Gardening 101

Understanding the Basics of Seed Saving

The Durham County library has a seed library. The concept behind a seed library is simple. You “check out” seeds at the beginning of the growing season, plant them and grow them throughout the spring and summer, and save the seed from the fruit in the fall. After the growing season is over, you “return” the seed to the library for the next growing season.

Before you start “checking out” and “returning” seeds at the library, it’s important to understand open-pollinated and hybrid plants. Successful seed saving begins with choosing seeds that have the potential to be saved. Seeds of any plant—herb, vegetable, or flower—are either open-pollinated (OP) or hybrids. Only open-pollinated seeds can be saved successfully.

Understanding the differences in seeds

Open-pollinated plants cross-pollinate by wind, insects, birds, and other means, or they may self-pollinate. Over time and with careful selection, open-pollinated varieties can stabilize, meaning that the parents and offspring naturally share similar traits, closely resemble one another, and are easily distinguished from others in its species. For example, one variety of tomato, like ‘Brandywine,’ is clearly distinguished from another, like ‘German Johnson’ or ‘Green Zebra.’ Heirlooms are seeds of plants that have been tended, selected, shared, and handed down for generations within a particular location or community. Open-pollinated seeds may be of any age or tradition. So heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms.

Hybrids are made by specifically crossing two different species or varieties. Growers breed commercial hybrids to produce a specific trait, like uniform appearance, concise ripening periods, resistance to bruising, large size, or long shelf life. Many of the traits found in hybrids were selected with large-scale commercial agriculture in mind.

The term F1, often seen in conjunction with hybrids, refers to the first generation produced from a specific cross of two distinct plants. If seeds are saved from the fruits of F1 hybrid plants, they will not be “true to type.” That is, they won’t reliably resemble the parent plant. F1 hybrids are typically vigorous plants and good producers, but new seeds must be purchased year after year. Hybrids are not the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs contain genetic combinations that couldn’t occur in nature.

Why bother saving seeds?

If hybrids are vigorous plants and good producers, and seeds are inexpensive to purchase, why should gardeners bother trying to save seed from open-pollinated plants?

Open-pollinated seeds contribute to genetic diversity. Genetic diversity helps plants adapt to changing climates and related environmental factors. Over time, a gardener may improve a variety so that it is particularly well adapted to the local environment, potentially reducing that gardener’s inputs. In other words, saving that gardener time and money relative to non-adapted varieties.

Plus, it’s fun.

To save seeds

Different plants require different seed-saving techniques. For beans and peas, allow the pods to dry and turn brown on the vine, about 4-6 weeks after they would be eaten. Open by hand and remove the chaff. For peppers, melons, and squashes, remove the seeds when you eat the fruit, rinse them well and allow these to dry thoroughly. For seeds that are formed in a pod, such as lettuce or many annual and perennial flowers, allow the pod to dry on the plant. Cut off the pod and allow it to dry 2-3 more weeks inside. Break open the pod and remove any chaff.

To save seeds of tomatoes, select several fruits from healthy, vigorous plants that have performed well or taste especially good. Squeeze the pulp into a clean jar and cover with water, leaving the jar at room temperature. After a few days, white mold will form on the top. Clean off the seeds, rinsing them well with water, and allow these to dry on a baking sheet or screen in a cool place out of direct sunlight.

Store all seeds in a paper envelope or glass jar in a cool, dry place.

Cornell University maintains a public, citizen-science database called Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners at blogs.cornell.edu/garden. Home gardeners can search the database to find varieties well suited for their growing area, including both hybrids and open-pollinated plants.

 Seeds Needed at the Library

You can help the Durham County seed library by donating seeds from your home garden or farm. They are looking for flower, vegetable and herb open pollinated seeds well suited for growing in the Durham region, even from previous seasons.

Drop off your seeds in an envelope in the seed donation box at any Durham library location. Include the story of your seeds, your name and your contact information with your seed envelope.

For the seed library, open-pollinated seeds are the preferred seeds for saving, but they will take hybrids for growing only, which are usually sold at retail garden centers. They will not accept seeds saved from hybrids, as they will not grow “true-to-type” and may be trademarked. Also acceptable are already opened seed packets, leftover from the previous year or so.

For more information, contact the Durham County Library at 919-560-8598 or visit durhamcountylibrary.org.

Byline

Amy Hill is a Durham County Master Gardener, and blogs about gardening at MissingHenryMitchell.com.