A Guide for Saving Vegetable and Flower Seeds in Autumn
By Monica O’Malley-Tavares
It’s that time of year, when gardeners are curing late harvest squash, and are enjoying late variety tomatoes and peppers, and perhaps a second planting of beans and lettuces. It’s also clean up time. But before pulling everything out, we can plan and store a bit for next spring’s garden. Saving seeds can be fun, a money saver, and can help your plants to adapt to your garden.
One of my favorite seeds to save is from lettuce. Just remember, if you are planning to save seeds, they should be heirloom or pure bred and not hybrids. This will insure that the plant varieties are healthy, and will grow to be what you expect. Of course, when possible, I also like to start with organic, non-GMO seeds. I am particularly partial to Boston lettuce. It’s easy to sow, easy to thin, grows amazing heads, and doesn’t wilt once picked. It’s also very pretty in the garden. I plant a large raised bed with Boston lettuce, and then let several heads go to seed. It is an ideal way to attract bees to the garden. In late-September and early October, once you start to see the little white puffs start to appear, (much like on a dandelion), you know the plant is getting ready to disperse its seeds. This is called bolting. Nature has given these miniature parachutes to enable lettuce seeds to travel on the wind.
Gently tug on the white puffs, the seed will be on the end. Have an envelope, or small paper bag handy, as lettuce seeds are tiny and will blow away easily. Let them dry for a few more days either on the plant, if the weather cooperates, or inside a paper bag. Then I shake the mature seeds into a bag or bowl for collecting. I store my seeds in tiny white coin envelopes. They are easy to label with both the variety, date originally sown, and date harvested.
Similarly, gathering radish seed can be quite enjoyable. I let the last radishes grow tall and flower. Again, they will draw those much-needed pollinators directly into the garden to enjoy all of the nectar they need. The flowers will form pods, which contain the radish seeds. Allow the pods to dry completely. Here on the south coast, if frost or extreme low temperatures are expected, it may be necessary to pull up the entire plant. Keep it in a dry place, such as a greenhouse, shed, or sun porch. Once the pods are completely dried out, split them open and carefully harvest the seeds into labeled envelopes.
Beans are also easy for seed saving. I prefer the bush variety. Allow a few beans on several plants to grow large and plump. Then let the bean pods dry out completely. Once dry, remove the pod and harvest the beans. Much like I do with radishes, removing the entire plant may be necessary if the pods haven’t quite dried by first frost.
Seed saving from tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and other plants is a bit more involved. If not done correctly, next year’s crop could have more chance of disease and may not be pure. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, recommends the process of fermenting. Fermenting involves a natural chemical breakdown, much like the process of making beer. According to Baker, “tomato, squash, pumpkin, melon, and cucumber seed all benefit from fermenting the seeds and the surrounding pulp for about three days before cleaning and then drying. The pulp should be put into a jar with a little water and shaken or stirred twice daily for three days. At the end of this time, the pulp and immature seeds will be floating on top as scum, and the mature and useful seeds will have sunk to the bottom. Take these and dry them on labeled paper plates for about two weeks before placing in a cool, dry place; for instance, in a bag or tub in the freezer, ready for planting next year.”
Saving Flower Seeds
Saving zinnia seeds is one of my favorite parts of fall gardening. I love the burst of late summer color. Zinnias are happy plants. And they truly hang on until a hard frost wipes them out. I also love that Monarchs, skippers and other pollinators flock to these blossoms. Perhaps this energizes them for migration or dormancy. I allow some of my favorite shaped blooms, and most vibrant flowers to remain until they are crispy brown. Some years I save the entire head in a bag and crumble it into the soil in spring after the last chance of frost. Other years, when time permits, I crumble the heads over parchment or a plate, and remove the arrow shaped seeds to place in envelopes or small bags, (such as unbleached waxed paper bags or simple lunch bags) then label and store.
Seed saving from perennials is very similar to that of many vegetables. Once again, allow the flower heads to turn brown and crispy, and then harvest the heads. I often place the heads into bags to allow further drying or save the entire head and crumble into the perennial garden or across the meadow in the spring. But quite honestly, my favorite way to reseed much loved perennials is by letting them self-sow. Allow the dried heads to remain on the plants an nature will allow some of these seeds to germinate in spring. Just remember, hybrid plants may not grow exactly like the parent plant. This doesn’t bother me, as I am not growing for resale, rather for enjoyment in the garden, so I do not need this next generation to be pure. A few of my favorites for saving are Purple Cone Flower, Blanket Flower, Nodding Onion and Coreopsis. Others, like Tall Garden Phlox, Veronica, and Yarrow, spread nicely on their own, but may need thinning after a few seasons.
Many annuals are self-seeding; however in colder climates, such as here on the south coast of Massachusetts, the winters are too harsh for the seeds to survive. For example, zinnias are a wonderful self-seeding annual, but rarely self-germinate in New England. In contrast, Bachelor’s Button Blue Boy, (Cornflower) is a favorite self-seeding annual which germinates with success even after very cold and snowy winters. Allow the heads to turn brown and the scatter them near the base of the plant, or allow to sow naturally.
Seed Saving can become a bit addictive. It is a process of trial and error that depends on your climate, conditions from year to year, and purity of the originating specimen. Have fun, experiment with several new varieties of vegetables and flowers each growing season. Keep a seed-saving journal with pockets to hold samples of saved seeds and allow lots of space for notes. This is a great way to keep track of your successes and to document your failures. Saved seeds also make great gifts for gardening friends. Package them up in small brown kraft envelopes and tie a small stack with twine. Whatever your reason for seed saving, make a plan, stay organized, and have fun!
Monica O’Malley-Tavares is a mom, math and science teacher, lifelong gardener,
garden writer, and photographer. She spends her free time plotting and planning
for the following year’s vegetable and flower gardens on the 2 acres she and her husband
call Prince Snow Farm. No matter what the season, you’ll find her outside in her green Muck boots, camera slung around her neck and a small journal for notes and observation nearby, or you’ll find her in the kitchen working on a seasonal recipe. She lives on the south coast with her husband Kevin, also an educator, and 2 children.