Walker on gardening: Tips for successfully saving seeds

U of I Master GardenerSeptember 26, 2013 

As vegetables ripen in our gardens, we often think of saving seeds for next year. Some seeds can be saved — some not so much.

Saved seeds from heirloom plants should produce the same vegetable that they came from. Hybrid seeds don’t produce the same thing. You might get a delicious variation with a saved hybrid seed, or you may get a plant with inedible produce. Some saved hybrid seeds grow into plants that produce nothing at all.

I found a website that has great information for saving seeds of 27 common vegetables (www.seedsave.org/issi/issi_904.html). The instructions are divided into three sections: Beginner, Experienced and Expert. The instructions are taken from the book “Basic Seed Saving” by Bill McDorman. Local libraries don’t have the book, but the website has a link to a site where you can purchase it.

Another useful website is the Seed Savers forum (http://forums.seedsavers.org), where you can read questions and answers from gardeners or join the site and ask a question of your own. One section of the forums is specifically for seed saving issues.

Generally, seeds are ready to save when they fall from the plant or seed pods turn brown and/or burst open. Also look to see if the flower stem has turned brown as well. Ripe seeds are usually plump, hard and brown in color (although there are exceptions to the color). Unripe seeds are soft and moist and sometimes even green in color.

Collect seeds from a number of different plants of the same variety to ensure genetic diversity when plants cross-pollinate the next year.

Make sure seeds are dry. Drying seeds is easy in our dry climate — just lay them out on a paper towel for a few hours or days until they’re completely dry. Store seeds in paper bags or envelopes, not in plastic. Label the paper bags with seed type, year of collection and any other notes about the crop. For long-term storage, it’s best to store seeds in a glass jar. Keep the seeds in a cool, dark place.

Each seed contains a small plant. To see for yourself, carefully open a large dried bean such as a lima bean. You can probably see the tiny, white plant with the naked eye. A magnifying glass will give you an even better view.

If bugs have been a problem on the crop and there’s a possibility that bugs may be mixed in with the seeds, cut a No-Pest Strip into one inch sections and put a section in each bag. The pest strip should be more delicious to pests than a hard shelled seed.

If you have a hankering to collect seeds of native plants in the wild, always get permission from the land owner or steward. Never collect more than 5 percent of the available seed. Some plants are rare and endangered and their seed should never be collected unless collected for scientific purposes.

There are many foods in our pantries that are actually seeds. All beans, pod vegetables (like peas), cereal grains and nuts are seeds. Some foods have seed in their common names, such as sunflower seeds. By the time most of these edible seeds are processed for consumption, they’re no longer viable.

Here are some fun facts about seeds: The smallest seeds are produced by orchids. One pound of orchid seeds contains approximately 450 million seeds!

The largest seed is from the Coco de Mer palm native to the Seychelles Islands. One seed weighs between 30 to 45 pounds and takes 6 to 7 years to go from flower to mature seed and two years to germinate.

If you have particular questions about gardening you’d like to see addressed in this column, send them to highprairielandscapedesign@yahoo.com.

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