Seed Saving for Beginners

Seed Saving for Beginners

Adapt plants to your own private patch of dirt

By Roxanne Webber

Seed saving is simply the process of harvesting seeds from plants you’ve grown and using them for next year’s crop. You only need to buy seeds once; after a few generations of selecting and growing seeds from your best plants, you’ll have plants that have adapted to the unique soil and climate conditions of your garden, says Leslie Land, gardening columnist and coauthor of The New York Times 1000 Gardening Questions & Answers.

And you’re not just growing yourself a better cuke for your salad: Saving seeds helps “ensure the genetic diversity of our food crops,” says John Torgrimson, the editor of publications at Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit "dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds." That’s because “if plants catch diseases, or climates change, the more varieties out there, the more chance we’ll find something that can survive,” says Terri Compost (yes, that’s her real name), a seed-saving instructor and curator at the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library.

Here is some basic info on how to save seeds:

The first step is to be sure you are working with the right types of plants. Though you can save seeds from both hybrid and open-pollinated plants (open-pollinated varieties are considered heirloom if they’re older than 50 years), you won’t get good results from hybrids. “In general, hybrids do not produce offspring from seed that’s the same as the parent plant,” says Torgrimson. “An heirloom will produce offspring that is ‘true to type’—that seed can be saved and planted. Hybrids are Russian roulette.” This is not to say that hybrids are “bad” plants—some hybrids, like the Early Girl tomato, are very popular and tasty. They are just not well-suited to seed saving. Seed catalogs and websites say whether varieties are open-pollinated (they may be marked “OP”) or hybrids; it may or may not be marked on the seed packets themselves.

When you save seeds, you should always save from your best plants. That means the most gorgeous tomato you grow this year is not going on your plate. “There’s a temptation to eat the best,” says Leslie Land, “but if you stop and think about it, no, you must sacrifice.” She suggests saving seeds from the best three or four plants. How to decide? Arm yourself with a variety of colored twist ties and code them for different qualities. Mark the tastiest plants with one color, the best producers with another, the plants that yield earliest with another, and so on. Then save seeds from the plants that have the most desirable traits marked.

Seeds you’re planning to plant for next year need to be fully mature, so you may have to adjust your gardening aesthetic to include the not-conventionally-attractive part of the growth cycle of the plant. “The plants at the end of their cycle are putting all their energy into the next generation,” says Terri Compost. Depending on what plants you are saving from, the plants and/or their fruit may need to be left alone to dry out, they might start looking scruffy when flowering, or they may even need paper bags placed over top of them in the case of something like lettuce—not what we think of as the quaint, perfectly manicured Martha Stewart vegetable patch. “People see gardens turning a little brown and think, ‘Oh, that’s unkempt!’ But you have to let it get a little brown to get into seed saving,” Compost adds. “Even the term gone to seed [should not be seen] as a derogatory.”