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Don Kinzler, Published August 09 2013

Stockpiling Seeds: Thriftiness, sense of adventure often prompts gardeners to preserve seeds for future years

Being of thrifty North Dakota stock, I’m never one to turn down a bargain. And if that bargain involves gardening, it’s a match made in heaven.

Saving seeds from flowers and vegetables is the gardener’s version of extreme couponing.

“Saving seed” can mean two things. It can refer to storing leftover excess seed that you didn’t plant this year, but you’d like to save for next year. More commonly, saving seed means collecting ripened seed from flowers and vegetables this season to plant next spring.

The art of saving seed has been practiced by gardeners long before there were commercial seed producers – unless the cave people had an entrepreneur who invented the seed rack.

For centuries it was the duty of the home gardener to collect seed each season to plant the following spring. Early gardeners with an eye for quality saved seed of their best plants each year, and so kept naturally selecting and improving species.

Although we now have seed companies who offer us wonderful selections, we can still save our own seed for some types. Success is not quite as simple as just plucking off seed pods or scooping out the insides of a pumpkin. But it’s not complicated either if we consider a few basics of plant genetics.

If I save seed will it produce the same thing next year? The answer depends upon the type of plant from which you hope to collect seed. The two types of plans in your yard and gardens are either hybrids or “open pollinated.”

Hybrids

A hybrid variety is created by crossing two parents having characteristics you would like to combine.

For example, you can take the flower pollen from one tomato variety having large fruit, and dust it onto the flower of another variety having good flavor to create offspring having the combination large size and good flavor.

Hybrids do not normally produce seed that will “come true” and be of the same type. If you save seed, the resulting plants will usually be inferior to the hybrid.

How do you know if the variety you planted is a hybrid? The seed packet or plant tag usually indicates the word hybrid or F1 hybrid (meaning first generation). Most seed catalogs also provide the information, or do a quick Internet search.

This is an opportune time to clear the good name of hybrids. They are not evil just because we can’t save seed from them.

Plant breeders combine desired characteristics such as disease resistance, flavor, color, size and high yield. Hybrids are very uniform and vigorous. Most of our best varieties are hybrids.

If you save seed from a hybrid, the offspring will probably be inferior. I tried saving seed from wave petunias because they are very expensive. The resulting plants performed poorly, and I wasted a growing season in the process. A possible exception is tomatoes, which are mostly self-pollinated, and if isolated from other tomatoes, can be saved.

Heirlooms

The second type of plants is called “open pollinated.” These are the non-hybrids. Because they generally produce offspring close in characteristics to the parent, they are the best varieties from which to save seed.

The term “heirloom variety” has become popular. They are open-pollinated varieties that have been around a long time and are passed down. Some have unique qualities such as the flavor of some tomatoes.

A word of caution about heirloom varieties: Many don’t have disease resistance, uniformity or vigor of some hybrids. Some became antiques because they were replaced by better varieties. Although a horse and buggy is nostalgic, I still prefer to drive the automobile.

Types and methods

There are certain open-pollinated flowers and vegetables that are best suited for successful seed collection. Flowers include zinnia, marigold, bachelor’s buttons, cornflower, cleome, nasturtium, cosmos, poppy, snapdragon and morning glory. Vegetables include tomato, pepper, beans, peas, squash, pumpkin and lettuce.

The actual collection of flower seed is easy. Allow flowers or seed pods to remain on the plant as long as possible so the seeds become fully mature, hard and dry. The trick is to catch the seed just before it falls from the plant.

Separate seed from any chaff and allow to air dry for several weeks. Place in an airtight container or jar and store in the refrigerator until ready to use next spring.

Vegetable seed from fleshy ripe fruits can be washed lightly, allowed to dry on paper towels and then store. Harvest bean seed when pods are paper-dry and beginning to crack open.

Saving seeds is not only an exercise in thriftiness, it’s a fun way to experience genetics firsthand.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com