Harvesting seeds from your garden for planting in the future is a great idea for all kinds of reasons. Most obviously, it’s an economical way to keep your garden going from year to year without having to constantly purchase new seeds. Seed saving allows you to share (and trade!) with your friends and neighbours, and it keeps the gene pool of food plants alive and healthy.
The actual process is not difficult, although there’s a little more to it than can be fully explored in this article. A number of excellent books on the subject exist, as noted below. While you don’t need an extensive education to save seeds, you will have to learn some very basic principles, a little bit of botany, and some specific information about the seeds you’d like to save.
These are the three fundamentals of seed saving:
1. Labeling & recording your harvest. We grow plants and store seeds over a long period – sometimes for more than two or three years. It’s far too easy to forget the details of exactly where, when, and how your seeds were planted, and other details like where they came from originally. At minimum, you’ll want to record the variety name, its origin, the date of harvest, and the date of storage. It’s also helpful to record everything else you can observe, like days to maturity, seeding dates, and yield.
2. Cleaning, drying, & storing your seeds. Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, from manageable (spinach and cilantro) down to dust-like (lobelia and oregano). What you want to save are the seeds themselves, not a bunch of twigs, leaves, and dirt. So cleaning foreign debris away from seeds is important. Seeds that come from pulpy fruits like tomatoes need extra work, but there are time saving secrets to cleaning each type. You’ll also need to dry the seeds thoroughly for storage in order to prevent mould and other decay from damaging them. Finally, storing seeds through the winter in an organized fashion takes some small effort.
3. Maintaining the purity of the variety in question. When you grow your seeds out in the years to come, you want them to maintain all of the desirable qualities of their parent plants. This requires some understanding of how pollination works, and what is required to prevent the genetic material of a similar plant “contaminating” your seeds and producing unpredictable results.
The materials you’ll need can be very simple or quite elaborate, depending on your needs. We recommend a simple system like our West Coast Seeds Seed Saving Kit, but the premise is to keep your seeds safe and dry throughout their dormancy, and clearly labeled for identification in the spring.
If you plan on saving seeds you should work with varieties that are open pollinated, as opposed to hybrid kinds. Hybrids seeds are produced by crossing the pollen of two different plant varieties to take advantage of the desirable characteristics of both parent plants. If you saved the seeds from a hybrid variety, the plants they would produce would be unpredictable. Saving seeds of open pollinated varieties keeps things relatively simple.
One of the best basic guides for seed savers is How to Save Your Own Seeds, published by Seeds of Diversity Canada. This 48-page handbook contains pretty much all the information needed to save vegetable and herb seeds from year to year. The layout is easy to use, and it is intended for beginners, so the writing is clear, but thorough. For the advanced seed saver, The Manual of Seed Saving is an excellent reference. This book includes more information about how each type of plant is pollinated, and how larger scale growers can manage seeds from year to year.