Seed Saving, what?? Right now seems like a strange time to talk about gardening. I live in zone 4 and all my plants have long since relinquished themselves to a long winter’s slumber. My yard looks like the skeletal remains of its former summer glory and, while I am warm and cozy behind frosted windowpanes, I am already planning for next spring, when I can get my hands back in the dirt and start the process of planting and weeding and digging all over again.
One of the coolest (and easiest) things I’ve learned how to do is to save seeds. I have, as we speak, probably 50 envelopes neatly labeled with different seeds I’ve rescued from my backyard, from other people’s backyards, and from this rambling morning glory vine that cascades onto the pathway where I walk my daughter to school. I hang on to these seeds, not because I’m necessarily going to plant them, but because I may one day need them. Like if zombies come and I’m forced to use that bug out bag I may or may not have, and my seeds will become the beginnings of a new agrarian society or used as part of a bartering system so I can get a horse or something. I’m pretty sure a horse could go faster than a zombie.
I have been seed saving for a while now. I know that it can seem incredibly involved and finicky, but trust me here, it’s not. I still remember the first time I read an article about saving the tomato seeds of a particularly good harvest. Skeptically, I squeezed the seeds from a tomato onto a paper towel and let them dry for a few days. I then took the whole paper towel, tucked it away in one of my handy envelopes and stored it for the winter. A couple of months later, I planted ripped up pieces of that paper towel in little starter pots on a windowsill while snow still blanketed my yard. I had literally zero expectation that anything would happen. I was convinced that seeds had to be cultivated in a specialized way that only seed companies knew how to do and that gardeners had to buy those little packets of special secret seeds in order to have anything grow. But I was so wrong! I walked by those tiny little seed pots about a million times seeing nothing, but on the millionth and one time I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was the tiniest dot of chartreuse, poking out of the dirt. I had saved a seed, planted it, and it had germinated! I felt like that scene from The Martian when Matt Damon’s poop potatoes start to grow: I was a legit farmer and I had thwarted the seed packet system with my own tomato! I was amazed and so proud of myself! I did that! Well, turns out it’s really not that big of a deal, since people have been saving seeds for like EVER (sort of a letdown, to be honest…)
Seed saving is really easy. It’s a great way to save some money, and to keep a really great crop or annual that you love going for years and years. For the most part, seeds are easy to gather because they dry right on the plant. You just go and pluck them off, bring them inside to dry a bit further, then store. There are of course, different methodologies for certain fruits/vegetables/perennials, but for the sake of argument, most seeds can be harvested right off the plant itself.
There are of course caveats to this: you have to be certain that a plant will reproduce true or even be able to reproduce at all via seeds. Certain perennials, like clematis, have a difficult or long germination period and are more often propagated from cuttings. However, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible: it’s just not quick and easy.
But difficult exceptions aside, seed saving is a great way to feel like you have a real hand in your garden. You go out, shake, pluck, and pull at some seeds, let them dry, and you have the makings for your next year’s garden. It’s pretty amazing, actually.
Probably the easiest way to begin seed saving is to focus on your annuals. One of my favourite annuals to propagate is the French marigold. I love their sunny appearance. They are great additions to any garden for their colour, their pest control, and their profusion of blooms. Saving their seeds couldn’t be easier. In the late summer/early fall, the plant begins to die back. As it does, the flower heads curl up, and dry. Suddenly it seems, there are about a million tiny seeds congregating in the center of each flower head. All you do is pinch, pull, and you have enough seeds from one head to easily get you started.
Seed Saving How-To’s
There are different methods for saving seeds, but without a doubt the easiest way is this:
Wait for the plant to release seeds: usually in the late summer to early fall. You will know they are getting ready when the plant itself (and the flowers) start drying up and browning. If you take a close look at the blooms, you should either be able to see a seedhead or a pod. The seedheads are ready when they break up by being handled, and turn colour from green to brown. Pods are ready when they will readily crack in your hand but before they split open and lose their contents. If in doubt, try bringing the pods/seedheads in a bit early and let them dry thoroughly.
Let the seeds dry on a flat surface for a few days. I like to line a baking sheet with a tea towel, but you can easily use newspaper (not shiny stuff) or paper towel. Keep the seeds out of direct sunlight and drafts.
Once the seeds have thoroughly dried, put the seeds into a labelled envelope, and seal.
That’s it. Really.
Remember: plants have been propagating all on their own for years without needing fancy seed packets. All you’re doing is helping the propagation along by deciding where and when the new seeds will spring up!