The first months of the year can seem bleak, but even if snow still covers the ground, seeing a glossy seed catalog poking out of the mailbox can offer a welcome escape from cabin fever.
While hundreds of thousands of gardeners send away for seeds for future vegetables and flowers, more than a few savvy planters enjoy an ancient tradition: seed saving.
Seed Saving for Future Generations
Seed saving is as old as agriculture, which began around 12,000 years ago. The first plants to be saved for seed included wheat, barley, and peas.
Grain was often found in ancient Egyptian tombs, which led to a popular hoax in 18th century England. It was believed that this ‘Mummy Wheat’ could germinate and grow into full size plants, but modern experiments proved that the temperature inside a tomb would not be consistent enough to keep the grain seed viable.
This is not to say that some ancient seeds have not grown anew. Some date seeds have shown they can weather any variables that might come along in two millennia. In 2005, a 2,000-year-old date sprouted into a small tree that scientists named “Methuselah.” Now several date trees have been grown from seeds at ancient sites and, as of 2020, have grown fruit.
Some seed saving is aimed at preserving the world’s food supply, using modern innovations.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway holds over a million crop seed samples from every country in the world. The vault is situated in a far north location—that is still accessible by air travel—to ensure that the precious contents can be kept at a consistent temperature of –18°C (–0.4°F).
But modern seed savers don’t need high-tech solutions to save their own seeds for the garden, year to year. All that is needed is a dark, cool, dry place.
Tips on Saving Seed
Gardeners with plots of any size can benefit from seed saving. But what to save can depend on garden size, the types of crops grown, and how much time gardeners want to spend harvesting and saving seed.
The easiest seeds to save are the ones that mature readily and linger in the garden as the seasons change. Flowers like columbine, agastache, monarda, and even some types of clematis, such as “sweet autumn,” will readily and quickly create seed after pollination. (Sweet autumn can be toxic to humans, cats, horses, and dogs).
Poppies make seed saving an easy task. The distinctive green poppy pods will eventually turn brown and dry. The poppy seeds are ready to harvest when they can be heard rattling around inside the dried pod.
For those who intend to save flower, fruit, or vegetable seed from a garden, it’s worth noting that only heirloom varieties will yield plants similar to the parent. And, if multiple varieties of the same crop are grown, the fruit from seed may turn out to have the genetics of two different varieties. The same is true of seed saved from produce at the farm stand or supermarket. This can be a wonderful surprise—or a bit of a disappointment—depending on one’s gardening goals.
Part of the fun of seed saving is experimentation, but a little bit of research before saving seed will help ensure a good harvest. Seeds saved from apples, for example, will not produce apples that are the same as the parent plant. After a gardener waits years for an apple tree to reach maturity, the fruit may not even be suitable for fresh eating.
In some crops, steps can be taken to ensure that only pollen from the same varieties is used to create fruit, although most home gardeners won’t find it worth the bother. Discouraging cross pollination will also require strictures that will not allow local pollinators to fully enjoy nutrients from flowering crops.
Saving Tomato Seed
For many plants, this tendency to hybridize can result in some happy accidents. Tomato seed is very satisfying to save, and any genetic intermingling will still probably have tasty results.
To save seed from a tomato, choose one of the biggest and most beautiful tomatoes from the most vigorous plant. (These desirable characteristics may carry over into the next generation.)
Allow the fruit to grow on the vine until it is slightly overripe to ensure that the seed is fully mature. Cut the fruit in half and notice how each seed is encased by a gelatin-like coating; this coating must be removed via a short fermentation process before the seed can be dried and stored.
Place the fresh tomato seeds in a glass jar and cover the seeds with water. To keep out insects and curious pets, cover the top of the jar with a paper towel or cheese cloth and secure with a rubber band. Check the seeds daily to observe the fermentation process. Unpleasant smells and even molds may occur, but once most of the seeds have sunk to the bottom of the jar, they are ready for drying.
Save only the seeds that sank to the bottom of the jar, and rinse them thoroughly using a tight mesh colander or sieve. Let the seeds dry completely in a cool, dark place on a clean unlined baking sheet or pie plate. Turning the seeds frequently will help them dry evenly.
After saved seeds have dried, they are ready to be stored in an airtight container in a dark place that isn’t too humid. And remember to label tomato and all dried seeds—memories may fade long before spring.
Keeping Track of Saved Seeds
It may be helpful to create a seed inventory in the notes app of a phone or in a notebook kept in a seed saving box. (Low-tech or high-tech, it’s nice to have seed inventory ready to hand.)
Be sure to write down the year that the seeds were saved. When planting seed, note how many germinated successfully. This will be good information to have for successive plantings.
When it’s time to plant, always plant a few extra seeds to be sure not to end up short. And, if there’s an abundance of plants, fellow gardeners can benefit from the windfall.
For those who end up with extra saved seed, they can consider sharing the bounty by seeking out a local seed library or seed exchange. Community helps the gardener grow as well as the garden.
*Mal Cole is a freelance science and nature writer based in Massachusetts.