Margaret Lauterbach

How to harvest seeds for your next planting

Saving seeds in jars and plastic bags.
Saving seeds in jars and plastic bags. TNS

We usually have a prolonged growing season after this date, but it’s not too early to start saving seeds.

Don’t save seeds from hybrid flowers, unripe vegetables or fruit if you’re expecting to later grow that same product. Save only seeds from open-pollinated plants. Seed-saving is economical, fun, educational and perhaps vital. Some folks rely on the international seed repository at Svalbard, Norway, to feed the world in case of a planet-wide catastrophe, but if those seeds survive, they’ll only be available to folks who have placed seeds there for storage. The ocean’s rise did enter the global seed vault last spring, but did not reach the stored seeds.

There are other more accessible seed repositories in the United States and other countries, and a number of people in this country have started community seed collections. Community seed stores are really the best idea, because seeds saved in a specific area will be acclimatized for that area. Some seeds that have been bred for a specific area and grown there for some time may be known as “land races.” One example I’ve heard of is that somewhere in Mexico, farmers grow a land race of corn that has ears up to a meter long.

Corn has been subjected to so much hybridization and genetic modification I wouldn’t try to save seeds from that crop. I do save seeds from lettuce, beans, open-pollinated tomatoes, herbs and some chiles, although the latter are apt to have been cross-pollinated since I grow several varieties. Saving seeds from squash or cucumbers can be done, but I’d recommend referring to Suzanne Ashworth’s “Seed to Seed” to make sure you’re not growing something that will cross-pollinate with the variety you’re saving. I once made screened cages for chile seed “purity” but the cages reduced winds (and thus few pods developed) and then I saw small sweat bees burrowing under the cages to get access to blossoms. If you plan to save chile seeds, save from ripe chiles, and for pure seeds, that means isolation of at least 500 feet from other varieties. Ripe usually means red or brown pods.

If you’re saving seeds of hot chiles, you’re putting your hand where the main capsaicin lode lies, so wear rubber gloves to save yourself from pain. Seeds of ripe chiles and tomatoes are usually whitish.

Most tomatoes have enclosed sex parts, so they seldom cross-pollinate unless you grow small wild tomatoes that put out an abundance of pollen all over the place. Very persistent bumblebees sometimes will force their way into a blossom, too, and could cross-pollinate a blossom. Crossing occurs only about 5 percent of the crop even on tomatoes planted pretty closely together.

Common beans (Phaseolus species) are perfect (that is, self-pollinating) and self-fertile, but they can cross-pollinate if pollinators really work on a blossom. If you grow different varieties of beans, you often can tell by color, size or shape whether they’ve crossed. I don’t recommend trying to save pea seeds because we have weevils that love to eat the germ out of peas. They appear in mid- to late summer, when you’re trying to ripen peas to dry seed status.

As for basil, as long as you keep cutting it back the plant gets bushier and bushier without going to seed. Use the cut foliage for pesto. You’ll find it’s widely useful for several dishes. Later, when you let basil flower and set seed, wait until the seed is black before harvesting to save seeds.

The first vegetable to set dry seed in my garden was mache or corn salad. I don’t collect the seeds, but pull out most of the plants that have grown over winter, and let some set seeds to reseed. About the same time, chervil seed was ready to harvest or reseed itself. Both chervil and mache have been growing since very early spring. Chervil is a welcome intruder in my garden, setting its seed wherever it chooses to grow. By mid-June, it’s done, so can be removed and something else planted in its place. It’s a gourmet parsley, very useful in the kitchen. Like parsley, however, it seeks the best place in your yard to grow, and both are welcome to grow anywhere they choose.

Next to produce seed sufficiently dry to harvest was Sweet Cicely. Those spiky seeds are ready to harvest when they’re reddish brown and woody. Unless you want an entire bed of that plant, you’d better remove those seeds at that time if you haven’t already.

Once fluff is showing on most of the lettuce seed heads, I cut the stalk a few inches below the seedheads and drop them into a brown paper shopping bag. Lettuce seed is so light it’s extremely difficult to winnow, even in a light breeze, so I just roll a few seed heads between index finger and thumb to release seeds when I’m ready to plant. You can write date and variety on the outside of the sack.

Saving tomato seeds requires different techniques before drying to save. To ferment, squeeze tomato seeds into a small bowl or container, add water, and set aside for a few days. Stir when you remember, and then dump the moldy-cloudy water and seeds into a sieve and rinse. Then slap the sieve on a plastic or china plate, emptying the seeds to dry, identifying the date and variety on tape or paper. Some folks just express seeds onto paper towels, and when they use the seeds, plant the stuck part of the towel with the seed. I prefer fermentation, relying on that to kill any disease on the seeds.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.