By Julia Coffey, Colorado Master Gardener
Humanity has a foundational history of saving seed. The Agricultural Revolution defined the shift from hunting and gathering toward agriculture. From teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, to modern day crops, seed is necessary for survival.
Today, it is uncommon to experience the full cycle of planting from seed to saving seed for planting the following season. However, seed saving is a worthwhile endeavor that is fun, satisfying, and practical. Selecting the right varieties and planning helps the process be less overwhelming, and seed saving is an excellent skill to learn.
Organization, planning, and plant type contribute to seed saving success. Start with open-pollinated seed, which means it is genetically similar to the parent plants. Hybrid seeds are varieties that result from pollination between genetically distinct parents. They may be sterile or not genetically stabilized and not produce seed that is dependable. Store-bought seed packets are labeled as open-pollinated (OP) or hybrid (F1). Heirlooms are open-pollinated.
Reproduction occurs either by self-pollination (tomatoes, beans) or cross-pollinating (corn, squash). Self-pollinating occurs without the need for other plants as pollination takes place within the flower before it opens. Cross-pollinating exchanges pollen between different flowers or different plants. Self-pollinating plants are the best for beginners because they will produce true to type offspring.
Note when plants reproduce. Are the varieties annuals, perennials, or biennials? For annuals, seed can be saved the same year they are planted. For perennials, seeds can be saved each year but will usually begin to produce flowers the second year. Biennials will only produce seed the second year and will need to be over-wintered and then re-planted.
Watch plants carefully to determine suitability for saving. Seed saved from plants that show vigorous germination and hardy growth are the best quality. Observe plants for traits that are desirable, such as early maturation, frost hardiness, taste, color, shape, etc. Save seed from as many desirable plants as possible to preserve genetic diversity in that variety. This will also prevent what is known as inbreeding depression.
For most crops, wait until the fruiting body has fully matured and/or dried on the plant, then harvest the seeds and clean away all debris. This “dry method” assures the seeds have absorbed as much energy and nutrients from the plant as possible and are viable and mature. There are times the plant can be eaten but the seeds still saved, such as seeds from tomatoes or squash. Remove the seeds prior to eating. However, some plants will be past edibility to obtain viable seed, such as cucumbers or sweet corn.