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Saving Seeds, Part Two: Tips For Your Favorite Garden Harvests

Previously we looked at ways to dry and store seeds. This time, we’ll be exploring the specifics involved in harvesting and saving seeds from your favorite fruits and vegetables.

Tomatoes

I have personally had good luck with leaving tomato plants with tomatoes in the garden at the end of the season and through the winter and having little tomatoes come up the following year (sometimes to my chagrin).  I wouldn’t, however, rely on this completely from year to year without having access to alternative plants if for some reason the “volunteer” tomatoes didn’t come up.

To save tomato seeds, select the best tomato from the best-looking plant in your garden. Cut the tomato in half and, with clean hands, scoop out the seeds and their accompanying slimy goop.  Place this in a jar with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Place a lid loosely on the jar, but do not tighten it, as air is needed for the coming fermentation process.  Place the jar in a warm location for a couple of days, checking on it each day and swirling the mixture around in the jar.  By the end of the fermentation process, the goop will have separated itself from the seeds.

It will look gross, but this process is part of what destroys many of the plant diseases than can live on a seed.  When the fermentation is complete, take a spoon and skim off as much of the gross scum from the top of the seed mixture.  Next, pour the seeds and any remaining liquid into a fine metal strainer and rinse very well with water, stirring the seeds around to make sure they are as clean as possible.

At this point, you can spread them and dry them using your preferred method. As they are drying, they should begin to look a bit “hairy.” Some of them may be stuck together; rub the seeds between your palms if this happens. This should help separate the seeds. Once unstuck, you will want to dry them a bit further so that the previously unexposed areas are sufficiently dried.

Peppers

Saving seeds from peppers is much easier than saving seeds from tomatoes.  The main thing to remember is that you want to be saving seeds from a mature, red-colored pepper, whatever the pepper variety.

If you live in an arid, warm climate, mature peppers may be picked, strung together, and hung in a sunny, breezy area to dry.  Once dry, you can use the peppers themselves for cooking, and remove the seeds to plant in the springtime.

If you are not able to do the above method, you may also pick the mature peppers, cut them open, remove the seeds, and lay them out to dry.  This is a fairly non-messy way of collecting seed compared to some of the other seeds.

Obviously, if you are handling hot peppers and their seeds, it is a good idea to wear gloves and keep the juice away from your eyes.

Cucumbers

Cucumbers need to be left on the vine to turn into mature fruit—that means until the vine has died and withered back. Once this has happened, your cucumbers should be yellow and ready to come inside. Place them on newspaper on a shelf out of direct sunlight. Make sure it is a place where you will not forget about them, for you will need to check on them from day to day until they are squishy. When they feel soft and squishy, cut them open and scoop the seeds into a jar of water.  This should be left to ferment for about five days, during which time foam should form at the top of the water in the jar.  By the end of the five-day period, the good seeds should have sunk to the bottom of the jar.  Scoop the yucky stuff from the top of the jar, pour your seeds into a colander, and rinse well.  After rinsing, spread the seeds thinly on screens or something similar and air dry for about three weeks. When sufficiently dried, the seeds should snap and break when bent.

Squash

Squashes have a tendency to cross-pollinate. It’s recommended to have your different varieties at least a quarter mile apart from each other to prevent cross-pollination and thus unreliable seeds.  If you have a small area in which to garden and really want to grow more than one variety, make sure the varieties have different second Latin names.  This means that you can grow zucchini with the Latin name Cucurbita pepo in the same garden as a butternut squash with the Latin name Cucurbita moschata and not have them cross and thus have dependable seed from year to year from both lines.

If you plan to save your squash seed, you will need to allow the squash to reach full maturity on the vine. This means that, yes, you do want to grow a monster zucchini! Sometimes you do these things on purpose, right?

Once your squash has reached full maturity and has a hard rind, harvest it and let it sit in a safe place for at least 3 weeks and up to several months.  When you are ready to harvest your seed, cut the squash open and remove the seeds.  Rinse them in water, removing any pulp, and lay out to dry.

Beans

Beans are another crop that is easy to save seed from.  Whichever type of bean you have (green beans or a dry bean), it is important to allow the bean to reach full maturity and to allow the bean to stay attached to the plant until the plant dies.  Once the plant has died and the seedpod is also dry, you may then remove it from the plant and remove your beans. They should be sufficiently dry at this point and can be stored until springtime.

Leafy Greens

For leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, kale, etc., you will need to let the plant mature, bolt, and send up a stalk that will contain seedpods. Allow these to mature, and once you notice the pods drying and about ready to pop, go out and carefully collect the seeds. I like to use large paper grocery bags, carefully cutting the seed stalks and placing them in the bags top-down. As they dry further, they will pop and the seeds should remain in the bag.  These seeds should be sufficiently dry and ready to save for spring planting.

Herbs

Many herbs will either go to seed from an obvious flower or send up a stalk much like leafy greens do.  Simply pay attention to when the seeds begin to mature and dry, then go and collect them from your plants.  Again, I like to use paper bags to catch as many seeds as possible from the plants.

Corn

Corn is another plant that is fairly easy to save seed from. Simply leave it in the garden until after the plant has died and the corn has completely dried.  To remove the seed, simply grip the cob with one hand and twist with the other hand. Do this over a bag or other container and allow the seeds to fall into it.

Melons

Like squash and their kind, melons will cross with other melons within a quarter-mile distance. Keep this in mind when deciding whether to save melon seed. If you want to grow more than one melon variety, educate yourself on how to do make sure you are saving seed from uncrossed melons.

All that said, melon seeds are another easy seed to harvest and save. Simply save the seeds from your favorite heirloom uncrossed melon when you cut it up to eat it.  Rinse them well in a wire mesh sieve or colander, removing any pieces of melon. Spread out on screens and dry.

Okra

Okra seed is easy to save as well. Simply leave pods on your healthiest plants towards the end of the season and allow them to dry after the plant has died. On a very dry day, cut or pull the pods off of the plant in the fall and place in a paper bag or box. In the springtime, all you need to do is twist the pod to release the seeds.

I have found that okra pods also make good decorations and conversation pieces over the winter.

For further instruction, check out The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough.

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