Although the most valuable lessons of gardening and seed saving are probably learned by experience, these tips may help you get off to a more satisfying start:
- Where can you find heirloom varieties? A growing number of small seed companies and seed saving organizations is engaged in preserving and sharing such seeds. (See our Bibliography of Resources for the Heirloom Gardener and Seed Saver.) And don't overlook older gardeners in your own family and community; they may have heirlooms of their own to pass along.
- Seed is generally saved only from open-pollinated, non-hybrid plants. Seed saved from a hybrid is likely to revert back to characteristics of previous generations.
- Seed is generally saved from annual and biennial plants. Perennials are usually propagated through division or cuttings.
- The easiest vegetables to save seed from (good choices for beginning seed savers) are self-pollinating annuals, which include beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes.
- Plants which are not self-pollinating are susceptible to cross-pollination. In other words, if two varieties of spinach bloom near each other, the resultant seed is likely to be a cross between the two. Some plants will also cross with wild varieties (for example, carrot can be cross-pollinated by the wild carrot Queen Anne's Lace). With the exception of the self-pollinators, then, it is a good idea to grow only one variety of a plant from which you want to save seed that season. Learning how your plants are pollinated will help you avoid accidental crosses.
- Saving seed from biennials requires more work and a longer commitment, for these plants don't send up their seed stalks until the second season. The biennials include beet, Brussels sprout, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, onion, parsley, parsnip, rutabaga, salsify, swiss chard, and turnip. See seed saving literature for instructions on how to winter-over these plants.
- Carefully select the plants from which you will save seed. Consider such characteristics as flavor, yield, vigor, color, size, disease and insect resistance, early bearing, late bolting, suitability for purpose, and weather tolerance. Mark these plants so you don't accidentally eat up your prime seed producers!
- Seed must be mature before it is gathered and thoroughly dried before it is stored. Seed can be stored in small glass jars, paper envelopes, or plastic bags. If you use paper envelopes, place all the filled envelopes in an airtight container. (An exception is peas and beans, which store better in breathable bags.) Be sure to label each container with the variety, the date, and any other pertinent information. Store your seed where it will remain cool, dry, and dark; a refrigerator is a good choice. Once the seed has been stored, avoid opening the container until you are ready to plant; moisture will condense inside the cold jar and dampen the seeds.
- Properly stored seed will retain its viability for different lengths of time depending on the type of seed, from 5 years for eggplant and melon seeds to only 1 year for onions and sweet corn. Many types of seed remain viable for 2-3 years.
For detailed information on how to save seeds, please see the resources listed in our Bibliography of Resources for the Heirloom Gardener and Seed Saver.