How to Save Plant Seeds, Part 1

Saving seeds from your garden is easy. With very little time and effort you can save yourself much time and money. I’ve been collecting seeds in my gardens for years and consider it one of the most important aspects of gardening.

Rhubarb going to seed

Saving plant seeds can reduce some gardening costs dramatically. Last year I spent over $100 on seeds for my vegetable garden. This year I spent nothing. Granted, last year was the first major planting of my new, big, vegetable garden. And this year I sowed many of the seeds left over from last year’s big purchase.  But sowing seeds that I collected enabled me to continue growing plants that do well in my garden, at no additional cost.

I’ve grown green pole beans in my garden for about 12 years. The only time I bought green pole bean seeds was about 12 years ago. At the end of each summer I save some of the bean seeds and the next year I plant them. I foresee repeating this process until I’m no longer able to stick my finger in the soil. One purchase of green pole bean seeds over a decade ago has produced a legacy of innumerable plants and dozens of jars of pickled green beans.

My green beans

Vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers all produce seeds that can be saved and sown. If you discover a plant that you like, that performs well in your garden, or that has expensive seeds, you may be able to continue growing it at no additional cost.

At this point it’s important to discuss important concerns about saving and sowing garden seeds. First, some plants are patented. A plant patent protects the rights of its inventor and prohibits reproducing the plant asexually. That means you aren’t legally authorized to propagate such a plant from cuttings, divisions, grafts, buds, and all other asexual propagation methods. However, seeds are a sexual form of propagation and aren’t covered under patent protection. Therefore, some gardeners hope to reproduce patented plants from seeds.

This raises an important second concern of collecting seeds. Seeds from hybrid plants will not grow true to the parent plant. A hybrid plant is almost every one with a fancy, copyrighted name. Virtually every patented plant is a hybrid. Plants with extraordinary color, shape, size, and growth characteristics are often hybrids.

Hybrid plants are created by cross pollinating two parent plants. The resulting hybrid offspring may have characteristics of the parents or may have completely different attributes. Because of genetic variation, the seeds of these hybrids will produce a mix of offspring that may not resemble the hybrid parent at all. To produce an exact reproduction of a hybrid plant, asexual reproduction is necessary; hence, the legal limitations of patent protection.

The only way to be ensure the seed you collect will grow into the plant you’re trying to reproduce is to collect seeds from “open-pollinated” or “heirloom” plants.

Open-pollinated plants are the ones you see all around you in nature. The flowers bloom, insects and wind transfer the pollen to other flowers, seeds develop, and those seeds grow into the same kind of plants to start the process all over again. Collecting and sowing open-pollinated seeds will usually produce replicas of the parent plant.

“Heirloom” is the name that the gardening industry has given to these kind of plants. Many plant growers and nurseries recognized long ago the value in producing seeds and plants with consistent characteristics. Seeds from heirloom plants can be saved and when sown will grow into the same plant. Thankfully, heirloom plants aren’t patented.

It’s also important to recognize the biggest limitation with collecting seeds from open-pollinated plants: they open pollinate.  That means that if you’re growing one heirloom tomato next to another heirloom tomato, they will cross pollinate. The seeds will produce hybrid plants and may not resemble either of the parent heirloom plants. If you want to collect true seeds from open-pollinated plants you need to be sure they haven’t been compromised or contaminated by another, similar plant.

With a focus on collecting open-pollinated plant seeds, the next thing to know is how the plant produces seeds. Annual, biennial, and perennial plants will all provide seeds, but not all in the same way.

Annual plants complete their life cycles in one year. They grow from seed, mature, flower, set seed, and die. Many of our garden plants fall into this category: tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, dill, cilantro. You’ll be able to collect these seeds the same year you plant.

Biennial plants have a two-year life cycle. They grow from seed, mature, lie dormant in winter, grow, flower, set seed, and die. Many of the biennial plants we grow in the vegetable garden are harvested before they produce seeds:  parsley, carrots, beets, onions, and parsnips will only seed when left in the ground for a full year. Flowering plants like Black-eyed Susan, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Nots, Sweet William, and some Hollyhocks are biennials. You have to wait a year to harvest seeds from these plants

Parsnips setting seed in their 2nd year

Perennial plants live longer than two years. They grow from seed and mature, but may take a few years before they flower and set seeds. Once they do, they can be expected to flower virtually every year. In the vegetable garden, asparagus, artichoke, and rhubarb are the ones most gardeners know (I treat horseradish as a perennial too, leaving it to return each year and harvesting as needed). The number of perennial flowering plants is too numerous to list.

Plants flower and produce fruit after pollination. The fruit may be large and edible or small and almost imperceptible. In many perennial flowers the fruit isn’t much more than an enlargement at the base of the flower where the ovary is. Some fruit may be pods with the seeds inside. Some may be husks. Some may connect to feathers or parachutes. Most of the fruit we eat has seeds inside (with the exception of strawberries); in some the seeds are edible (pomegranate) and in others they may be toxic (peaches).

Regardless of how big the fruit or how big the seed, the process of saving seeds is basic. You remove the seeds from the fruit, allow them to dry, place them in a clean container, label them, and store them in a cool, dry location. Some seeds will only remain viable for one year while others remain viable for centuries; it all depends on the plant.

Many seeds need exposure to cold temperatures before germination, also known as vernalization. If the seed you’re saving is from a perennial that can handle cold, hard winters, it probably needs to be stored in temperatures below 50F degrees (10C) for a period of time. Usually, four to six weeks in a refrigerator is enough. I store my seeds in an unheated garage or shed through the winter.

I’ll cover the procedures of how to collect and save specific seeds from a variety of plants in my next article.

While I save many seeds and grow much of my garden from them, I’m not advocating that you take business away from nurseries and seed companies.

In exchange for the opportunity to begin growing a new heirloom plant from a seed that a
seed company provides, I’m more than willing to let them sell me hybrid
seeds that I can’t reproduce. There are also many heirloom plants that
don’t do well in my garden, but I don’t know that until I’ve tried. The price of that seed is written off as a failed experiment.

If I can save seeds from a plant I’ve grown successfully and reproduce it in the future at no additional cost, I will. But this represents just one aspect of gardening costs. I’m continually on the lookout for new plants to try in my garden. Some
are heirlooms and some are hybrids. Some are seeds and some are plants. Each year I try new things. While I didn’t buy any seeds this year, I did buy a number of plants.

Saving seeds spotlights the ability of the gardener to find a specific plant that can be grown year after year with continued success in an individual garden. In my garden, only dill, cilantro, beans, and pumpkins are plants that I grow every year from saved seeds. This year I’ve also collected seeds from cucumbers, radishes, leeks, parsnips, shallots, beets, peas, vetch, and spinach. Some of those may return for years to come and some may fade away.

I’ll continue saving seeds and sowing them in an effort to find plants that provide me what I want, whether it be fruit, flowers, or some other result. It would be great to find another plant like the green beans that I’ve come to love so much for the many years of pickled green beans they produced.

Saving plant seeds doesn’t take much effort, but can pay huge dividends. Join me in my next article to find out more about it.

Leave a Comment