Saving seed from your own crops can be an easy and very satisfying way to save money on the small farm. Besides saving money, saving seed allows you to select the plants that have the best qualities: the biggest, yummiest tomatoes, the best-producing cucumbers, or the most fragrant herbs. You can also breed your own varieties of plants, customizing qualities to your needs, your business plan, or your customers' demands. But truly, for the small farmer, the economic value of saving seed is probably the most significant reason to do it.
How to Grow Plants to Save Seed
You may want to dedicate some row space just to plants grown for the purpose of saving seed. You need to grow an open-pollinated variety of plant so that they will cross-pollinate. You can't use an F1 hybrid to save seed. Their seed does not breed true and you will end up with inferior vegetables.
For biennial plants, like carrots and brassicas, you will need to collect seed during the second year of growth. The plant does not produce seed until the second year.
Choose plants with some of the following characteristics depending on your needs:
- disease resistance
- drought tolerance
Make sure that the seed is ready before harvest: the seed color should change to dark brown or black and the seed capsule changes. For each variety you may want to check the signs of the seeds being ready for harvest.
How to Collect and Dry Seed
Collect seed and label it immediately. Place seedheads in paper bags (not plastic) and hang to dry in a cool, dry place. For larger seeds like squash, peas and beans, spread the seed or seedpods on trays or place in boxes lined with paper. Once the pod is dry, shake or strain the seeds to separate them from the pods.
You will also want to remove any misshapen seeds and any other debris once the seeds are dry.
How to Dry and Store Seed
Store your carefully collected seeds in a cool, dry place. You can also dehydrate them to a certain level of moisture to extend storage to up to ten years. Learn more about how to dry and store seed properly:
Crop-Specific Collection Methods
Brassicas. For brassicas, you may wish to transplant your selected plants after the first year, to avoid clubroot. Be sure not to mix varieties of brassicas because they can cross-pollinate with each other, producing seed with poor results.
Leeks and onions. Leeks and onions also take two years to produce seed. Transplant your selected plants, stake them, and cover the seedhead with a paper bag if there is wet weather before the seeds are fully ripe.
Root crops. Transplant and protect over winter, or store the ones you've chosen for seed separately, planting them the following spring to collect seed the second fall.
Squash. Pick your seed-bearing squashes early in the season. Remove all flowers from the plant besides one. Allow the fruit to fully ripen. One fruit will bear hundreds of seeds. Remove seeds carefully and wash thoroughly, then spread out to dry completely.
Lettuce. Choose a plant that has grown for most of the season without bolting. Harvest seed after the parachutes open.
Beans and peas. Beans and peas should be allowed to ripen on the plant. Remove and dry the pods before removing the seeds from them.
Trees. Tree seed should be stored in damp sand. If tree seeds are allowed to dry out, they will not germinate.