As fall weather cools the temperatures and gardeners harvest the remnants of their crops, it’s a good time to save seeds. Saving seeds saves a thrifty gardener money and preserves plant species, especially if the gardener is saving the seeds of heirloom varieties. Saving seeds also reduces consumer exchanges involving energy use and packaging. Heirloom plants haven’t been genetically altered, they’re the most fertile breeds of plants, their ability to reproduce hasn’t been stripped. Often hybrid seeds and plants do not reproduce. A gardener will try to save the seeds, but find they’re useless to plant because the company selling those seeds wants repeat business. Hybrid seeds are also designed to tolerate pests and disease, but in the process, a lot of diversity in plant species and other desirable traits, like flavor, are lost.
Enviro Girl is a huge fan of planting heirloom varieties in her garden. She’s also a huge fan of saving money and preserving biodiversity, so saving seeds is a labor of love–and easy to do. The first step is to wait for the flower head to grow brown and dried out. Enviro Girl simply holds an envelope beneath the spent flower heads and rubs her thumb across the dry flower, knocking the seeds off into the envelope. She’ll leave the envelope in a cool, dry spot until the following year when she’ll plant those seeds in springtime. She’s had excellent luck using the envelope method with cosmos, sunflowers, lettuce, spinach, carrots, corn and coneflowers. Any fruit or vegetable that “goes to seed,” or grows flowers, will become dry enough to harvest in this fashion.
The second method is equally easy–any fruit or vegetable that grows seeds in a pod–beans, peas, gourds–will become dry enough for a gardener to crack open and extract the seeds. The key to saving seeds is to make sure they’re totally dry so they don’t get moldy and rot, so you’ll want to lay them out flat in a dry, cool space for a week or two before storing them in an envelope, bag or jar. Enviro Girl suggests storing your seeds in a refrigerator or in a basement over the winter.
The third method of seed saving deals with pulpy fruits or vegetables, like tomatoes, strawberries, melons, cucumbers or squashes. Allow the fruit to get REALLY ripe, then extract the pulpy seed sacks onto a sheet of newspaper and allow it to fully dry. Store the newspapers with the dried seeds in a cool, dry spot or in the fridge and plant in the spring. You can plant the newspapers right in the garden with the seeds, making this job really easy.
Another method for saving seeds from pulpy fruits or vegetables involves fermenting the seeds. Enviro Girl has never done this, but it involves squeezing the pulp into a jar and adding water. Stir the contents every day and the water will first grow icky and gross before growing clear, the healthy seeds separated out of the pulp and “dead” seeds by sinking to the bottom of the jar. Pour off the top of the jar’s contents and scatter the seeds remaining at the bottom of the jar onto newspapers to dry fully before storing.
Enviro Girl spends half as much on seeds since harvesting her own, and she’s been surprised at how fertile her saved seeds are. Last fall she saved pumpkin seeds from some great bumpy pumpkins her kids picked on a school field trip. She planted 20 of those seeds last spring and all 20 seeds sprouted–giving her a bountiful crop this year. It’s been rewarding to harvest and replant the fruits of her labor in this way.
By harvesting, drying and saving your garden’s seeds, you’ll save green and go green in your garden by propagating heirloom varieties of plants that taste great and preserve diversity. The University of Illinois Extension is a helpful website to further explore this topic.