Although it may seem a simple enough task, to be effective a little planning, preparation and commitment is needed to save seeds from your garden. You can just shake, squeeze, and scrape those plants and collect all the seeds, but to ensure they have the best chance of being viable (being about to sprout), and will grow you a healthy, strong crop next time around, I’ve gathered a few tips and tricks for you to follow.
Seeds are the embryonic stage of a plant, created after fertilisation and there are many reasons to collect your own. Firstly, money! While a packet of seeds may only be a few dollars, that adds up over a garden. By saving seeds you get plants for nothing and while you will never be able to plant all the seeds collected, you may consider selling them or their seedlings, swapping or giving them away. Your local community gardens will thank you too as many are now setting up Seed Libraries as a central point for swapping seeds to preserve varieties of the more successful crops or endangered plants in an area.
Commercial seed producers focus on what is standard and popular. This is not because they are being picky, it’s just a matter of logistics. No one company, or even bunch of companies, could ever be able to satisfy everyone’s seed desires. By saving your own seeds you are adding to the diversity of plant types available and keeping alive a genetic legacy. One great Aussie institution that was founded on this principle is The Diggers Club. Created in 1978 by Clive and Penny Blazey to stop the disappearance of many plants including heirlooms and to have them available to the public. Members not only benefit from being able to purchase seeds but many assist in the preservation of seeds as well. diggers.com.au
Other reasons to save seeds include the opportunity to preserve the genetic material of the cream of your crop and because you need to let plants fully mature to collect their seeds, you will be helping our bee population but providing more flowers in the environment. My favourite reason is the opportunity to keep my personal garden legacy alive for my friends, family and to take that into the future. Being able to replant and even share the seeds of the plants I have loved, along with their memories is a beautiful thing and yet nothing new. The Ancient Egyptians believed that by telling a plant your hopes, dreams and plans that they would carry on through the eons long after you yourself had departed the earth. So, let’s get started saving those seeds for the future!
Seed Saving Planning
A possible problem with ducking out to the garden right now and collecting seeds is that they may be hybrids. Some may be hybrids that you have planted, and these won’t always produce the same plant from their seed. Also, pollinators, e.g., bees, have hopped from flower to flower in your garden and crossbreeding has occurred. While this can be exciting as it is how new varieties have been found in the past, if you are after a plant that is a true offspring of your original then you will need to ensure it is ‘open-pollinated’. Some plants self-pollinate like lettuce, tomatoes, beans, and peas and are considered open pollinated, but others can be protected by planting with space or barriers between varieties or by pollinating by hand. You also need to plant more than a few of each type to ensure genetic strength and health of your seeds. While planning be prepared for those crops that take more than one season to start producing seeds. All this in mind, there is nothing wrong with collecting the seeds you have now and giving it a go, especially if you only have one type of each plant growing in your garden.
Seed Collection Process
There are two types of seeds: wet fruited or dry fruited and they need to be harvested differently. You need to wait until the fruits of wet fruited seeds fully mature for many plants and this will mean past what is the edible stage. To do this, just leave a few of these fruits (this includes what we know as vegetables too i.e., cucumbers and eggplants) growing until they are just at the end of their life before harvesting. Seeds will need to be obtained by cutting open the fruit and then washed and sometimes soaked to remove all traces of the fruit and then dried. Seeds from dry fruited plants can be collected as soon as you notice that the seeds are hard and if they are contained within a seed pod, removed from it. Then both wet and dry fruited seeds need to be dried out. This can be done by spreading out seeds onto very fine mesh screens, filter papers or waxed papers, indoors in a cool, dry place. While they should not be touching, you will need to move them around every few days. Leave for 2 - 3 weeks. Another more modern method involves using silica gel. Easily available online, place a layer of silica gel into an airtight flat container and then cover with fine mesh. Place seeds upon the mesh, spreading out as much as possible. Place lid onto container and leave in a cool, dry place. This method takes between a week to two weeks depending on seed size. Dry fruited seeds can also be collected and dried in one easy step. Place the stem of a mature flower or flower head into a brown paper bag, head down. I clip these bags onto a line in my garage, but you can also lay the bags down if it is in a cool, dry, and dark place. Give the bags a shake every few days to release seeds. Once seeds have all fallen into the bag, remove stem, keep top open and leave in there for a few more weeks, still shaking occasionally.
The longevity of seeds depends on many factors and while it is true that there have been viable seeds found hanging out in old jars that are thousands of years old it really is not the normal. The best place to store your seeds is in an airtight opaque container in your fridge or freezer where they will last for many years. Those kept in paper envelopes in cool, dry, and dark places in airtight containers will last until the next season and perhaps into the following year after that. The disappointment at seeds not germinating is caused mostly them being too old.
Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 - 10am live every Saturday on CoastFM963. She is also co-host of @MostlyAboutPlants a weekly botanical history & gardening podcast with Victoria White.
This article first appeared in 'Coast News', 'Coast Chronicle' and 'The Pelican Post' Coast Newspapers