Seed-Saving Time!

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Mammoth Melting Snow Peas going to seed and drying on the vine.

Mammoth Melting Snow Peas going to seed and drying on the vine.


The tail end of the summer is a good time to think about saving seeds from annual plants. I think many people are afraid to make the attempt because they think it’s complicated and you need to be an expert. If that’s the case, why do you think your garden has so many volunteer plants each spring? Remember, plants were reproducing themselves long before humans came on the scene. All we’re doing is making sure we have next year’s crop in the bag.
If you want to become a seed-saver, I think the absolute easiest plant to start with is beans. First, they’re self-pollinating. You can be reasonably assured that the seed you’re saving for next year is really Blue Lake. Second, beans are very productive, so there will be plenty for the table as well as the seed jar. Third, to save seeds, you simply let the last set of beans sit on the vines until the pods dry and turn yellow. Pick the dry pods before they get rained on, take the beans out of the pods and put them in storage containers, label and store. Peppers are another real easy one: take a fully ripe pepper, cut it open and gently scrape seeds onto a plate. When fully dry, package, label and store. Wear gloves for hot peppers or be very, very careful to wash your hands the minute you’re done – you don’t want pepper juice in your eyes.
Rattlesnake pole bean; the dried seeds look a lot like a pinto bean.

Rattlesnake pole bean; the dried seeds look a lot like a pinto bean.


Lettuce is another crop that readily goes to seed (which is why it’s hard to grow summer lettuce; the stuff bolts to seed in a New York minute when temperatures are high). I particularly like to save seeds from lettuce plants that will germinate and grow in my hot summers, even if they don’t get too big. That way, I’m selecting for heat resistance, and in a cool spring, the plants will still do fine. Lettuce flowers look like tiny dandelions, and are followed by the same sort of puffball seeds. Since they’re tiny, it’s a little hard to tell when the seeds are ripe. When the puffball starts to look a little ragged, it means some of the seeds have let go because they’re ripe. That’s when I cut off the seed stalk. Put the seed puffs in a shallow bowl indoors and let them dry for a week or so, then gently pull the seeds out while holding them over the bowl. Package, label and store.
Mixed lettuce in the shady bed. Lettuce reseeds so readily, you can just toss the plants down in the next spot where you want to grow lettuce and let them have at it.

Mixed lettuce in the shady bed. Lettuce reseeds so readily, you can just toss the plants down in the next spot where you want to grow lettuce and let them have at it.


Tomatoes take a little more effort. Choose a fully ripe, ready to eat tomato. Scoop out the pulp, juice and seeds from the inside of the tomato and put them in a jar or glass with a lid (don’t add water; dilution slows fermentation). Let them sit for about three days so the seeds begin to ferment. This removes the sprouting inhibitors contained in the gelatinous material inside the tomato. Store in a warm (70 degrees) place and stir several times a day. Pour the seeds into a larger container and add water; stir to separate the viable seeds from pulp and bad seeds. Generally speaking, viable seeds will sink. Dump out the water and glop; repeat at least twice. Pour the seeds into a strainer, shake off as much water as possible, then dump onto a paper plate or some paper towels. Let dry for five or six days at room temperature, stirring several times a day to prevent clumping. Treat eggplants much like tomatoes, with two exceptions: you want over-ripe post-mature fruits, and you don’t need to ferment the seeds. Package, label and store.
There you go – next year’s garden is on the shelf.

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