These annual, self-pollinating crops require little to no isolation, and only a few plants are needed to reliably produce seeds.

According to the experts at Seed Savers, an Iowa based seed collection company, “Open-pollinated varieties, are like dog breeds; they will retain their distinct characteristics as long as they are mated with an individual of the same breed.

“This means, with a little care and planning, the seeds you produce will be true-to-type, keeping their distinct traits generation after generation as long as they do not cross-pollinate with other varieties of the same species.”

For complete instructions in isolating vegetables for seed and specific information on saving individual seed, check the Seed Savers Catalogue at www.seedsavers.org.

Not every plant’s seeds are worth keeping. F1 Hybrid plants are developed by crossing specific parent plants, so the seed is often sterile or does not reproduce true to the parent plant. So, rule of thumb, don’t save seed from hybrid varieties! Heirlooms do not cross-pollinate nearby plants and are good candidates.

“Garden crops can be classified as either dry fruited or wet fruited. Collecting seeds from dry fruited crops can be as simple as going out to the garden, handpicking a few mature seedpods, and bringing them into the house for further drying and cleaning. Fruits from wet fruited crops must be picked when their seeds are mature.

“The harvested fruits are either crushed or cut open, and the seeds are extracted from the flesh and pulp before the seeds are dried,” according to the Seed Saver Catalogue.

For step-by-step instructions on saving wet fruit, check their website.

For crops that produce wet fruits, the seeds are not always mature when the fruits are ready to eat. Eggplant, cucumber, and summer squash fruit are eaten when the fruits are immature and still edible, but before the seeds are actually mature.

This means that you need to leave a few fruits to fully mature in the garden when you want to save seeds.

Dry fruited crops, like grains, lettuce, and beans, can be removed from the plant once seeds are dry and hard. When seeds are cleaned and dried place in brown paper bags.

Seeds are happiest when they are stored in a cool, dark, and dry place. A dark closet in a cooler part of the house or a dry basement is both good places to store seeds for over a year.

Remove from brown paper bags and store in airtight containers, then place in freezer or refrigerator for up to two years. And don’t forget to label your seeds!

We can all be a part of the seed saving revolution. If individual gardeners save heirloom seed and share them with others we can protect our garden heritage.

When individuals save seed we can be assured that we are not promoting GMO seed products.

Seed Savers Exchange maintains a collection of over 20,000 seeds with 5,000 available to members; for membership information go to exchange.seedsavers.org. If you have questions for me, contact [email protected]

Jano Nightingale is a horticulturist and Master Gardener and former Director of the Master Gardener Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cooperstown, New York. She works on community gardens and teaches gardening classes in North County