Seed Saving: Preserving Your Garden’s Legacy

Seed saving love in a mist seeds

Seed saving is a fun and rewarding practice that allows gardeners to preserve the genetic diversity of plants and ensure a steady supply of seeds for future seasons. By collecting and storing seeds from our favorite plants, we can continue to grow them year after year, maintaining their unique characteristics and flavors.

My Love of Seeds

In gardening, I find nothing quite as fascinating and amazing as seeds. Varied in their sizes, colors, and shapes, these small packages hold a plant’s sustenance, energy, and the genetic code. Seeds also have stories, particularly heirloom seeds passed down through generations of families or communities. I love learning about the history and origin stories of the heirlooms I grow in the garden.

Equally as enjoyable for me is the ornamental value of the seed heads and seed pods of flowers and herbs. While I collect and save seeds from many plants in my garden, I also leave numerous seed heads to enhance visual appeal and provide food for birds and other wildlife.

Throughout my years of gardening, I have picked up a few insights on collecting, saving, and storing seeds for future seasons through trial and error. In this article, I will share what I’ve learned and include photos of some of the most fascinating and aesthetically pleasing seeds and seed heads that have captured my attention in the garden.

seeds from various plants
Seeds come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Saving seeds to plant out in future seasons is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of gardening.

Understanding Seed Types

Before diving into the art of seed saving, it’s important to understand the different types of seeds and their characteristics. Seeds can be broadly classified into two categories: hybrids and open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties.

Hybrids: The Genetic Blend

Hybrid seeds are the result of cross-pollination between two distinct parent plants. They are carefully bred to exhibit specific traits like disease resistance, uniformity, or increased yield. However, saving seeds from hybrids will not produce plants identical to the parent plants. The offspring may display a range of characteristics from the parent plants or even revert to the traits of the original parent plants. Therefore, it’s generally not recommended to save seeds from hybrids if you desire consistency in future generations. But if consistency isn’t required, there’s something to be said for experimenting and seeing what you get.

Open-Pollinated: Nature’s Legacy

Open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds, on the other hand, offer the opportunity to preserve the unique traits of a plant from generation to generation. These seeds are pollinated naturally by insects, wind, or other natural means. They produce plants that closely resemble their parent plants, maintaining the desired characteristics like flavor, color, and adaptability. Heirloom varieties are a popular example of open-pollinated seeds, cherished for their historical significance and distinctive qualities.

Open milkweed seed pod
Saving seed from native plants like this milkweed means you can provide a continuous supply of important pollinator plants for years to come.

Selecting the Perfect Seeds

When saving seeds, selecting the right plants and seeds is crucial. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind:

  • Variety Selection: Choose open-pollinated varieties to ensure the seeds will produce plants true to the parent plant’s characteristics.
  • Plant Health: Collect seeds from healthy, disease-free plants with desirable traits. Avoid plants with signs of genetic abnormalities or pest damage.
  • Pollination Control: If you want to maintain the genetic purity of a particular variety, ensure that it is isolated from other similar plants to prevent cross-pollination.
  • Seed Quality: Select seeds from mature fruits or pods. Avoid seeds that are damaged, shriveled, or discolored, as they may not be viable.
Love in a mist seed pods
When a flower goes to seed like this love-in-a-mist, wait until the seed head is fully mature and dry and you can shake it and hear the seeds inside. These seed pods will also reseed if left in place, and they add a unique texture and color to the landscape.

Harvesting and Processing Seeds

Proper harvesting and processing techniques are essential to ensure the viability and longevity of saved seeds. Let’s explore the step-by-step process of collecting and preparing seeds for storage:

Harvesting Seeds

  • Timing is Key: Allow the fruits or pods to fully ripen on the plant before harvesting. This ensures that the seeds inside are mature and have the best chance of germination. This can take a very long time for some plants. For example, peppers which are often picked green for eating (banana peppers, jalapeños, bell peppers, etc.) are not fully ripe until they are red.  Radishes, which are a fast maturing crop for eating, need more time to flower and go to seed.
  • Sanitation First: Before collecting seeds, sanitize your hands, tools, and containers to prevent the spread of diseases or contaminants.
  • Extraction Methods: Different plants require specific extraction methods. Some seeds, like those of tomatoes and cucumbers, are encased in a gelatinous substance. Fermenting these seeds in water for a few days and rinsing helps remove that gel and could improve germination rates.
  • Thorough Drying: After extraction, spread the seeds out on a clean, dry surface to dry thoroughly. Avoid using paper towels, as seeds may stick to them. Coffee filters or fine mesh screens are suitable options.
Seed saving from cucumbers
Some seeds like those of cucumbers are encased in a gel that can be removed through a fermentation process before drying and storing.

Cleaning and Processing Seeds

  • Removing Debris: Gently separate the seeds from any remaining plant matter or debris. You can use sieves, screens, winnowing, or even rubbing in your hands to achieve this. Ensure the seeds are clean and free from any foreign matter. This is easier in some plants than others. Coriander is one seed that can be tedious to remove all the chaff from, but worth the effort.
  • Drying Once More: Allow the seeds to air dry for a few more days to ensure they are completely moisture-free. This step is crucial to prevent mold or fungal growth during storage.
  • Labeling and Storage: Once the seeds are thoroughly dry, label them with the plant variety, date, and any other relevant information. Store them in airtight containers, such as resealable plastic bags, paper envelopes, or glass jars, to protect them from moisture and pests.

Proper Storage Techniques

To ensure the longevity and viability of saved seeds, proper storage conditions are essential. Follow these guidelines to create an ideal environment for your seeds:

  • Cool and Dark: Store seeds in a cool, dark place, away from direct sunlight and extreme temperature fluctuations. A temperature range of 32-41°F (0-5°C) is ideal for most seeds.
  • Dry Environment: Maintain low humidity levels to prevent moisture from damaging the seeds. Adding silica packets to the storage containers can help absorb excess moisture.
  • Organized and Labeled: Keep your seed collection organized by labeling each container with the plant variety and date of collection. This will make it easier to locate and track the seeds when needed.
  • Regular Monitoring: Periodically check your stored seeds for any signs of mold, pests, or deterioration. Remove any compromised seeds promptly to prevent the spread of damage.
Cilantro seed or coriander spilling out of a jar
I store many of my saved seeds in glass jars to keep them clean and dry.

Testing Seed Viability

Not all of the seeds you harvest from a crop will germinate. Some won’t be viable and over time, seed viability may decrease, leading to lower germination rates. Before sowing saved seeds, it’s wise to test their viability to ensure a successful germination process. Here are a few simple methods for testing seed viability:

  • Germination Test: Place a sample of seeds on a damp paper towel or in a seed tray with a germination medium. Keep them in a warm, well-lit area and monitor their progress over a specified time period. Count the number of seeds that successfully germinate to determine the viability percentage.
  • Float Test: While not foolproof, the float test can provide a rough estimate of seed viability for certain types of seeds. Place the seeds in water and observe their behavior. Viable seeds tend to sink, while non-viable ones float. I recently saved seeds from a favorite cucumber variety I grow each year. I then ran a germination test separating out the floaters and the sinkers. All of the sinkers germinated while none of the floaters did. However, keep in mind that the float test may not be accurate for all seed types
  • Seed Vigor Testing: This advanced technique assesses the physiological quality of seeds by measuring characteristics like seedling growth rate, seedling weight, and overall vigor. It requires specialized equipment and is typically performed in laboratory settings.
saved cucumber seed germinated
I recently conducted a seed germination test with Boothby's Blonde seeds saved from my crops.

Saving Seeds for Spices

There’s another great reason to save seeds from certain plants – many seeds are edible and can be used as spices.  There are many herbs whose seeds are just as flavorful as the leaves. Here are a few to try in the garden:

  • Coriander: the seed of the cilantro plant is easy to harvest and full of flavor.  If you don’t like cilantro, don’t worry. Neither do I, but I love the flavor of the seeds!
  • Dill: dill seed has a strong flavor similar to that of its leaves. I used it in pickling spice or store it to grind up in place of dill weed over the winter.
  • Fennel: Fennel seeds have a licorice-like flavor and are often used in cooking, baking, or as a digestive aid.
  • Cumin – Cumin seeds are a spice often used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Grow cumin in your garden and then harvest the seed for your home spice collection. 
  • Mustard – Mustard plants not only have delicious edible greens, but also come in varieties that produce seeds such as yellow, brown, and black. Those seeds are used to make the condiment mustard.
Dill seed heads
Many herbal seeds like this dill reseed in my garden, but I also collect and save seeds for culinary use or to start plants next year.

Leaving Seeds in the Garden

Seed saving is an empowering practice that enables us to become stewards of biodiversity and allows us to preserve our favorite varieties and grow them out for years to come. However, you don’t always have to collect and store seeds from every plant in the garden to accomplish this.  In fact, I’m a big fan of leaving seed heads right where they are all through fall and winter for several reasons.

Echinacea seed head
When echinacea flowers go to seed, you can collect some for your seed collection and leave a few for the birds. Flowers like this one are Mother Nature's bird feeders.

Reseeding or Volunteers

Many flowers and herbs will drop seeds that will survive winter and grow new plants in spring. These “volunteers” are often more hardy and grow bigger and stronger than those I purposefully cultivate. In my zone 7a garden climate, plants that reseed without any help from me include chamomile, chives, Tulsi basil (and many other basils), dill, coriander, milkweed, certain types of sunflowers, calendula, cosmos, zinnias, love-in-a-mist, poppies, and bachelor buttons.

Poppy seed heads
Once poppy seed heads mature and dry, I leave them in place or break them apart to fall and reseed the next spring. These volunteers are usually the most resilient plants in my garden.

Food for Wildlife

Seed heads also play a role in providing food for wildlife in winter. Many birds, small mammals, and even insects make use of seeds during winter when insects are not available. We’ve observed lots of backyard song birds snacking on flower seed heads we’ve left in the garden.

Milkweed seed bugs
Even some insects like these milkweed seed bugs rely on seeds and seed pods for food.

Ornamental Appeal

Flowers and herbs go to seed at all different times of year in the garden. And while we lament the departure of those colorful blooms, something with a different aesthetic takes their place. Seed heads and pods lend visual appeal to the garden adding both color and texture. This is especially true in late fall and early winter when the garden is winding down and our beloved blooms and fruits are gone. And each seed head is unique to that plant, many with an almost “otherworldly” look. Some of my favorites are:

  • Love-in-a-mist
  • Poppies
  • Butterfly weed
  • Zinnias
  • Rue
  • Coneflowers
  • Dill
Rue seed heads
Seed heads like this rue can add interesting color and texture to the fall garden and landscape.

Get to Know the Seeds in Your Garden

Exploring and getting to know the different seeds in your garden is just one more way to engage with a beloved plant and learn about its lifecycle.

By cultivating, collecting, saving, and storing seeds, we play an active role in safeguarding the genetic diversity of plant species. Saving seeds from your own garden can mean passing down favorite varieties to the next generation. Growing out saved seeds can also help you grow plants that have adapted over time to your local environmental conditions and microclimates. 

What saved seeds do you have in your collection?

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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