How to Save Heirloom Vegetable Seeds From Your Garden

In Homesteading by M.D. Creekmore

by Debbie S

I’ve been seeing a lot of people on forums and comments on other blogs asking about how to save vegetable seeds for next years planning, so I decided to write this article to share what I’ve learned through years of gardening and seed saving…

Hybrids are basically for commercial production and flavor is not necessarily what they are after.  Most of us know they are designed for good shipping ability or for ripening all at once for harvest.  Heirlooms are different.  They’re ripe when they’re ready.  Tomatoes have very thin skins and wouldn’t ship well.  But they have fabulous flavor.  If you’ve never had a Brandywine tomato you’re missing out!

Seed saving is a massive subject and I’m only going to be able to scratch the surface.  There are many books and organizations dedicated to this subject.

The first step to seed saving is pollination.  Your plants must be true to form and not cross-pollinated.  Some plants are self-pollinating, others via insects (bees, moths, butterflies) and yet others via wind.  To maintain varietal purity you need to watch how your plants are pollinated.  Isolation via distance is great if you’re on acreage.  If like me you’re gardening in a city there are other techniques available for you.

Time:  Time isolation works well for certain crops provided you’ve enough space.  If for instance, you’re growing two different types of corn you could plant corn one and then wait a couple of weeks and plant corn two.  That way the pollen from corn one will have done its job before corn two has pollen ready.

Mechanical Isolation:  This is pretty much what I do given the small garden I have.  Bagging is great on corn.  Cages wrapped with floating row cover or old sheer curtains from Goodwill work well for tomatoes.  Masking tape closes female flowers on squash, cucumbers, and melons.

It is important to have more than one fruit or veggie to save from.  You’ll want to have the choice of which is truest to the parent and grew well in your garden.  Don’t think one tomato or one corn is enough.  It’s not.  You want to have seed saved from several of the best.  Also be sure you are harvesting from fully ripened fruits and veggies.

I think the queen of the garden is the tomato, so let’s look at saving from this plant first.  Oddly enough there is quite the controversy among seed saver over the extent of cross-pollination.  Some believe that crossing is rampant, while others feel after many years of growing there is no problem.  I don’t want to risk mine so this is what I do.

I cage my tomatoes rather than steak them.  This makes it easy for me to isolate them for pollination.  I have floating row cover although you can use old sheer curtains, mosquito netting or something similar.  I quite literally wrap the entire tomato cage being sure the wrap is taller than my cage.  I then twist the top extra material and tie it off.  This encloses my tomato keeping any little bee out.  I leave this in place until I have fruit set (baby tomatoes) then I remove the wrap and tie a small piece of colorful yarn LOOSELY around the stem so I can locate those first few tomatoes.

Come harvest time I pick all the tomatoes with the yarn and head to the kitchen to start the seed saving process.  I’m sure we all know these little seeds are covered with a jelly-like substance.  It’s important to remove this gel before trying to save the seed.  It’s very easy to accomplish.  All you need is a container, a knife, and some water.

Cut the tomatoes in half and carefully squeeze the seeds into the container.  Careful removal here leaves you with a seedless tomato to eat!  Love not having to forfeit eating one of them.  Once you have all the seeds into the container add enough water to cover them with lots of room to spare.  I use an old water tumbler and half fill with water.  Let it sit on the counter for a long time as you’re going to be fermenting the gel sack off the seeds.  This process not only cleans the seed of the sack but also kills many of the seed-borne diseases.

During this process, your container will begin to stink and a grey/white layer of gunk will form on the top.  It’s pretty stinky so it’s best if you can do this outside; hopefully in an area where kids or pets won’t be able to dump it over.  You’ll want to pay close attention to the seeds as if left too long in the water they will begin to germinate.

You want to stir your seed/water mix a couple of times a day.  When you see bubbles rising in the mix or the grey gunk covers the surface then the process is complete.  Add enough water to double the liquid in the glass and stir vigorously.  The good seed will fall to the bottom of the glass and the bad seed will float.

Pour off the water being careful to keep the good seed.  Repeat this process of adding water, stirring and pouring off until only clean seed remains.  The final rinse should be poured into a fine mesh wire strainer and set on a towel to remove as much water as possible.  Then pour out seeds on a small plate and spread out evenly in a single layer.  Do not try to dry on a paper towel, a piece of cloth or flexible plastic (think plastic wrap).  It’s very, very hard to get the seed off of these things.

You want them to dry quickly and not bunch together so stir them twice a day.  Never dry then in the sun or oven.  If it’s hot and humid, a fan will help speed up the process.  Tomato seed should remain viable for 4-10 years depending of the variety.  Completely dried seed should be sealed in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dry area or frozen for long-term storage.

The next seed I like to save is my green beans.  Again, cross-pollination is an issue.  Bush type plants are easier to work with as you can cover just like you do the tomato plants.  If you’re growing pole beans you could cover one section or use special little bags and cover each flower you’ll be saving from.

They must remain covered until the last flower sets beans.  They are, however, very easy to save from as once the vine/bush is dry at the end of the season you just pull the vine/bush down and let it sit for a day or two.  Then you pull the bean pods off and open the pods.

Opening the pods can sometimes be frustrating.  If so, then place them in an old feed sack or pillowcase, close the top, lay it on the ground and then run in place.  You can also hang it from a tree and beat it with a stick or baseball bat.

Once you’ve opened all the pods you’ll need to clean the seed.  This can be done on a windy day by pouring from one bowl or basket to another.  Be sure to cover your work area with a tarp as sometimes the wind can gust and blow your seed into the grass.  I will sometimes use a box fan to assist if there’s no wind.

Weevil damage can occur so it’s a good idea to freeze them in your freezer for 5 days before storing them for next garden season.  You want to be sure they are dry before doing this so take a few and place on a hard surface like the driveway.  Hit them with a hammer.  If they shatter they are dry enough for storage if they just mash then you’ll need to dry them longer.

They should have about 50% germination for up to four years if stored in a cool, dry, dark spot.

Next, let’s look at corn:

All corn varieties are pollinated by the wind and will easily cross with each other.  Pollen is made by the tassels that form at the top of the stalk.  The silk that forms on the top of the corn cob is the female section.  As the wind blows grains of pollen from the tassel drifts to the silk.  An interesting fact is each silk that is pollinated results in a kernel of corn on that ear.  Corn pollen is light and can be carried a long way by the wind.  Isolation would require about 2 miles between corn patches.

You always want to grow your corn in large blocks or patches rather than long rows.  It’s best to grow at least 100 stalks although more is better.  This will help you avoid inbreeding.    Never work with the tassels and the ears on the same plants and when saving seed try to save from 20 to 50 different plants.  If you are growing more than one variety of corn than time isolation would be an option for pollination.  Plant corn ‘A’ and 2-3 weeks later plant corn ‘B’.

Hand pollination is time-consuming but not hard.  You’ll need a pocket knife, stapler, and bags.  This company has bags:

It takes a few days to hand pollinate and in a drought even longer.  You start just before the silks begin to emerge from the tiny ears; if any silks have already emerged then that ear will be ruined for seed saving purposes.  So when you’re sure the silks are about to appear you want to bag as many ears as are ready.

Always bag the top ear (the plant feeds that one first and drops last in a drought).  To bag your ear you will tear off the ‘leaf’ that is covering the baby ear, cut the tip-off with the pocket knife, cutting enough off to expose the silks, this will look like a pea-sized circle in the center of the cut.  Use care when doing this too far down can damage the cob and cause smut.  You can tear off an ear or two from a plant you’re not going to save from and look to see about how far down to cut if you want.

Once that’s done you cover the ear with a ‘shoot bag’, it covers the whole ear and is wedged next to the stock.  The number you can bag the first day will depend on how many have silks ready to emerge.  You can bag more on the second day and third or fourth days if needed, particularly if the pollen is shedding yet.

The next trick is to staple a brown ‘tassel bag’ around each tassel just as it begins to shed pollen.  Bag too early and the pollen won’t develop.  Once you’re ready to bag your tassels give the stalk just below the tassel a good shake.  This will help dislodge any pollen that may have floated in.

Then pull the branches upward and put the ‘tassel bag’ over the tassel.  You’ll want stalk of the plant in the corner of the bag…  Fold the opening of the bag back towards the stalk and then staple closed.  The object, of course, is to fasten the bag tightly enough to keep the pollen from falling down and out of the bag.  You may notice some of the leaves just below the tassel have pollen in them.  You’ll want to remove those leaves as they have contaminated pollen there.

The pollen will fall in the morning and you’ll want to collect it before the high heat of the afternoon as the sun can kill the pollen inside the bag.  If you can’t collect until later in the day you’ll need to have more pollen to get good seed set as the sun will reduce the quality.  Your best bet is to bag in the evening and do your pollination is the late morning or early afternoon.

When ready to collect pollen bend each tassel bag over slightly downward, don’t break the tassel or the plant!  Give the bag a good shake to dislodge as much pollen as possible.  Unfasten the staple and still keeping the bag down gently shake the tassel as you pull it from the bag.  Once you’ve collected all the pollen bags carefully pour your pollen into one bag and mix well.

Keep the shoot bags on until time to sprinkle the pollen onto that ear.  If the silk has grown long you can trim it to about one inch in length.  Try to think about how many ears you’ll be pollinating and how much pollen you have so you can divide it evenly.

Shake the pollen from the bag along one of the ‘fold’ lines on the edge.  When you first shake it down the bag there will be some debris, just remove it.  Then gently shake the pollen onto the silk, maybe just less than ½ teaspoon per ear.  Try to be even and don’t just dump it in one spot.  Cover your pollinated ear with one of the used pollen bags and pull the bag around the ear and staple a couple of times.  You want it to be loose enough for the ear to grow but not so loose the wind can blow it off  The bag can be left in place until harvest and that way you’ll know to save seed from that ear.

To harvest the seed, leave ears on until the stalks are completely dry.  If animals or weather makes that impossible, you can harvest mature cobs, husk and dry them under shelter.  Drying should be done in less than 95 degrees F.  Do not remove seed until both cob and kernels are dry.

To remove seed just rub two cobs together.  Any silk or cob debris should be removed by pouring seed from one bowl to another on a windy day.  Any kernels not completely formed should be removed.  Always mix your seed from at least 25-50 plants for best results.  As always, seed should be completely dried before storing.  Sweet corn should maintain 50% germination for up to three years if stored in a cool, dry, dark spot.

Melons:  These are very difficult to save seed from as they need bees and flies for pollination, plus the plants will drop up to 80% of their female flowers.  It’s impossible to know which flowers will be dropped so you’re looking at maybe 10-15% of the hand pollinated ones developing into fruit.

Of course, the best isolation is with ½ mile distance between varieties and for those of you living in outer nowhere that may be possible.  For the rest of us, we’re looking at hand pollination.  It’s not hard but it is time-consuming.  You’ll need to know the difference between male and female flowers and you’ll need to know when they are ready to open.  Male flowers have straight stems clear to the flower while female flowers have a small bump/ball at the base of the flower where it attaches to the stem.

You’ll need a small piece of tape about ¼ inch wide and ½ inch long, tape flowers closed in the early evening.  When you tape the female flowers pinch the tape together beside the flower but leave the tape ends apart, that will make removing the tape easier the next morning.  If you break off the stem from the male flower you can use a piece of tape as a stand-in to help with holding the flower.

In the morning after the dew has dried carefully remove the tape from the female flower try not to damage the blossom.  Then take the male flower and remove the tape and its petals, gently rub/dab the pollen from the male flower onto the stigma (that’s the long slender stick thing) of the female blossom.  Once done carefully re-tape the blossom closed and then mark with a small piece of floss or yarn.  If after 3-4 days the stem attachment is still green and the tiny fruit has grown slightly, then your chances are good you were successful.

Melons seed are ready when the fruits are ready to eat, however, if you can let them slightly overripe you’ll have up to 10% more seeds although the melons aren’t as good to eat.  When you save the seed have a bowl ready and then slice the melon open and collect in the bowl.  Try to remove as much pulp and threads as you can.  Then add water to allow the bad seed and debris to float, pour off and repeat until only good clean seed remains.

Pour the seed into a strainer and rinse thoroughly to remove any of the natural sugar from the melon.  Dry in the strainer on a dish towel to remove as much water as you can.  Then pour onto a cookie sheet to dry.  Seed should remain good for up to 5 years if stored in a cool, dry and dark place.

Cucumbers:  The pollination for cuke’s is the same as for melons.  They don’t like high heat or drought conditions so don’t pollinate during those times.  For seed saving, you need to grow the cuke’s to maturity and allow them to ripen way past eating.  Depending on the type they should turn to a white, deep yellow or even orange.

Each cuke will have hundreds of seeds.  If you keep fully mature cucumbers for about two weeks after cutting from the plant, you should have a greater number of viable seed.  If you find you have few if any seed inside the cuke that generally means you didn’t get enough pollen or it could be a type that doesn’t require fertilization.

To clean the seed follow the same process as for tomato seed.  Use just enough water to cover the seed but not too much.  Set the bowl outside and out of direct light.  After about 3 days, follow the tomato water and drain information.  Pour clean seed into the strainer and dry as for melons.  Under super conditions seed should be good for up to 10 years.

Sorry for the lack of photos, as I said at the beginning; it’s been a long time between gardens due to the deer.  Thankfully the electric fence is keeping them out and I’m hopefully saving seed again.

Heirloom seed saving is a wonderful experience.  It’s easy to save your garden seed for next year and can help with not just prepping for disaster but also reduce the cost of a garden.  There are many books that will help you learn to save heirloom seed and they should be part of any preppers’ library.