Saving Seeds

This undated photo shows seed being saved from a tomato in New Paltz, New York. Cutting a tomato in half and squeezing the seeds into a glass or a jar is the first step to having your home-grown seeds for next year’s tomatoes.

Since the coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in interest in gardening, especially vegetable gardening, some seed companies are having trouble keeping up with demand. But one thing we gardeners can do is grow and save our own seeds.

Some kinds of seeds are easier and more worthwhile to save than others. Look on the seed packets or tags for plants that you're growing. If it says the seeds or plants are "hybrid" or "F-1," those seeds are probably not worth saving.

Hybrid or F-1 seeds are taken from plants grown from seeds that are the result of mating two different, selected parent plants. Each offspring differs from the others and from its parents. (Just like you, your siblings and your parents.) These seeds will germinate and grow into plants, but those plants will be different from those from which you took the seeds. Perhaps better. Perhaps worse. At any rate, somewhat of a gamble.

If a label indicates that seeds or plants are non-hybrid or are "heirloom" varieties, their seeds can be saved with confidence that they'll grow up to be just like their parents. These plants always have the same parents; they pollinate themselves.

Some plants, such as beans, peas, peppers and most tomatoes, do this naturally. With others, you must make sure that another variety doesn't sneak in for pollination. Do this by growing the seed plant far enough from other varieties of the same kind of plant to prevent cross-pollination, or by hand-pollinating and then covering the pollinated blossoms with a paper or fine mesh bag to prevent cross-pollination.

EASIEST TO SAVE

Fortunately, some of the easiest kinds of vegetable seeds to save are also among the most popular: tomatoes and peppers. And when it comes time to collect tomato or pepper seeds, no need to sacrifice the best fruits.

Most tomato flowers self-pollinate before they even open, so there's usually no need to worry about cross-pollination. Just choose a healthy-looking fruit from a healthy-looking plant, and slice it in half through its "equator," at which point the seed-containing cavities are staring at you. Turn the half upside down over a glass and squeeze out the seeds. (Then eat the tomato — not a necessary step for seed saving.)

Those seeds are enmeshed in a gel that contains a germination inhibitor. Purge this inhibitor by adding some water, stirring, and letting the mix sit for 24 hours. Then rinse the seeds thoroughly in several changes of water, pouring off waste and nonviable seeds, which float, and strain out the good seeds. Spread the seeds onto a plate or a few sheets thickness of newspaper to dry out in a sunny spot or in the gentle breeze of a fan.

Peppers, which also self-pollinate, are even easier. Just cut a ripe pepper in half, scoop out the seeds, and let further dry. (Then eat the pepper.)

Not all seeds develop into juicy fruits. An example is lettuce. Leave a plant or two unharvested in your row of lettuce, and let the warmer and longer days of summer coax the plants into flowering mode. The leaves turn bitter, and up the plants' centers will rise a flower stalk capped by small, daisy-like flowers. As the seeds ripen, shake the flower heads into a paper bag to collect them over their several days of ripening.

Beans and peas develop in juicy fruits, but that's when we eat them, not when the seeds are ready (except in the case of dry peas or beans). Tie a ribbon onto a couple or more plants to remind yourself not to pick their fruits, and let the fruits get thoroughly mature and dry. Then just pop out the mature, dry seeds.

PARENTAL CONTROL

Most vegetable plants have both male and female flower parts, so can self-pollinate. Plants in the cucumber family, such as squash, melon, pumpkin and, of course, cucumber, have separate male and female flowers on the same plant, which increases the chances of a female flower getting pollinated by a male from a nearby plant of another variety.

Prevent cross-pollination by, first, hand-pollinating a female flower; she'll have a miniature cucumber, melon or squash fruit at her base. Dab a paint brush on a male flower to pick up pollen and then dab the pollen-laden brush on the female flower parts. Or pluck a male flower, pull off its petals, and rub its head into a female flower.

Further limit cross-pollination by enclosing the pollinated blossoms in a bag or, if petals are large enough, taping them closed.

Seeds of the cucumber family are mature only in the fully ripe fruit, so let cucumbers or summer squash grown for seed thoroughly ripen on the plant before slicing them open to collect seed. Melons, pumpkins and winter squashes are fully ripe when ready to eat, so just scoop out the seeds, then rinse and dry them.

To best preserve any of your harvested seeds, store them thoroughly dried in sealed bags in a cool location. This season's crop of seeds might spur you to try saving other kinds of vegetable, even flower, seeds next season. You'll save money, be assured of having seeds of the vegetable varieties you want to grow, and have some fun doing so.

Lee Reich writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. He has authored a number of books, including "The Ever Curious Gardener" and "The Pruning Book." He blogs at http://www.leereich.com/blog. He can be reached at garden@leereich.com.

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