Garden Guru: Save seeds to harvest the future

By John Porter
John Porter
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the steamy summer winds down and the cool, crisp autumn nights approach, it's time to think about next year's garden. What? You think it is too early? Are you thinking that dealing with this year's garden is taxing enough?I beg to differ. There's definitely one thing that you can do this time of year to prepare for next year's garden -- saving seeds.As vegetables mature and flowers begin to wither, consider collecting seeds for planting next year. Once you know what to save and how to save it, saving seeds can be an easy and enjoyable activity. Plus, you have the satisfaction knowing you are harvesting the future and continuing a lineage of plants special to you and adapted to your garden.In the world of vegetables, only seeds that are open-pollinated and "true to seed" are appropriate for saving. This means that there is no cross-pollination needed to get the desired result, unlike hybrid plants that require crossing of two specific parents to get consistent fruits. There's nothing wrong with hybrids; in fact they feed much of the world, but more and more gardeners want to save their own seeds.Heirlooms are a special category of open-pollinated plant. Definitions differ; most people agree that heirlooms are OP plants that are at least 50 years old and have a "story." Some plants come from families or communities that have passed the same seeds down for generations, others are "old-timey" plants that began as commercial releases.Certain flowers can be saved as well, but there typically isn't as much concern about saving specific varieties, mainly because those that are saved have a much shorter list of varieties in which to cross.Plants that are self-pollinating are easiest to save, and result in the most consistent vegetables from year to year. This is why beans and tomatoes are the most popular seeds to save. Both beans and tomatoes are self-pollinating, meaning that different varieties can be closely spaced within the garden and not cross-pollinate. In fact, tomato and bean flowers are made to keep pollen from leaving or entering and are usually pollinated before fully open. Crossing can occur, but it is rare.
Other vegetables in the garden, however, are not so particular about reproduction. All members of the squash family are cross-pollinated by bees, meaning that crossing is inevitable when multiple varieties are in one garden. To maintain a pure variety, each variety would have to be spaced farther apart than a bee can fly, which is 2 miles.Some members of the squash family, like zucchini and pumpkin, are actually part of the same species, meaning that they can interbreed. You could end up with a "puccini" rather than a pumpkin. I don't know about you, but I prefer my Puccini in opera form rather than pie.The cole crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, kale and their ilk, are all also the same species and can cross. Fruits like apples do not breed "true," and it's highly unlikely that the offspring will resemble the parent.Another issue to consider when saving seeds is making sure that the fruit is mature when harvested for seed saving. Most people know that tomatoes should be red-ripe for seed saving, but other fruits need to be ripe as well. Peppers should ripen fully to a color other than green, and beans should change color and dry on the vine before harvest. For flowers, seed heads or seed pods should also mature fully and dry before harvesting.Once harvested, seeds should be allowed to dry out, then stored in an airtight container. The seeds should be kept cool to extend storage time. I prefer storing seeds in the freezer, because it is a low-moisture chill that will not encourage dampness, unlike a refrigerator. Seeds can be stored for a few years in the freezer. If you are concerned about germination, perform a germination test by placing 10 (or 100 for large plantings) seeds on a moist paper towel and check for sprouting.Upcoming opportunityThe Kanawha Urban Ag Alliance will meet at 6 p.m. Aug. 27 at the WVU Kanawha County Extension Office, 4700 MacCorkle Ave. S.E., Kanawha City. The group is a membership organization that helps members learn urban farming skills, develop community gardens and act as a network for people interested in growing and consuming locally grown foods. For more information, visit Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.
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