As fall gets under way, many vegetables wrap up their season-long lifecycle and set the seeds that lead to next year’s bounty.
“Saving seeds is a great way to perpetuate your favorite heirloom varieties and save a bit of money, too,” said Ross Penhallegon, a horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service.
Not all vegetables grow true to type the next year, however, so save seeds only from open- and self-pollinated varieties, not those labeled hybrids. Collect seeds from fully mature, ripe fruit of superior plants. Seeds should be completely dry before storing.
Bean, pea and other legume seeds are among the easiest to collect, Penhallegon said. Leave the pods on the plant until they are “rattle dry.” Keep an eye on the pods, as some varieties split and scatter the seeds when dry. Pick the dried pods and place them in a well-ventilated area at room temperature. When the pods are completely dry, remove the seeds. Look out for pea weevils, which eat out the center of the seeds.
Lettuce seeds usually save well, but next year’s crop may vary a bit from the original. Many herbs dry on the stalk. Stems of dill, anise and other herbs can be cut and hung upside down wrapped in a paper bag or nylon to catch the falling seed.
Cross-pollination can happen with peppers, Penhallegon said, so make sure the hot and sweet varieties are grown well apart if you are saving seeds. Scrape the seeds from a mature, ripe pepper and allow them to dry on a tray at room temperature.
Tomatoes should be fermented prior to removing seeds to destroy canker disease organisms, he said. Squeeze the seeds and surrounding gel from several ripe tomatoes into a clear glass jar and add two to three inches of water. Make sure you label the jar with the name of the tomato variety. Set it on a sunny windowsill and stir daily. As the mixture ferments, the debris and gel will float to the top and the viable seeds will sink to the bottom. After several days, scoop or pour out the debris and gel and then drain and rinse the remaining mixture in a fine sieve. Spread the seeds on a paper plate to dry for four to five days.
It is more difficult to save seeds from vine crops such as cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Without controlled pollination, these crops cross with other varieties with unexpected results. The crosses, Penhallegon said, can be unusual and even unique.
Biennials, such as carrots, beets, and most of the cabbage family, present other problems to the seed saver. It takes space and planning to keep the plant going from one year until it goes to seed the second year.
Once completely dry, your seeds are ready to store in a cool, dry, dark place. Put each seed type in a labeled, dated envelope and store the seed envelopes in a sealed jar. Moisture can cause the seeds to deteriorate more quickly, he said. To ensure the seeds stay dry and increase seed viability, place a small amount of freshly opened powdered milk or silica gel in the jar beneath the seed packets. Close the jar tightly and store on the kitchen counter until no moisture condenses inside the jar. Then place the jar in the refrigerator until planting time.