The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Saving Seeds from Favorite Garden Plants

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

You've met the tomato of your dreams…but you don't know his name. Do you let cindertomato slip away? Saving our favorites through seed collection seems like a simple process. Walk through the woods or eat a few blackberries - seeds stick to our socks or between our teeth with little forethought from us.

However can you save seed and get the same plant next season? It all depends. Depends on the parent's genetics and whether the pollen came from the family or the mailman. Generally in order for seeds to develop, pollen has to be transferred to the female part of the flower either by insects, wind or gravity. If the parent's genetics are fairly stable through generations of inbreeding and the pollen comes from the family and not the mailman, then the seeds can be saved and then planted next season to produce a plant very similar to last season's plant.

The flowers of peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are self-pollinating and saved seeds come with predictable outcomes. Many older cultivars and heirlooms are open-pollinated. Even though they cross-pollinate the genetics is fairly consistent. Saving seed from self-pollinated or open-pollinated plants will yield a similar plant; that is unless they are hybrids.

The tricky part to saving seed begins when the plant is a hybrid or the parents naturally cross-pollinate with other relatives. Any saved seeds from hybrids will produce wildly different offspring from their parents. If you are into the unpredictable, seeds saved from hybrids are your dream come true. Keep in mind some varieties are patented and therefore illegal to propagate.

Cross-pollinated plants such as broccoli, turnips, radish and members of the squash family (summer and winter squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and melons) add another wrinkle to saving seed. Different varieties of cross-pollinated plants will easily cross with each other and their relatives. Although their promiscuity does not affect the fruit borne this season, if seed is saved and planted next year, the resulting plants will be as diverse as a Star Wars saloon. So will the fruit. A pumpzini or a zucpkin comes to mind.

If you are willing to embrace any deviations, here are the basics to seed saving:

For dry fruits such as marigold, zinnia, spider flower (cleome), most flowers, beans, peas, and herb seeds allow the seed to mature and dry as long as possible on the plant. Generally seed color changes from green to white, beige or brown when they mature.

Complete the drying process by spreading on a screen in a single layer in a well-ventilated dry location. As seed dries the chaff or pods can be removed by hand or wind. For extremely small or lightweight seed such as dill put the dry seed heads into paper bags to catch seed as it falls.

For fleshy fruits such as tomatoes allow the fruit to ripen on the plant. Keep in mind vegetables will be past prime for eating if seeds are to be saved. Cut the fruit open and spoon the pulp and seeds into a glass container. Give the family an impending gross alert and set the pulp and seeds aside for one or two days to ferment and then spray water into the fermented solution. Healthy clean seeds will drop to the bottom of the container. Pour off the sediment. Several rinses may be necessary. Then spread the seed on paper towels to dry.

After seeds are dry, package in envelopes, label and date for storage in a cool (refrigerator), dry location.

Or try Sandy's lazy (energy conservation) method. Take your favorite tomato. Place it on the ground where you want plants for next year. Leave it there over the winter. Next spring you will have plenty of seedlings pop up with little effort from you.

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