Save vegetable seeds as you harvest so your favorite plants can grow again next season. In this Storey BASICS® guide, Fern Marshall Bradley covers everything you need to know to successfully save seeds from 20 popular garden vegetables, including beans, carrots, peas, peppers, and tomatoes. Learn how each plant is pollinated, where to store your collected seeds through the winter, and how to test their replanting viability in the spring. Now you can grow the delicious varieties you love year after year.
About the Author
Fern Marshall Bradley, author of Building Raised Beds and Saving Vegetable Seeds, is a long-time editor of books about organic gardening, organic farming, and sustainable living. Bradley lives and gardens in Cambridge, New York.
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Getting Started with Saving Seeds
Collecting and saving seeds adds a new dimension to gardening. It's an adventurous experiment to shepherd a crop through the seed-production phase — especially a crop you don't usually grow for seed, such as lettuce or radishes. The basics are easy to learn, and some seed-saving tasks, such as collecting and cleaning seeds, are pleasant, lightweight pastimes. After all, harvesting seeds is a lot easier on the back than digging potatoes or hauling a tub of squash!
Start with saving seeds from a few of the easier crops, such as beans or tomatoes. Then, if you really enjoy saving seeds, you can save seeds from more challenging crops. You can even begin developing your own strains of plants that are uniquely suited to your growing conditions.
One side benefit of learning how to save seeds is that you will become a better gardener overall. Being a seed saver trains you to pay more attention to your local growing conditions and what's happening in your garden. You'll begin to seek answers to all sorts of questions: How long is your growing season? When are you most likely to have rainy spells? How cold does it get during the winter? Are there places in your garden where crops aren't doing as well as others? What's going on with the soil there? What kinds of weeds are growing in and around your garden? How can you prevent weeds from going to flower? All these factors influence your success in saving seeds.
Learning more about plant biology, such as how pollination takes place and how seeds form and mature, is part of the picture, too. You'll develop the habit of studying your plants more closely, because you'll want to save seeds only from plants that are doing the best and that have the characteristics you find most desirable. Which plants in a row of beans are flowering first? Which spinach plants are the last to bolt? Does one of your tomato plants have fruits with particularly good flavor and color? Is one of your squash vines remaining lush while its neighbors are succumbing to powdery mildew?
You'll also find yourself investigating your house, garage, and other outbuildings for their potential to store seeds and plants. Which areas are cold and dry, and which are damp? What spots stay consistently cold during the winter but don't freeze up?
What Is a Seed?
As a gardener, you've probably handled hundreds, even thousands, of seeds. But to become a successful seed saver, it helps to learn what's inside those seeds and how plants form them in the first place. Although they're very small, seeds are complex structures with an amazing capacity for growth and transformation. Essentially, a seed has three parts:
* Embryo. The nascent plant, the embryo is the structure that will form roots and shoots as the seed germinates.
* Endosperm. This built-in food supply nourishes the embryo as it starts to grow.
* Seed coat. The hard outer shell of the seed protects the embryo. Although the seed coat is a tough shell, water and air can pass through it.
How Seeds Form
Most food-garden plants are flowering plants, and as you know, flowers are the precursors of seeds. Flowers contain reproductive structures that are female (pistil) and male (stamen). Some plants bear flowers that contain male and female parts (these are called "perfect" flowers), and others bear flowers that contain only male parts or only female parts.
Pistils. These can be large or small, and a single flower may contain one or several. A pistil consists of an ovary at the base, a tubular structure called the style, and a surface at the top of the style called the stigma. There are ovules (immature seeds) within the ovary.
Stamens. A stamen usually has two parts: the anther and the filament. The anther is a saclike structure that produces pollen. The filament is a slender stalk, and the anther sits atop it.
Pollination. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from a stamen to a pistil. Pollen can't move by itself, but many forces in nature can and do move pollen: wind, insects, water, and even birds and bats. In home gardens, wind and insects are the two most important movers of pollen.
Fertilization. A fascinating process unfolds when pollen grains land on a stigma. Each pollen grain has two nuclei. One nucleus powers the formation of a tube that extends down through the style to the ovary. The other nucleus divides to form two sperm cells, which travel down the pollen tube.
Egg cells also have multiple nuclei. One sperm cell unites with two polar nuclei, and that is the genesis of the endosperm. The other sperm cell fuses with the egg nucleus to form what will become the embryo. This is fertilization — the start of seed development.
Fruit and Seed Development
After pollination the flower begins to transform into a fruit. Botanically speaking, fruits take many forms, from the classic apple-type fruit with juicy flesh surrounding the seeds to fleshy pods like bean pods. Some seeds, such as lettuce and spinach, end up naked, with no visible covering at all.
Meanwhile, seeds are developing, too: the endosperm is growing, along with the embryo, and the outer seed coat is forming. When the seed reaches maturity, the seed coat will provide a tight seal that helps protect the embryo from being injured or drying out.
Nature has plenty of variations on the theme of fruit development and seed dispersal. Overall, the purpose of the fruit is to protect the seed while it develops. Some fruits are bitter, to discourage animals from eating them. Many soften and decay once the seeds are fully mature in order to release the seeds into the soil. Or pods may dry up and split open, ejecting the seeds onto the surrounding soil. Seed savers aim to capture the moment when the seed inside the fruit is mature but hasn't yet been dispersed.
Are All Seeds Worth Saving?
Some seeds turn out better than others. If a plant suffers stress, such as lack of water or an attack by pests, it won't have as much energy to form seeds. It may produce fewer seeds, or small seeds that don't contain much endosperm or viable embryos. Plants suffering from disease may produce seeds that carry pathogens, which could survive on the stored seed and infect future seedlings. Your goal is to save the healthiest, strongest seed possible. To do that, you'll sort the strong seed from the weak seed at the same time as you're cleaning the seed and preparing it for storage.
Seed health isn't the only consideration, though. You also want to be sure that the seeds you save will produce plants that have the characteristics you expect, such as high productivity, delicious fruit or leaves, and resistance to disease. Sometimes that happens naturally, but other times you'll need to take special steps to ensure that your growing plants produce seeds that will deliver the right results.
It's in the Genes
A seed is a storehouse of genetic information. Plants have genes that govern fruit color and flavor, plant size, plant form (bushy versus vining), cold tolerance, disease resistance, and more. Think of all the different sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors of tomato fruits. Some tomatoes are long, rangy vines, while others, like patio tomatoes, are compact and bushy. Leaf color and shape vary, too. But despite their differences in appearance and flavor, all tomato plants are the same species: Solanum lycopersicum (formerly Lycopersicon esculentum).
If someone gave you a few tomato seeds to plant but didn't tell you anything about what kind of tomato they were, watching those seeds grow would be like watching a mystery unfold. Will you end up with patio tomatoes or huge, sprawling plants? Will the fruits be little cherry tomatoes, or romas, or slicers?
Growing a patch of unknown tomatoes might be a fun experiment, but home gardeners usually choose to grow named varieties so they will know what to expect. If you pick up a pack of beefsteak tomato seeds, for example, you know that you'll have large red tomatoes perfect for slicing and putting on sandwiches. As a seed saver, you need to know what genetic characteristics are encoded in the seeds you collect from your garden, too. And to do that, it helps to know how the plants are pollinated.
When Sperm Meets Egg
Remember your high school biology? Sperm and egg cells each contain genes from their parent organisms, but only half the total number of genes. When the sperm and egg cells unite, they produce a cell that has the full complement of genes — half from the male parent, half from the female parent. With plants, it's quite possible that the male and female parent will be one and the same. Such plants self-pollinate, meaning that the pollen a flower produces pollinates that same flower, or another flower on the same plant.
Self-pollination. With self-pollination, genetics don't change much from one generation to the next because few new genes are being introduced. You might think there would be no new genes because the sperm and egg come from the same plant, but nature isn't quite that simple. Pollinating insects will visit a wide range of flowers in search of nectar — even flowers that are naturally self-pollinating — and in doing so deposit pollen from flowers of a different variety. It happens all the time, and it's surprising how far an insect may carry pollen. A study of alfalfa pollen revealed that bees were capable of transporting it at least two-thirds of a mile. Various factors affect bee transport of pollen, including the relative weight of the pollen, the weather, and physical obstacles such as buildings or wooded areas.
Sports. Self-pollinating plants may also undergo a spontaneous gene mutation, which produces what's called a "sport," a plant that is different from its parent. Spontaneous mutations are not uncommon, and they're fun to watch for. You may spot a plant that is quite a bit taller or shorter than the surrounding plants, or one that produces seedpods or seeds with a different shape or color. Some mutations improve the variety; others don't. You won't know for sure until you plant some seeds from the unusual parent plant, see how they grow, and harvest their crop.
Cross-pollination. Cross-pollination is the transfer of pollen from a flower on one plant to a flower on a different plant. The two plants might be the same variety, different varieties, or even different species. Squash and most types of fruit trees are cross-pollinating crops (also called out-crossers).
Open-Pollinated Varieties and F1 Hybrids
When humans first began raising plants for food, there was no such thing as a common garden bean or a succulent ear of sweet corn. Early farmers started with wild plants, which were very different from the crops gardeners grow today. To develop desirable crops, early farmers repeatedly selected and saved the seeds from the most desirable individual plants — even if those individuals weren't too palatable.
For example, the wild ancestor of the watermelon was likely a bitter fruit with very small seeds. Beginning thousands of years ago, people in Egypt and other desert climates slowly selected and developed varieties of melons with larger, sweeter fruits, which they used as a source of water that could be transported across deserts. By saving the seeds from vigorous plants that produced the best-tasting fruit or showed the most drought resistance, year after year after year, gardeners and farmers slowly improved the quality of their crops and increased the range of varieties available to them.
In modern times, horticulturists have developed techniques for breeding both open-pollinated varieties and F1 hybrid varieties. Here are some important terms to know:
* An open-pollinated variety is one that self-fertilizes.
* A hybrid plant is the product of joining sperm and egg from two different varieties (or possibly even two different species). Hybrid plants can occur naturally.
* An F1 hybrid is the first generation offspring from a deliberate crosspollination of two specific parent plant varieties.
Open-pollinated varieties. These are much easier for home seed savers to work with because the seeds they produce grow into plants with predictable characteristics. As discussed above, open-pollinated varieties are not unchanging — the individual plants of an open-pollinated variety are not genetically identical — but there is a good deal of similarity between generations.
The fact that open-pollinated varieties do have some genetic diversity works to your advantage. For example, in a planting of Gold Rush wax beans, some plants may be better adapted to clay soil than others. If your garden has clayey soil, those plants will grow best, and if you're a careful observer, you'll choose to save seeds from only those plants. The following year, your crop overall should be slightly better adapted to clay soil than the preceding generation. As you continue selecting for desirable plants year after year, your individual strain of Gold Rush wax beans will become particularly well suited to the soil and other conditions they're exposed to in your garden.
F1 hybrid varieties. F1 hybrids are a different story. Breeders produce F1 hybrid seed by choosing two specific varieties of a crop as the parent plants and cross-pollinating them. The resultant F1 hybrid inherits all of the desirable characteristics of the parent plants. For example, when you cross two different varieties of tomato plants, each of which is resistant to different diseases such as fusarium and late blight, the F1 hybrid offspring inherit all of that combined resistance, and the F1 hybrid plants are resistant to multiple serious tomato diseases. If you try to replicate an F1 hybrid plant by allowing it to self-pollinate, you can't be sure how the genes will mix and recombine in the seeds, or what mix of characteristics will show up in the next generation.
The basic principle to remember is that seeds produced by open-pollinated plants give predictable results, and seeds produced by F1 hybrid plants are unpredictable. If you're curious, try saving seeds from an F1 hybrid plant. If the two parents of that F1 hybrid were fairly similar, the offspring of the hybrid might not be that unusual. But then again, some of the offspring may look and behave nothing like the parent variety. If you'd like to learn more about the science behind F1 hybrids, check out the Resources section, here.
Simple Seed Saving
Saving seeds can be as simple as letting a crop grow and form seeds, all the while observing the crop and selecting the healthiest, best-looking plants to collect seed from. When the seed is ripe, you gather it. Then you clean it, if necessary, and make sure it is thoroughly dry before you package it for storage.
For other crops, the process isn't quite so simple. For squash, for example, you may need to control pollination by hand-pollinating individual flowers (more about this in chapter 2). Biennial crops such as carrots need to be kept alive and in good condition through the winter because they won't produce flowers and seeds until their second year of growth.
Corn and a few other crops can be challenging for seed savers because of something called inbreeding depression, which is a tendency for seed quality to decline if the gene pool of a variety becomes too narrow. Remember, even with an open-pollinated variety, no two individual plants are genetically identical. When a crop is naturally cross-pollinated, genes are mixing all the time, even when both parent plants are the same variety. Corn, in particular, needs this genetic mixing to keep its vigor from generation to generation. In practical terms, that means you need to save corn seeds from a large population of stock plants to maintain a supply of seed that will germinate and grow well.
As a beginning seed saver, choose easy crops for your first seed-saving projects, then save seeds from more challenging crops as you gain skills. Even as you gain experience, keep in mind that there's no need to save seeds from every crop you grow every year. Properly stored seeds can last for years — easily 3 years, and for some crops as long as 10 years. In general, plants produce seed prolifically, and you'll find it easy to collect enough seed to meet your needs for several years of future planting. So take it slowly, and you'll be surprised how quickly your stockpile of home-saved seed adds up.
Coaxing Seeds from Leaf and Root Crops
It's easy to picture saving seeds from tomato and squash plants, because the seeds are right there in your hand when you harvest the crop to eat. But what about the crops you grow purely for their leaves, such as lettuce, or for their roots, such as carrots and radishes? How do you collect seeds from them?
The answer depends on whether the crop is an annual or a biennial. Lettuce and other annual crops are eager to produce seed. You've probably seen lettuce plants start to send up a central stalk, and you know that once the stalk forms, the leaves turn bitter and the harvest is over. But if you allow the stalk to continue growing, it develops flowers, then seeds.
Biennial crops — such as carrots, onions, and cabbage — also produce a tall flower stalk, but not until their second year of growth. They need a period of cold weather to stimulate the formation of the flower stalk, so before you can harvest seed, you need to shepherd these crops through the winter. You may be able to leave the crops right in your garden, protected by mulch, or you may need to dig them up and store them in a cold, but not freezing, place over the winter.
Excerpted from "Saving Vegetable Seeds"
Copyright © 2014 Fern Marshall Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Getting Started with Saving Seeds
What Is a Seed? – Are All Seeds Worth Saving? – It’s in
the Genes – Simple Seed Saving – Coaxing Seeds from
Leaf and Root Crops
Chapter 2: Seed-Saving Techniques
Growing Great Seeds – Overwintering Biennial Crops –
Harvesting Seeds – Cleaning and Drying Seeds –
Storing Seeds – Testing Seed Viability
Chapter 3: Saving Seeds, Crop by Crop
Beans – Carrots – Corn – Cucumbers – Lettuce – Melons and
Watermelons – Onions and Leeks – Peas – Peppers – Radishes –
Squash – Tomatoes
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I think that after reading this very informative book, that I will be better prepared to preserve seeds with next year's garden. I am a beginner at gardening and it just makes sense to learn to save vegetable seeds. There is more involved with saving seeds than I expected but it will not be difficult to try. The pictures in this book are very clear and directions are easy to follow. I recommend keeping this book on-hand for reference when it is time. Received a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Title: Saving Vegetable Seeds - Harvest, Clean, Store, and Plant Seeds from Your Garden Author: Fern Marshall Bradley Publisher: Storey Publishing Published: 6-25-2014 Pages: 96 Genre: Reference Sub-Genre: Vegetables; Gardening & Horticulture; Techniques ISBN: 9781612123639 ASIN: B00GU2EMDK Reviewed For NetGalley and Storey Publishing Reviewer: DelAnne Rating: 4.5 Stars Techniques for the everyday gardener to preserve the seeds. Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Squash, etc. Although the more exotic fruits and vegetables are not included. Which is not a terrible thing as most do not choose to grow them in their gardens. My rating of "Saving Vegetable Seeds - Harvest, Clean, Store, and Plant Seeds from Your Garden" is 4.5 out of 5 stars.