20 August 2007
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Many gardeners wonder if they can save seeds from plants grown in their gardens and avoid the expense of buying seed the following year. The answer is yes and no. It can be done, but if you do not know what you are doing, you may end up wasting your time and effort.
The key to successful seed saving lies in knowing what crops and varieties bear seed that is likely to produce plants that are similar to the parent plants. After all, the idea behind saving tomato seeds is to get good-quality eating tomatoes. Understanding a few terms will be useful in determining what seed is savable.
Hybrid seed is produced through controlled pollination using two specific varieties that have been inbred, or self-pollinated, for many generations to produce particular traits. The parent plants may have weak growth or other poor characteristics, but when crossed, their seed produces desirable plants. Only the first generation of seed resulting from the cross of the parent plants, the F1 hybrid generation, will produce the exact combination of desired traits. Future generations may revert to the undesirable traits of the parent plants. For this reason, seed saved from hybrid plants will generally produce plants that are inferior. Hence the first rule of seed saving - do not save seed from hybrid plants.
This does not mean that seed from all non-hybrid plants can be saved and planted with good results. If the non-hybrid is self-pollinated, the seed will produce plants similar to the parent plants and is a good candidate for saving. Some popular garden plants that are also self-pollinated are tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and lettuce. If the plant is pollinated by neighboring plants of a different variety, as cucumbers, corn, and squash can be, any seed produced will be of mixed parentage and will produce mixed results. Since pollen can travel a long distance from other garden with insects or on the wind, it would be wise to limit your seed saving efforts to self-pollinated, non-hybrid varieties.
Once you determine that you have some plants whose seeds are worth saving, you need to harvest and store the seed properly. Fruit must be fully ripe; for tomatoes that means riper than you would like to eat it. Peppers may begin to shrivel when they are completely ripe, but do not wait until the fruit begins to rot. Remove the seed from the flesh and allow it to dry. Tomato seeds can be separated by allowing the pulp to ferment with a little water for a few days after which the seeds can be strained off and dried. Seeds such as beans and peas that grow in pods are simple to process. Pick the pods as they dry but before they shatter, and remove the seed. Allow it to dry thoroughly in warm spot out of direct sun, and then package the seed in envelopes or jars, storing it in a cool, dry spot. If using glass jars for storage, check the side of the jars for condensation after a few days of storage. If it is present, dry the seeds some more before storing them.
If the idea of saving seeds and heritage plants is of interest to you, plan to attend the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticellos Tufton Farm Saturday September 8 from 10am 4pm. General admission is free and there are many interesting activities for the whole family. The possibilities include learning how to grow heirloom varieties, save your own seeds, and control pests without chemicals, tasting dozens of varieties of tomatoes, apples, garlic, and other fruits and vegetables, touring the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants gardens and nursery at Monticellos Tufton Farm, entering the heritage produce growing contest, learning from national experts and local natural/organic growers who will join non-profits promoting sustainable agriculture and heirloom seed-saving to educate and inform gardeners from around the region, and taking home seeds, plants, garlic, apples and other produce from local growers and the extensive collection of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. For more information call (540)894-9480 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or try their web site (http://www.heritageharvestfestival.com/).
For more information about this and other landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.