By Lee Reich
September finds me saving seeds of some of this year’s best sweet peppers and most colorful flowers to plant in next year’s garden.
Saving my own seeds from year to year gives me a bit of independence from seed companies, which, for one reason or another, may stop offering certain varieties. It’s also a way to maintain an annual supply of seeds that seed companies never offer, such as some of the so-called heirloom varieties handed down for generations from parents to children and from neighbor to neighbor.
And with a seed packet often costing more than $3, saving seeds is also economical.
This year, for instance, I grew a giant canning tomato from seeds given to me by a friend. Where did my friend get them? From another friend.
Avoid hybrid seeds
Heirloom seeds are from plants whose flowers self-pollinate. Some varieties of vegetables and flowers may not have been around long enough to be called “heirlooms,” but still might be from self-pollinating plants.
Hybrid seeds, in contrast, are produced when the pollen of one selected plant is made to fertilize another selected plant. Hybrid plants often are more robust than their parents — they have so-called “hybrid vigor.”
Producing hybrid seed of a known variety is beyond the capabilities of most gardeners. Male and female plants must be known or chosen, and then pollination effected without contamination from other plants or even the female plant itself.
When it comes to flavor or beauty, hybrid is not always “high-bred.” New varieties of sweetpeas have beautiful flowers, but they cannot match the intoxicating fragrance of an heirloom variety such as Painted Lady, which was introduced nearly two centuries ago.
The old Golden Bantam corn may not be as sweet as newer hybrids, but it has much richer, cornier flavor.
Seeds taken from a hybrid plant will not, when planted, yield plants the same as the parent plant. Take the seeds out of a hybrid sweet pepper, such as Candy Apple, and you will not get Candy Apple fruits on those plants next year.
So you must buy seeds of hybrid varieties if you want those specific varieties.
Give seed development time
If you choose to save seeds from your own garden plants, select plants that are healthy. Let fruits or flowers mature, whether they are the dry pods of bean plants or radish plants, the fruits of pepper or cucumber plants, or the dry seed heads of marigolds or zinnias.
Mature pepper fruits generally are red, although some might be yellow or purple; the fruits are very tasty at this point.
Mature cucumber fruits are hardly edible, with thick or hard skins and hard seeds. Rinse well and then dry the seeds from juicy plants.
No need to do anything with the dry seeds you pop out of radish pods or rub from the heads of marigolds or daisies, except to pack them away.
Botanically, the “pod” of radish or other members of the cabbage family is not a pod, but a siliques, which is a pod-like structure with a membrane separating its two halves.
Cool, dry conditions keep seeds at their best in storage. Small envelopes are good for storing small seeds such as tomato, pepper and radish.
A jar is a good long-term home for larger seeds such as beans and corn.
And next year …?
What kind of plants you end up growing next year will depend on whether the seeds you collect are from hybrid plants, and whether the seeds were from plants that self-pollinate or cross-pollinate.
Cucumbers, for example, have separate male and female flowers, so they readily cross-pollinate. To perpetuate a nonhybrid cucumber variety, either grow the plants in isolation from other cucumber varieties or else bag and hand-pollinate a few female flowers with male flowers on the same plant. A female cucumber or squash flower is easily recognizable by the small fruit at the base of the flower.
The most predictable outcomes from saved seeds will be from those taken from nonhybrid plants that have not cross-pollinated or do not do so readily — such as heirloom varieties of tomatoes and peppers. Expect some interesting results with the others.