One of the most satisfying things about a garden is that it makes you part of the entire cycle of nature, from seed to sprout to flower to fruit to compost. That’s especially true if you save seeds from your plants at the end of summer to replant the next year. There’s nothing quite like watching a little green shoot emerge from the soil, knowing that you knew its granddaddy.
Saving seeds from garden perennials is relatively simple. Resist tidiness and leave some spent flowers to mature on the plant. When they look dry or puffy, examine them for seeds. I usually shake seeds into an envelope or gather the whole seed head for later sifting. The crucial thing is to carefully label each envelope.
Saving seeds that come encased in vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers is more complex. You need to let the fruit become fully mature on the plant, which is usually way past the stage when you would eat it. Do this at the end of the season, because plants that have successfully set seed will slack off on making more fruits.
Scoop out the seed mass from the fruit and place it in a jar of warm water for several days, stirring daily, until it ferments. Viable seeds will sink and the rest of the stinky mess will float. Pour it off, and then spread the good seeds to dry on an old window screen or paper towel in a dark, well-ventilated place. Carefully keeping the varieties separate until you can package and label the seeds.
Seeds need to be kept dark, cool and dry until the appropriate time to sow them outdoors or start them indoors in a greenhouse or under lights. I keep mine in paper envelopes in a shoebox in the closet — a cardboard shoebox, never in moisture-trapping plastic.
The hardest part of saving seeds, I find, is deciding which seeds to save.
It’s generally pointless to save seeds from recent hybrids, since the qualities that may make them superior usually last only one generation and can’t be expected to survive in their offspring. This rules out recent hybrid vegetables, fancy annuals and most brand-name perennials, as well as roses, which are nearly all propagated from grafted cuttings.
Note, though, that many heirloom vegetable varieties are actually older hybrids that have proved over several generations to be genetically stable even when open-pollinated by wind or insects.
There is a risk to saving seed from plants that are readily cross-pollinated, such as cucumbers, squash, melons, parsley, onions, root vegetables and herbs such as parsley and basil. It’s not that the seeds won’t sprout; it’s that mixing their genes with those of other varieties may dilute or erase the characteristics for which you wanted to keep that variety in the first place.
Some species are self-pollinating, meaning that their pollen usually only travels from one flower to another of the same plant. Varieties of these species are less likely to show major changes from one generation to the next.
So the best payoff comes from saving seed of straight-species annuals and perennials, native plants and self-pollinating heirloom vegetables with colors, tastes or fragrances you really love, particularly beans, peppers, lettuce, peas and tomatoes.