by Andrew Skousen
American pioneers pushing westward had to save their own seeds for next year’s planting if they wanted to grow anything again. I applaud people who are learning to garden today, but if you don’t learn to save seeds and start your own seedlings from them next spring your gardening skills won’t help much in hard times when the cheap seeds and nursery plants sell out at the stores. Fortunately, many seeds are extremely easy to save if you just let them develop fully, watch for the right time to harvest and dry them out for next year.
Beans and peas are very easy to save seeds from. Legumes rarely cross pollinate so all you have to do is let a few seed pods stay on the plant until they grow to full maturity and dry out. Shell the beans or pea pods by hand and let the seeds dry further until you can’t make an imprint in the seeds with your fingernail, or until one shatters when hit with a hammer. This is dry enough to store in a jar in a cool, dry place out of the sun for a few years. Several plants produce seeds in pods that are harvested in the same way including radishes and collard greens.
You can store seeds in the freezer but be careful of water condensing on the seeds when you pull it out to plant a few. Moisture will activate your seeds (and ruin their shelf life), so keep them absolutely dry until you are ready to plant. Be sure to save more than the minimum number of seeds for next year. Some seeds don’t germinate, sometimes frost or a dry spell will kill off a planting. You may need to replant two or three times before you get a crop going so plan accordingly.
Make sure you start with heirloom seeds. Hybrid seeds may produce earlier, bigger or sweeter crops, but they won’t stay true to seed in subsequent generations. Save seeds from the best, healthiest plants to help the best traits get passed on to the next year’s crop. Over time you will eventually develop a slightly stronger variety that is accustomed to your area and climate.
Lettuce is another self-pollinating plant that is easy to harvest seed from. As it gets hot most lettuce leaves turn bitter and the plant “bolts”—it grows a long stalk very quickly and puts out flowers on top. Rather than pulling out all these bitter plants, leave one or two of the best to finish forming seeds. The flowers will produce a fuzzy dandelion-like tuff on top. Just before this blows away pinch it off and save the lettuce seeds at the bottom—they should look like what came in the seed packet. Each lettuce plant will produce hundreds of seeds, but leave two plants to flower just in case. Some people set aside a bed for lettuces and let it reseed itself every year—now that is easy gardening!
In a previous tip on saving seeds I recommended Seed to Seed, a well-known guide to saving seeds and avoiding cross-pollination. But it is written like a textbook and has little practical advice or description of hands-on experience. A better book for beginner and intermediate seed savers is Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole Turner. It is much easier to read and is full of useful charts, drawings and diagrams. It also has decent descriptions of how to start seeds indoors.
These are just some of the easiest seeds to harvest. More advanced seed saving involves fermenting the seeds with pulp, or in letting biennial plants overwinter and produce seeds during the second year. I will cover some of those techniques in a future tip. Take the time to learn the gratifying practice of saving your seeds to keep your garden growing indefinitely when hard times hit.