Saving seeds from my favorite plants
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Seeds & Seedlings

A Guide to Saving and Storing Seeds

Seed saving is one of the little joys of gardening. Now that we’re nearing the end of the season, my kitchen counter is lined with paper towels and saucers of all sizes, with seeds of all kinds splayed out to dry. Still more fruits, vegetables, and seed pods are sitting in baskets or paper bags, waiting to be extracted, washed, dried, and stored.

It would likely be easier to just buy new seeds every year, and sure, seed packets don’t cost all that much. But when you save seeds from your own garden, you’re preserving a piece of horticultural history — continuing the “bloodline” of your heirloom vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs to ensure they will exist another generation. Saving your own seeds also means your future crops will be more adapted to your climate and growing conditions, and thus be more vital and productive.

Selecting Seeds to Save

To start your own seed library, start with plants from self-pollinated heirlooms, or open-pollinated (OP) varieties. Seeds from heirloom and OP varieties stay true to breed, so your next generation of plants will take on the same genetic traits of the plant they came from.

Seeds from hybrid plants, on the other hand, may take on the traits of just one parent, or even combine random traits of both parents to become a completely different plant from the one you previously grew. Most supermarket produce comes from hybrids. While you can still save seeds from certain hybrids, it’s not ideal unless you’re looking to breed something new in your garden.

When saving seeds, you should collect from your most vigorous plants with the most desirable characteristics — those that germinated first, produced fruit the earliest, produced the most fruit, or bolted last. You should also collect seeds from healthy vegetables that are ideally sized and shaped, and feature the strongest varietal characteristics (such as coloring, striping or pleating unique to that strain).

Marking the Perfect Plant

If you grow many plants, it can be difficult to remember which vegetables to save seeds from, or which to allow to dry out on the vine. A quick tip is to mark your specimen with brightly colored string or tape so when the time comes to harvest its seeds, you can quickly gather all those vegetables with just a quick glance.

Throughout the season, I walk around my garden looking for the perfect tomato (or bean, or pepper…) and wrap a red ribbon around its stem. Not only does this little step make easy work of collecting the best seeds later on, it also keeps the Mr. (and wandering friends) from unknowingly picking a prized veggie before its prime seed-saving time.

Marking the perfect bean

Marking the perfect pepper

Self-Pollination vs. Open-Pollination

Self-pollinated plants have both male (stamen) and female (pistil) parts on the flower and can produce fruit without outside pollination. Legumes are a common example of self-pollinated plants, and thus are the easiest seeds to save as no special preparations are needed.

Open-pollinated plants rely on wind, insects, birds, or humans to spread pollen. Most plants are OP and will cross-pollinate with other plants of the same species. When cross-pollination happens, the next generation of plants may bear similar characteristics to either parent, but actually be a new strain. In effect, a hybrid is created and will often produce sterile seed.

To prevent cross-pollination, you can try one of the following methods:

  1. Grow only one variety of an OP crop per season (for example, grow red onions this year, and yellow onions next year if you want to collect seeds from them)
  2. Isolate your crops with physical barriers (like greenhouses, cages, row covers, or bags)
  3. Time plantings so that varieties of the same species are not flowering at the same time
  4. Plant different varieties at substantial distance from each other (usually out of the question for home gardeners with gardening neighbors, as the distances can be anywhere from a hundred feet to a mile or more, depending on the breed)

Collecting and Storing Seeds

There are two ways to collect seeds:

  1. Wait for the seed pods to dry out completely on the plant (peas, beans, spinach, parsley, etc.)
  2. Wait for the vegetable to over-ripen a bit on the plant (cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, squash, etc.)

With the first method, you collect the seeds when they have hardened and dried out, but before the pods split open (as with legumes) or before the seeds drop from the plant (as with flowering seed heads). Once fully dried, these seeds can be stored right away.

If you live in a humid climate or received rain before collecting the seeds, let them air dry indoors for a few days before storing.

Collecting seeds from dried edamame shells

With the second method, scoop the seeds out of the vegetable and wash off any pulp clinging on to the seeds. I usually run water over them in a fine mesh sieve and rub them gently against the mesh to remove any fleshy stuff.

Once the seeds are cleaned, spread them out on paper towels to absorb most of the moisture, then transfer them to a non-porous surface (such as glass or ceramic) to finish drying. A non-paper surface keeps the seeds from sticking and getting fuzzies. Every day or so, stir them around to make sure all the surfaces dry evenly.

Seeds must be thoroughly dry before storing, otherwise mold or mildew can set in. Thicker seeds (such as squash) may need to dry out for at least a week before being stored.

Scoop seeds out of vegetable

Wash seeds under running water in a fine mesh sieve

Lay out seeds to dry on a non-porous surface

I like to stash my seeds in paper coin envelopes, but you can also use small baggies, spice jars, tea tins, pill boxes, medicine bottles, old film canisters, or any other container you find around the house.

Label the container immediately with the plant name and date of harvest — it sounds obvious, but I’ve had to smack my forehead before when I was saving different varieties of tomato seeds at the same time, and got them all mixed up. (“Grab Bag Tomatoes,” anyone?)

Store seeds in paper coin envelopes

I keep all my seed envelopes in vintage ammo cases, and store them on a shelf in the closet. It’s usually several degrees cooler in there than the rest of the house. If you have the space, storing seeds in airtight containers in the fridge is also a great option, but any cool, dark and dry place will work. Heat and humidity are the enemies.

Seed envelopes are stored in vintage ammo cases

Seeds are most viable when sowed within the first year or two of saving, but if properly dried and stored under ideal conditions, can last several years. (Here’s a handy cheat sheet to estimate the lifespan of common vegetable, herb, and flower seeds.)

If you start saving seeds now from all your favorite plants, you may never have to buy seeds again. And homegrown seeds make thoughtful little gifts! After all, it was the tradition of saving and sharing seeds with families, friends, and that old farmer down the road that kept heirlooms alive for so many generations.

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  • Silly Little Sheep

    I really like the idea of marking your perfect plant or perfect fruit. I must do that as well, thank you!

  • Elizabeth Pritchard

    Hello Linda. Thank you so much for the information on your great pages. I live in Queensland, Australia so our seasons are quite different to yours but I can adapt things. I love growing fresh vegetables. I had a vibrant worm farm until recently but we had a very hot, 43c day & I lost the lot as did my daughter. I am beginning to think that worms may be a cooler weather process.

    • Hi Elizabeth, thank you for reading! Worms can survive in warm weather but they do need to be under shade to keep the bin from overheating. Mine is under an eave and protected from sun and rain. On our hottest days (90F here on the coast) the worms simply burrow deeper into the scraps, which we keep reasonably moist.

      • Elizabeth Pritchard

        Thank you Linda
        I had them in the shade but we were in the middle of a heatwave and this was the hottest day of all. I hosed over the box but to no avail. My daughter lost all of hers too. I am leaving it until next autumn to get another lot. It seems that we are in for a very hot summer.

  • Akeel

    Hi Linda. Your information was very good. I have a question about peppers. I took some seeds from a bell pepper and place them in a container. I allowed them to dry but they seem to take forever to germinate. Any tips on how to save bell pepper seeds from store bought peppers?

    • Pepper seeds need heat to germinate. Also, store-bought peppers are usually hybrids, so if you’re able to grow a new plant from that seed, it might not look/taste the same as the parent plant.

  • my

    do you have some seed for sell or share?

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  • Andre David Bowers

    About storing seeds. I read on line somewhere that a good way to help ‘dry’ one’s heirloom seeds would be to store them with some rice. Rice will draw any moisture out of the seeds; furthermore if the rice was heated for 10-15 mins on a cookie sheet in the oven then cooled it would be even a better agent in the drying of the stored seed.

    • I’ve never heard of using rice to dry out seeds (but I’ve used rice to dry out things like cameras, cell phones, etc that get wet). I’m assuming you stick the whole pod of seeds in the rice, otherwise you’d never find them again! Though they’re so quick to dry that I’ve never had to do anything more than lay them out for a few days.

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  • Liz

    This is wonderful. Do you have any other online resources or good places to explore about saving seeds?

    • A general Google search should lead you to many online resources on seed saving. But I think the most comprehensive guide is a book called “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. It discusses seed saving, planting and pollinating techniques in detail for all types of plants. I reach for it often!

      • Liz

        Thank you Ms Garden Betty!

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