Tag Archives: Seed Saving

Beginners Guide to Seed Saving

Southern Exposure strives to promote everyone’s right to save seed. We know that many backyard gardeners don’t have the time, space, or desire to save all of their own seeds, but we love seeing gardeners try to tend a variety or two. The pandemic further reinforced just how important seed saving is. We saw a surge in sales, especially of staple crops like corn and beans. Seed saving is easier than you think! Follow this beginner’s guide to seed saving to get started saving your favorite varieties.

Selecting Varieties 

If you’re going to save seed, it’s essential to save it from the right plants! Hybrid plants are the first-generation crosses of two different parents. If you try to save seed from these crops, it probably won’t be true to type, meaning that the plants may be different in appearance, flavor, or other characteristics than that hybrid you grew.

Open-pollinated

Open-pollinated varieties are the crops you want for seed saving. These stable varieties have been bred to produce the same crop year after year reliably. You may notice that some open-pollinated seeds are listed as heirlooms. 

Heirloom

The word ‘heirloom’ does not have a strict definition, but it’s generally used to reference open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation. Southern Exposure considers varieties to be heirlooms if they were bred before 1940. 

Planning Your Garden

If you’re a small gardener hoping to save a few seeds this fall, you don’t necessarily need to have done any special planning. However, planning a garden for seed saving will improve your success.

Isolation Distances

When preserving varieties, you need to prevent them from crossing. You probably know that an Amish Paste Tomato could cross with a Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato, but there’s more to it than that. Plants in the same family can also cross. Cabbages for instance, could cross with broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and other crops in the brassica family.

Crops need to be isolated to maintain varieties. Isolation can be achieved by distance or succession planting so that the crops aren’t blooming simultaneously. You can find isolation distances for different crops here.

Seed growers may also achieve isolation by covering blooms with bags and hand pollinating or growing in high tunnels. 

Population Size

Diversity is key! To maintain genetic vigor, you need a large enough population to preserve genetic diversity. Saving seed from a single pepper plant may be fine for a year or two, but it isn’t a good long-term idea.

Learn more about garden planning for seed saving with this fantastic post from SESE seed grower Debbie Piesen of Living Energy Farm.

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

What to Look for When Saving Seed

When you save seed, you’re determining the next generations of that crop’s characteristics to an extent. Generally, if you’re trying to maintain a variety, you want to save seeds from those plants that display the typical characteristics of that variety or are true-to-type. 

However, you may also want to select for certain characteristics. For example, you may want to save seed from tomato plants that displayed the highest resistance to late blight. 

There are several characteristics you can select for, including:

  • Trueness-to-Type
  • Earliness
  • Vigor
  • Cold Hardiness
  • Color
  • Stockiness
  • Drought Tolerance
  • Disease or Pest Resistance
  • Lateness to Bolt
  • Flavor
  • Uniformity or Lack of It
  • Size & Shape
  • Storage Ability
  • Productivity

Consider marking certain plants you know have some of the desired characteristics. That way, you can be sure you’re gathering from the correct plants when it’s time to harvest seed. 

Seed Saving from Annuals

Many of the crops we save seed from are annuals. Their life cycle takes place during a single season. They start as a seed in the spring and produce seed by fall. 

These are excellent choices for beginner seed savers. They include squash, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, peas, basil, and more. 

Harvesting

When harvesting for seed saving, remember that some crops will need to mature beyond what you would typically allow for eating. For example, cucumbers should be fat and yellow, jalapeños should be red, and sweet corn should be dry and hard. 

Fermenting Seed

Some seeds have a gelatinous coating that you’ll need to remove before drying and storage. In the wild, this coating will help preserve the seed and temporarily inhibits germination as it lies on the ground until the following spring. In a garden setting, we want this coating gone before planting. Crops with this coating include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Squash

To remove this coating, place your seeds into a jar or container and cover them with water. The containers need airflow, so don’t put a lid on. However, you can cover them with a cloth or coffee filter and a rubber band to keep out fruit flies. 

 Let this mixture ferment for three days, stirring it once a day. It’s okay if you notice some mold growing on top. After three days, add more water and stir the mixture again. The viable seeds will sink while the pulp and bad seeds will float, and you can pour them off the top. Drain your viable seeds.

Drying Seed

No matter what type of seed you harvest, you want to ensure it’s fully dry before storing it. The seed should be dry and brittle. Larger seeds, like pumpkin seeds, should snap when you bend them, not flex. Smaller seeds should crush under pressure instead of flexing.

After adding your seeds to a container, check it regularly for the first week or two. If you notice any condensation inside the jar or other signs of moisture, remove your seeds and dry them further. 

Biennials

Biennial crops require two growing seasons to reach maturity and produce seed. They need to go through a cold period called vernalization to produce seed. These include beets, Swiss chard, bulb onions, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips, and others.

Many biennial crops can survive temperatures into the 20°Fs. In parts of the south, you can easily overwinter them. However, further north or in the mountains, they may need heavy mulch or season extension like high tunnels or row cover. In the far north, you may need to pull plants once they go dormant and bring them into a cool space like a root cellar before replanting them in spring. Read more about saving seed from biennials here.

Ira Wallace shells Blue Clarage Corn (share seed)Storing Seed

Ideally, it would be best if you stored seed somewhere cool (about 50°F), dark, and dry. You can use seed packets that you’ve made or like those we offer on the website. You can also use mason jars or other containers you have on hand. 

Label everything with the variety and date you stored or last tested your seed.

Testing Seed

You can do a simple germination test at home to ensure your seeds are still good before planting time. Take ten seeds and place them folded into a damp paper towel in a container or bag (to help hold in moisture). Set your container in a warm place. 

The amount of time you’ll need to leave them will, of course, depend on how long whatever type of seed your testing requires to germinate. Be sure to keep the paper towel damp. You may have to sprinkle water on it if it begins to dry out. 

The number of seeds that germinate will give you a rough idea about their germination rate, and you can plant accordingly. If you have a lot of seeds, testing more than ten will give you a more accurate percentage. Even if only half germinate, you still use your seed; just be sure to plant thickly in the case of direct seeding or multiple seeds per cell when starting indoors. 

Saving seed from even a single variety can help you become more self-reliant, expand your knowledge of plants, and deepen your relationship with your land. We firmly believe that seed saving should be available to all. Follow this guide to become a seed steward. 

6 Ways to Share Seed

There are so many good reasons to save seed. Earlier this year, we published a blog post of 22 reasons to save seed in 2022. It helps preserve genetic diversity, saves you money, increases your self-sufficiency, and much more. It’s also essential to share seed. This further contributes to maintaining your favorite varieties and can help promote food sovereignty in your community. Here are some ideas to share seed.

Give Seeds for Holidays, Birthdays, and Other Occasions

Seeds make great gifts if you know other gardeners or maybe folks interested in getting started! The holiday season is almost upon us, but birthdays and other special occasions are great options too. 

You can package seeds in 1/4 or 1/2 pint jelly jars with a bit of fabric over the lid for a special touch. Alternatively, many printable DIY seed packets are available online, or there are ready-to-go packs in the SESE shop.

Join Seed Savers Exchange

Seed Savers Exchange has hosted a seed exchange since 1975! Using this virtual exchange, you can list fruit, vegetable, grain, flower, and herb seeds that you harvested and would like to share with others. You can also request seeds.

Donate to Seed Libraries

Like the little free libraries with books, seed libraries allow community members to seeds for free or sometimes for a nominal fee. They’re often located at libraries, community centers, or other public organizations. Currently, there’s a network of about 200 seed libraries registered across the U.S. You can find one near you to donate to or start your own. Check out the Seed Library website or view this seed library map.

Willow Leaf Colored Lima Beans (share seed)Connect with Your Local Master Gardener’s Program

Many areas, both urban and rural, have master gardener programs. Master Gardener programs train volunteers to be community leaders working on environmental and horticultural projects. Your local master gardener group may know of local initiatives to share seed or be interested in helping to organize something.

Start Your a Seed Swap 

If you don’t have any seed-sharing initiatives in your area, this is a great day to start one! Many community organizations may be willing to loan out a space for you to host a seed swap, or you can set up something virtual, like on Facebook. 

Check Out The Community Seed Resource Program

The Community Seed Resource Program “wholeheartedly believe[s] that the non-commercial saving and sharing of open-pollinated seed makes the world a better place for everyone.” Their website is excellent for networking and finding resources for seed saving and setting up seed exchanges, seed libraries, and other seed-focused events.

Seed is better when it’s shared. Use these ideas to get started sharing seed in your community, whether it’s through a seed swap, an initiative to help low-income gardeners, or just with family, friends, and neighbors!

6 Steps to Save Pepper Seed

Many gardeners are getting large pepper harvests in August. Maybe you grew jalapeños or sweet bananas and are pickling them, or Aji Dulce spice peppers and are drying them, and perhaps you’re freezing Carolina wonders. Whatever the case, you might also want to save pepper seed. It’s a simple process. Peppers are an excellent crop for beginner seed savers.

Consider Isolation Distances

Peppers will sometimes cross-pollinate. Meaning that if you want to save seed from a Brazilian Starfish (pitanga) hot pepper (pictured above) and have it produce the same peppers next year, you need to keep them isolated from the other peppers in your garden. 

We recommend you isolate sweet varieties by 150 feet and hot and sweet varieties by 300 feet. Another technique you may want to try is hand pollination. You can keep your peppers from crossing by covering blossoms with pollination bags and then hand pollinating them, ensuring they are only pollinated with the peppers you wish.

Of course, we have also discussed promiscuous pollination’s advantages on the blog. No law says you can’t save seed from peppers that weren’t perfectly isolated. You may end up with peppers that display little change from their parent, or you could end up with a fantastic cross between those Brazilian Starfish and the habaneros in the bed next door, but that’s part of the fun!

Consider Population Size

You can get viable seeds from a single pepper plant. However, to preserve genetic diversity and a variety for years to come, you should aim to save seeds from 5 to 20 plants each year.  

Harvest the Peppers When Fully Mature

Harvesting to save seed isn’t the same as harvesting to eat or preserve. You want your peppers to mature fully, which may be about two weeks after you usually harvest. They should be fully ripe in color, either red, purple, or yellow, depending on the variety, and beginning to soften.

If frost threatens before the peppers appear to be fully mature, pull the whole plant. Shake the dirt off the roots and hang your plant upside down in a cool, dry location. A garage or outbuilding may be suitable for this. Most of the peppers will finish maturing. 

Process

Work in an area with good ventilation. Especially if you’re dealing with very hot varieties, it may be best to wear gloves to process your peppers and avoid touching your hands and face. If you’re doing a lot of peppers, it may also be necessary to work in a dust mask or respirator.

One of the easiest ways to access the pepper seeds is to cut around the top and pull it out, using the stem as a handle. Then you can gently scrape off the seeds with a knife or your fingers. Rinse your pepper seeds and remove any unwanted material.

If you’re working bare-handed, wash well with soap and warm water.

Dry

Next, dry your seeds on paper, paper towels, coffee filters, or dehydrator screens (don’t put them in the dehydrator). They will need to dry for several days out of direct sunlight. When they’re fully dry, you should be able to snap one in half with your fingers. If it isn’t dry, it will bend instead of easily snapping.

Store Properly 

Once completely dry, store pepper seeds in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. If stored properly, they should easily last for three years, giving you many future pepper harvests!

Saving pepper seed is easy! Follow these steps and have quality, viable seeds to start your crop next spring.