Most of us start our gardens by purchasing a seed packet for a few dollars from a local or online seed company. However, you can actually use your own plants to also provide your own seed for next year. Harvesting your own seeds is both economical and rewarding. It can be done with both vegetable and flower gardens and is the best way to keep your favorite heirloom varieties year after year.
The plants in your garden produce seeds throughout the summer and fall. Vegetables, plants, flowers, and perennials all produce seeds. If you know the proper technique, you can harvest these seeds, store them, and grow your own crop next year. This saves you a little money, but also allows you to keep producing the plants you love and share seeds with gardening friends. It’s a little bit like the grown-up version of swapping baseball cards.
There are, however, a few things to keep in mind to make sure your harvesting is fruitful.
Plant Reproduction 101
Before you get started it’s important to understand a little bit about plant reproduction. Plants of the same scientific family (genus), will cross-breed if given the opportunity. Sometimes, this is intentional and works to your advantage, sometimes it is unintentional and can ruin your harvest.
Three types of pollination:
1. Self-Pollinating: These don’t need any outside intervention, they pollinate and reproduce effectively on their own.
2. Wind-Pollinating: These can populate sporadically as the wind blows seeds from place to place. This applies to plants such as corn, spinach, and many types of trees.
3. Insect-Pollinating: This is often unintentional and can cause problems with harvesting seeds. For example, if a busy little bug visits your heirloom tomato plant, then buzzes over to your cherry tomato plant, it can actually affect the cherry tomato plant seeds. If you harvest those seeds for next year, the fruit will be some type of hybrid you did not envision.
There are a few ways to control pollination to ensure pure seedsfor harvesting. It’s important to keep parent varieties protected because hybrids don’t reproduce true to their original fruit. You can only harvest seeds from parent varieties.
First, you can space out your plants so that only one variety of genus is in one area. This is often difficult to do because wind and insects can still carry pollen quite a distance, and you can’t control what your neighbors are planting nearby.
Second, you can stagger planting times, so that similar plants aren’t blooming at the same time. But this isn’t always effective either because some plants continue to bloom and produce fruit or vegetables throughout the growing season.
Third, you can bag your plants in a lightweight cloth. For self-pollinating plants, you just leave the bags on until the bloom pollinates itself. For insect-pollinating plants, you can take the bags off a few of the blooms of any one variety at a time.
Many garden plants that we all know and use frequently are actually already a hybrid. They are a product of extensive breeding created by crossing different species. As a result, these plants will produce few or no viable seeds for you to harvest.
If you try to grow plants from seed that originated with a hybrid variety, you will likely be surprised (or disappointed) with the results. Plants grown from the seed of a hybrid variety are often sterile, or else they revert to one of the “parent” varieties that created the original hybrid. Regardless, it will not reproduce true to the fruit or vegetable you started with. So, some of the plants in your garden may not produce viable seeds no matter how hard you try.
Getting Started with Harvesting Seeds
In order to start harvesting seeds, you’ll need to what the seeds look like. The only way to learn what the seed of a plant looks like is through experience. Or to buy a package of seeds to see what they look like for reference. Seeds come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes and they are not always easy to distinguish.
Find Your Seeds:
In flowering plants, seeds are enclosed in a structure that forms after the pollinated flower withers away. In other plants, the seeds can be found in different areas:
· Fleshy Fruits and Vegetables: Some fleshy fruit such as tomatoes, apples and cucumbers have seeds inside the flesh of the fruit. These are the easiest seeds to find and identify.
· Pods: Peas and beans have seeds inside the pots that dry and split open when mature.
· Flower Heads: Flowers such as marigolds and zinnias, produce fruit and seeds only when they are fully mature and the seeds are not readily apparent.
Whatever kind of fruit structure the plant produces, it must be fully mature before harvesting.
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter who often sees the problems with harvesting your own seeds too early:
“If you harvest seeds that are not mature, the embryo inside the seed is not fully formed and generally cannot finish development detached from the plant. As a result, the seeds will not be viable and will not come up when planted. Harvesting immature seeds is a common mistake.”
Preserving Your Seeds:
Once you have found your seeds, the next step is to preserve them correctly so you can use them easily.
· Fleshy Fruits and Vegetables: In fleshy fruit, make sure the plant is fully mature. Cut open the fruit, remove the seeds, clean off any pulp, dry them thoroughly, and store them until ready to plant.
· Plant Pods: For beans, peas, pansies, and other plants that grow pods, allow the pods to stay on the plant until they turn yellow or brown, but harvest before they fully split open and release the seeds.
· Flower Heads: Seed heads are the most difficult to harvest. The seed head must be fully mature, allow it to turn brown and dry. Then tear the head apart over a piece of paper to remove the seeds. This is when it helps to know what they look like.
Store your Seeds:
While you could plant your harvested seeds right away, most of the time you’ll need to store them over the winter. Choose storage conditions that are cool and dry. An air-tight container in the refrigerator works well.
Germinate Your Seeds:
When it’s time to plant your saved seeds, they will require a little extra special treatment. Germination assistance varies between varieties, so you may need to do some research before you get started to learn what your seeds need. Many may require a presoaking in hot water or acid, storage in moist, cold conditions for several months or scraping the seed coat. Some seeds won’t need any special treatment, but it’s always good to double check with local garden experts in your area to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Seeds from commonly grown annuals, perennials and vegetables can save you money and ensure that you always have access to your favorite varieties of plants year after year. You simply need to provide the right conditions for protection, selection, storage, and germination to enjoy your favorite harvest every year.
Also, keep in mind that in some states, it is only legal to harvest seeds from natural/indigenous vegetable or flower plants, or from your own varieties of plants. If you’re concerned with the regulations you can check in with your local area.