As summer drifts into autumn and the garden begins to show signs of fading, it is only natural to want to cling to the season that gives us so much in the garden. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t wait, and before long the once bountiful garden reduces to a cold, barren scene with all but a few hardy crops withstanding the winter chill. However all is not lost! You can capture a snapshot of your wonderful garden and save it up for the following season, in the form of seeds. Seed saving is easy to do, although it is important to know a few things first.
To ensure success it is important to know what kinds of plants you have planted in your garden. Some seeds will come back again true to the parent plant, but others can end up nothing like you would expect due to the actions of the breeder of the original seeds or through the vagaries of nature. Seeds can be generally divided into four groups:
These are often the most desirable seeds to have because they are old-school cool. The definition can vary, but generally these are the ones passed over back fences for generations, having arrived from the motherland on old wooden settler ships. They are original pre-1960 strains that have, over time proven to be quite stable and trusted and as a result are easy to save, like peas and beans. However, just because they were the best available in 1914 doesn’t necessarily mean they are best available today. It is a good idea to be open to all types of seeds, or you could find yourself limited in flavour or disease resistance among other things.
These plants take care of their own business and don’t need help from bees or anyone else. Tomatoes are a good example, as the male and female parts are within the same flower. All that needs to happen when the time is right is for the pollen to fall onto the stigma and the job is done.
These are the promiscuous plants. They don’t mind who pollinates them, just so long as their seeds are viable. The squash family are a great example of this. It doesn’t affect the immediate harvest, however if you grew several varieties of pumpkin in your garden and you saved the seeds there is no guarantee you will get the same type of pumpkin the following season. You may end up with something even better, but you may also end up with something not worth eating.
This is where things can get interesting for the seed saver. These seeds are the result of cross breeding to get a desired outcome like disease resistance. There is no guarantee that seeds from the fruit will be the same as the one you ate and enjoyed all summer long. It is like a controlled version of open pollination and you can easily do it yourself in your garden by tickling your two favour plant flowers with a paintbrush and hope their offspring has the best of both. F1 is the first generation of a hybrid and an F2 is the second generation. This is why it isn’t recommended to save these seeds – you’ll never know what you’ll get!
This is a general guide, as there are always seeds with exceptions. If there is something specific you want to save, do a bit of research for further details.
To ensure the seeds will be what you want them to be, it is wise to do a bit of pre-planning. Make sure your seeds will be true to type, or you can choose to create your own hybrids. This also helps to keep the most promiscuous plants in control. Select the healthiest plant with desirable traits like most tasty or delicious.
The best time to start the process is early in the morning when flowers are open and before the bees are out. With a soft paint brush and take the pollen from one flower – usually a yellow powder - and paint it all over the inside centre of another.
Then tie a mesh bag over the flower or remove the petals (or both). Once the fruit begins to form, it’s time to remove the mesh bag. This stops the bees doing their bit and altering the potential of the seeds. It also helps to label it on the closest branch, so you don’t accidentally eat it!
When it comes to collecting your seeds, it will be in one of two forms. Either in a dried seed pod like a bean or a pea, or embedded in the middle of fleshy fruit like a tomato or cucumber. To ensure they are viable, collect seeds at the optimum time.
Seed pods, like beans, peas and brassicas, are best when dried on the plant, having reached full maturity. It is a good idea to bring out the mesh bag again and pop it over the pods before they fully mature, so you will capture any seeds if the mature pod springs open.
Fleshy fruit should also be fully mature on the plant. Tomatoes are easy as this is when they are rosy red, ripe and delicious. Peppers need to be red too, as the green peppers are an immature version and the seeds won’t be viable. Cucumbers need to be a dark yellow, and zucchini need to grow to marrow size to ensure the seeds are mature and will grow again.
It is good to collect seeds on a dry sunny day. Avoid seed pods that are damp, as they will rot in storage or may not be ready. Spread the seeds out in a warm dry place with good airflow until completely dry. Use a sieve and/or blow gently to remove the chaff.
Rub off the pulp by running under a tap, and allow the seeds to fully dry before storing. Some plants, tomatoes for example, have more specific needs. They like to be fermented first to remove their gel coating, which is said to inhibit germination.
Label your seeds with as much information as possible, and store your seeds in a cool, dry, dark place where rodents can’t get them. This way they should last as long as their general viable period. There are always exceptions, so make sure you research things properly first for best success in re-creating your “best of summer” garden again next season.