As summer comes to an end, it’s tempting to feel as though the growing season is almost over. However, as we observe the gardens, yards, freeway medians, native habitats and other open spaces that surround us, we notice that plants are covered with seeds! Many of these seeds will sprout with the first rains of fall and winter if the soil temperature is warm enough. Thus, seeds indicate both the end of an annual life cycle and the imminent beginning of another.
This time of year, our most important work in the garden is to carefully collect seeds from our annual vegetables and flowers, and prepare them for storage. Likely the most ancient agricultural act, gathering seeds is something that still comes naturally to us modern homo sapiens. Despite the fact that we are so glued to our screens these days and so few of us are involved in growing food, being good seed savers is a strong trait in our collective human heritage; even young children can tell you that the plump, colorful and undamaged seeds in a handful are the ones to keep.
While saving seeds is quite simple, techniques for harvesting, threshing, winnowing and storing the seed vary from species to species. Additionally, some species are highly prone to crossing or hybridizing, which is great if that is your intention, but not so great if you hope to keep the seed “true to type.” In order to have the best results, first do a bit of research on the specific type of plant you are harvesting from and review the tips below.
So what’s the point of saving seeds?
1. You can save money on seeds and plants next year!
2. You can share your favorite varieties with your neighbors, family and friends.
3. You can help take back control of our genetic heritage - do you trust the big seed companies to do it for you?
4. You can preserve heirlooms and other rare varieties of seeds.
5. You can create new hybrids that have the traits that you like best!
6. You can create locally adapted varieties that are better suited for your garden or farm than any seeds you can get anywhere else.
7. Many seeds are good to eat!
Here are a few additional tips from the “Saving Seeds for Future Generations” chapter of our Edible Gardening handbook:
1. Harvest seeds from as many different plants (within species and variety) as possible so that you have many different sets of genetic information in your seed bank. This ensures greater potential resilience (due to genetic variation) in your saved seed stock.
2. Try crushing a few of your seeds with a hammer or a brick to test their moisture content. If they shatter, they are fully dried and ready for storage, if they do not shatter, they will mold when you put them in an airtight container.
3. If you are a beginner, a few good types of seed to save include the following:
- annual herbs (parsley, dill, fennel and cilantro/coriander are the simplest to save)
- beans and peas
- true grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye, millet)
- “pseudo-grains” (amaranth, quinoa, teff, buckwheat)
- annual flowers (sunflowers, poppies, hollyhocks, zinnias, cosmos, etc.)
Some helpful tools for seed saving include:
1. A window screen drying rack or stainless cookie sheet
2. Stainless steel bowls
3. Paper shopping bags
4. Glass jars with sealable lids or sealable paper envelopes
5. Sticky labels
If you want to learn more about seed saving, particularly which plants are prone to cross-pollination, see our Edible Gardening handbook and Suzanne Ashworth’s book, Seed to Seed.
Recommended seed vendors for getting your seed bank going this season:
Living Seed Company
Seed Saver’s Exchange
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds