Seed Saving in Your Fall Vegetable Garden

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Saving pepper seeds

Just when you think the garden’s thrills are done for the season, you poke among spider webs and withered branches to discover summer’s last hidden treasures – seeds.

This week I’ve been loading up on almost-forgotten seeds, assembling a surprising collection of beans, basil, and even pepper seeds. After a week or so of drying at room temperature, they will be ready to pack into labeled envelopes and store for planting in spring.

Like other legumes, scarlet runner bean seeds are easy to save from year to year

The Easiest Vegetables for Seed Saving

The easiest vegetable seeds for casual seed savers come from plants that are harvested when the fruits are fully ripe. Fully colored peppers and tomatoes that have gone soft hold mature seeds, as do melons, pumpkins and winter squash. To save seeds from open-pollinated peppers, cut away the flesh to reveal the core under the cap, and let the seeds dry for several days, until they fall free on their own. Dry well-washed pumpkin or squash seeds on a cloth towel or parchment sheet, and don’t worry about the seeds’ sticky coatings. The coatings will shrivel and crack as the seeds dry, and you will be able to rub off the residue with your hands.

Many gardeners use the fermentation method described here when saving tomato seeds, and I probably would, too, if I wanted to save a quantity of seeds for sharing, or planned to store the seeds for several years. But I have great luck saving tomato seeds of a few pet varieties from year to year by drying seeds on coffee filters. The dry seeds stick to the paper, but float right off when spritzed with water.

When cleaning up after pea or bean vines, I feel lucky when I find left-behind pods that made it to maturity. Pods close to the ground are often consumed by spots and rots, but you may find some that are hanging high and dry. A handful of dry bean or pea pods may not make much to eat, but a few beans can go a long way when used for seed.

Cilantro seeds, ready to harvest

Seed-Bearing Herbs

If you grew a collection of kitchen herbs this summer, your garden is probably rich with ripe seeds. Dill often sheds enough seed to reappear the next season, and I have seen parsley, cilantro, celery and tulsi basil reseed themselves, too. But the herb garden is not the best place to count on volunteers, which may appear too early or late, or in the wrong places. Collecting and storing a few herb seeds puts you in charge of next year’s crop.

I suggest gathering bunches of drying stems and letting them dry to crisp indoors, inside open boxes or paper bags. When the herb stems are brittle, crush the oldest, brownest parts over a broad pan. Seeds are heavier than dried leaves and bracts, so rubbing and then pulling away browned plant bits will reveal the seeds, which may be numerous or few. Glossy black basil seeds are easy to spot, and well-rubbed cilantro seeds emerge as little round nuts, but you may need a magnifying glass to sort tiny herb seeds. Pick out the biggest and best seeds and store them in labeled envelopes. Compost the rest.

Removing stems and petals helps zinnia seeds dry faster

Saving Flower Seeds

The flower garden produces more seeds than I can use, and I like to leave most of them as food for winter birds. With butterfly garden annuals like cosmos, tithonia and zinnia, I gather seeds every other year unless I have ambitious plans for sharing them. Last year I saved and shared a dozen packets of sulfur cosmos and coneflower seeds at my local seed swap, and this year I plan to do the same with a single-flowered heirloom zinnia that’s a pollinator favorite. With all flowers, I gather the oldest blossoms I can find, snip off most of the petals, and bring the seed heads indoors to dry. After a few weeks, I pull the seeds from the broadest part of the seed head, which usually houses the largest, most mature seeds.

If you tend to marvel at Nature’s wonders, you will enjoy spending time harvesting, sorting and storing seeds. A seed is the ultimate dormancy package for any plant, and saving seeds makes you part of this process, which feels good. We think plants work for us, but we also work for them.

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"Green caterpillars are eating all my cauliflower, broccoli and kale seedlings here in northern suburbs of Adelaide! Aaagh"
Leticia on Saturday 2 May 2020

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