University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article


SAVING SEEDS
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
End of summer is when many plants produce seeds, if they haven’t begun already.  You may want to collect and save seeds of favorite flowers and vegetables to have for future years.  To have success saving seeds, there are a few facts you should know and tips you should follow.
           
The first key fact to success is to avoid collecting seeds from hybrids.  These are marked as such in catalogs and on seed packets.  Hybrids are produced from two different parents, often unknown to you, so you need these same parents to produce the same plant you are collecting seeds from.  If you don’t know if a plant is a hybrid, you can still collect and save seed, but just be aware you may not get the same plant from these seeds.
           
Even if a flower or vegetable isn’t a hybrid, many cross (cross pollinate) with other similar selections.  This, too, will result in different plants than the one you select seeds from.  In this case, the bees or other pollinators have done the crossing to produce a hybrid.  Sometimes it is exciting to see just what kind of plant you will get from collected seeds. 
           
Generally with flowers, it is easier to get identical plants from seeds of species than of cultivars (cultivated varieties).  With annual flowers, many of these cultivars may be hybrids.  With perennial flowers, many cultivars are grown from vegetative means such as cuttings, and wont necessarily produce the same plant when grown from seeds.
           
If you don’t want plants to cross, you need to think about this in spring, and plant them some distance apart.  This is often a quarter mile or more, more than is available in most backyards.  Spring is also the time to consider if you want to make your own crosses, and involves special tricks to make sure seeds are produced only from your crosses.
           
Some of the easier vegetables to collect seeds from, if not hybrids, include beans, broccoli, dill, corn, onions and related plants such as chives and leeks and garlic, and muskmelon.  These are bee pollinated except for beans (self pollinated) and corn (wind pollinated).  For corn, dry seeds on the ear, then husk and remove.  For muskmelon, similar to the slightly more difficult cucumber, strain seeds from the pulp, and spread on paper to dry.  For onions and related species, pick heads when the black seeds show, then dry in paper or cloth bags.  You can also harvest onion bulbs, dry, overwinter non-freezing, then replant.
           
Most flowers are pollinated by bees, butterflies and moths.  Bees can’t see red, so the flowers they pollinate tend to be yellow, or sometimes blue.  Some of these have ultraviolet “landing patterns” which they see also.  Butterflies see well, and red, but have a weak sense of smell.  So most the flowers they pollinate have little or no fragrance.  Moths are nocturnal, so the flowers they pollinate are often whites or colors seen more easily at night.  Moths also smell well, so pollinate strongly fragrant flowers easily found at night.
           
Some general tips for success saving seeds include the following.
* Select plants that have the best vegetative or fruit characteristics, not necessarily those that produce the most seeds.
* Sidedress plants with fertilizers high in potash (the third ingredient of the three in a fertilizer analysis; choose one with 10 or higher).
* Keep plants healthy using controls for diseases and insects if needed.
* Use netting to keep out unwanted insects that may damage seeds, and birds that may eat them.
* Collect seeds when fully ripe.  Hang whole plants, stalks with seedheads, or just the seedheads dry in a protected place to avoid pests and weather extremes.
* “Thresh” seeds in tight mesh bags.  Close tightly before beating or stomping on the bag.  You can often just place flower seeds in paper bags, close, and shake vigorously.
* Remove plant debris and chaff with fine mesh screens.  “Winnow” by pouring seeds down in front of an electric fan (just not too close!).  The heavier seeds will drop and the lighter chaff will blow further away.  Dry seeds in thin layers on screens, or on nylon mesh screen if seeds are tiny.
* Keep seeds in tight containers (such as quart canning jars), in cool (40 to 50 degrees F, such as a refrigerator), and dry.  I often use small plastic bags for each type of seeds (don’t forget to label them).  Add some corn meal, silica gel, or similar in the bottom of the container to absorb moisture.  Such low moisture (10 to 15 percent is ideal) helps to keep seeds viable and avoid premature sprouting. 
           
With many plants you may be able skip many of these steps—just collect seeds without a lot of debris, and store them properly.  Make notes next season of those varieties that “come true” from seed (make the same plants as those you harvest the seeds from), so you can keep some of your favorite plants going yearly on your own, and more cheaply than buying new ones.  This is also the way to preserve heirloom seeds, with more on this topic online (www.seedsavers.org).
 

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