Saving seeds

Gardeners can save money and grow plants better adapted to the microclimate of their garden by saving seeds from their vegetable plants and flowers to plant next year.

Last spring “out-of-stock” was the ubiquitous response for many gardeners when attempting to purchase seeds in person or online. Who would have guessed that seeds were going to become a scarce commodity?

Just in case the situation occurs again next year, there is still time to save seeds this fall from your own plants. But before you rush to the garden, here are a few facts to know.

First, check to see if your plant is a hybrid. When horticulturists intentionally cross-pollinate plant varieties to develop a new plant of superior quality, they create a hybrid, which also is called a cultivar.

Plants started from seeds of a cultivar do not grow true-to-type, meaning that they do not retain the desirable characteristics of their parents. Instead, the new plants will likely exhibit unpredictable features unless they have been reproduced reliably over many years by breeders. For this reason you should avoid saving seeds from hybrids unless you are willing to experiment.

How do you know if your plant is a hybrid?

The clue is on the plant’s tag or seed packet. Look for the word hybrid or single quotes around a plant’s name, designating a cultivar or hybrid.

Another clue is the patent status as many cultivars are patented by breeders. If the patent number or abbreviations PPAF (plant patent applied for) or PVR (plant variety rights) are printed on the plant’s label, then your plant is a hybrid. Patented cultivars are protected by patent regulations, but sexual reproduction (from seeds) is allowed without obtaining the patent holder’s permission.

Easier seeds to save are those created through open pollination, a natural process that occurs when wind or insects carry pollen into a flower’s pistil to cross-pollinate or self-pollinate the plant. Seeds from heirloom varieties, for instance, have been obtained through successive open pollinations for at least 50 years.

Natural cross-pollination may still form a hybrid plant, so avoid collecting seeds from plants of the same species that are growing in close proximity. For example, species in the cucurbit family, such as gourds and squashes, can cross-pollinate to produce inedible fruit.

Plants that self-pollinate have flowers equipped with both pistil and stamen (male part). This anatomy results in seeds with a higher probability to grow true-to-type. Consider collecting seeds from self-pollinating vegetables and flowers, including pumpkins, squash, beans, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, poppies and cosmos, as they are the ideal choice for saving seeds. Let the seeds ripen on the healthiest plants for as long as possible before a hard frost.

Tomato seeds are ready when the fruit is overripe. Clean them by dropping into a jar of water. Set aside for a few days until viable seeds settle at the bottom. Discard the floating mass, and collect the seeds left at the bottom of the jar.

When peppers look shriveled, their seeds are ripe. Beans are ready when their seeds rattle inside brown pods. For pumpkins and squash, wait until the vines turn brown, then harvest the fruit, scoop out the seeds and wash away the pulp.

Lay each type of seed on a labeled paper towel to air dry for several days until hard and brittle. Store your dried seeds in labeled paper envelopes away from sunlight in a cool and especially dry place.

Saving seeds is essential to protecting the biodiversity of seeds for future generations and preserving culturally diverse endangered heirloom garden varieties. What’s more, you will save money and grow plants better adapted to the microclimate of your garden.

To learn more about saving seeds and research on seed varieties suitable for Northeast climates, plan to attend the virtual statewide gardening conference, Nov. 5-6, sponsored by the University of Vermont Extension Community Horticulture Program. Registration is $40. To register, go to go.uvm.edu/mastergardenerstateconference.


Nadie VanZandt is a UVM Extension Master Gardener Intern from Panton.

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