Now that fall is here, the harvest is happening, may be already complete in some regions or has already been wrapped up in others, most of us home gardeners in the north won’t think about planting again until the soil defrosts in the spring. But if your garden really thrived this year, you found some favorite cultivars and grew amazing vegetables, maybe you want to try to continue the trend in the next growing season, perhaps it is time to think about saving some seeds from your best specimens.
Generally, openly pollinated varieties, heirlooms, will be propagated from seed the most easily, as the genetic stability is maintained. But if you favor sprouts or microgreens this will be of less importance. Some plants are self-pollinating, while others rely on outside vehicles for pollination such as wind, water or insects, this is termed out-crossing. In our gardens the most typical self-pollinators are peas, lettuce and tomatoes, and thus they are unlike to readily hybridize even if several varieties are planted in close proximity. Alternatively, squashes, members of the cabbage family and onions are outcrossers and will cross-pollinate and hybridize amongst various varieties in your garden. The only way to maintain genetic purity, if you are concerned with that sort of thing, is to grow individuals in isolation and protect them from stray pollen.
Leave bean pods on stalks to dry completely, unless weather is very wet, in which case pods may need to be harvested and brought inside to dry. When pods are brittle and dry, break them open by hand and store in a sealed envelope or jar. The same methodology can be used for peas.
For seed production, select the strongest, healthiest and most productive individuals from your garden with traits you value and are worth preservation. Once seeds have been harvested, dry them thoroughly, package them in clearly labeled envelopes or jars with the species, variety and date collected, then store them in a cool, dry place. Discussed below are the methods and best practices for collecting and storing the seeds of several popular garden plants, this is not an exhaustive list, for more detailed and extensive information contact your local agricultural extension.
With basil seedheads should remain on the plant to dry, once drying is complete, seedheads can be shaken or crumbled to release the seeds. Carefully separate from the chaff and store in a sealed envelope or jar.
Allow lettuce to bolt and flower, flowering and the ripening of seeds may continue for 3 to 4 weeks, making seed collection happen in dribs and drabs. The easiest collection method for lettuce seeds is to lay a sheet or paper on the ground and shake the top of the seed head onto it, this will need to be repeated every few days. Or, cut a seed head off mid-way through ripening and bring it inside, let it dry for a week, then rub it between your hands to release the seeds. Carefully separate from the chaff and store in a sealed envelope or jar.
Leeks and onions will not flower and set seeds until their second growing season. In most zones leeks are hardy enough to leave in the garden with some mulch and they will flower on their own come spring. For the less hardy onions, collect the healthiest bulb and store for overwintering. Let seedheads mature and dry on the plant, then when black seeds become apparent collect seed heads and allow them to continue drying inside. Most of the seeds will easily shake loose, the rest can be gently rubbed between hands to release.
Summer squashes can be left in the garden to over-ripen before harvesting seeds. Pumpkins and winter squash should be collected at maturity, stored and allowed to ripen for a month before gathering seeds. With any of these fruits, cut them open and scoop out seeds with a spoon, allow seeds to dry out in the open on a paper towel for 2 to 3 weeks before storing in a sealed envelope or jar.
Mature peppers can be collected, cut in half and the seeds can be scraped out onto a paper towel to dry. Make sure to wear gloves if working with hot peppers. Seeds must be tan, beige or yellowish; bright white seeds are not mature yet. Allow seeds to dry for 2 to 3 weeks prior to packing them for storage.
Seeds from tomatoes will need to be fermented to remove their gelatinous substrate prior to drying. For detailed information about drying tomato seeds visit: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/saving-tomato-seeds.