Here are answers to the frequently asked questions about getting started with seed saving! These include questions about the best way to store seeds, how long seeds last, and where to begin. Get answers to all your seed saving questions and begin to save seed this year, right away.
Any gardener can learn to save seeds – ANY GARDENER! You do not need to be a biologist or advanced master gardener or anyone but yourself. All you need is a few plants that you allow to go to seed, a notebook and pencil, and some way to store the seeds you save.
Seed Saving for the Easily Confused – Why Save Seed?
There are many reasons to save seed, but I find that there are two that matter the most to me.
- Seed saving will save me money on the seeds I plant all the time, every year. If I learn to save even the most basic seeds – lettuce, tomato, pumpkin – I won’t have to buy those!
- Saving my own seed will help me only grow plants that will survive and thrive in my climate.
The second reason is important to me because my climate is really rather harsh. I have severely hot and humid summers, with unpredictable winters. My growing season is long, though, so I can save several seed crops in every year.
Also, I control my own seed stock by saving seeds. I don’t need to worry if the seed houses sell out of my favorite varieties, or if there’s a shipping crisis (or something similar) that prevents me from getting my seed shipment. I already have a seed supply in my own house if I’ve learned to save seeds!
How Does Saving Seed Give Me Strong Plants?
Each time I save seed from my strongest, most productive plants, I’m able to improve on the genetics of my future garden. For example, if I have a particular tomato plant that does really well – lots of fruit, disease resistant, heat resistant, bad bug resistant – I will be sure to save seed from that amazing plant.
Next year, I will plant the seeds from my wonder tomato and grow up the children of that plant. Then, I will save seed from the best of those tomato “kids” thereby improving my odds and growing even better tomatoes the next year.
For me, it’s actually not really about getting bigger fruits, or even more fruits. What I desire the most in my garden are plants that can withstand my climate and show adaptability when temperature or bug populations fluctuate. This is enormously important where I live.
What trait would you like most to see in your garden veggies?
Keep thinking about that while we run through the FAQs of seed saving.
What is the Best Way to Save Seeds?
Whole books have been written on this process!
However, to get us started, the process for seed saving when the seeds are encased in fruit (like tomatoes, pumpkins, or cucumbers) is pretty simple:
- Scrape the seeds from the fruit using a spoon.
- Rinse them off in mesh strainer.
- Put them in a of water, or bucket if you have a lot of seed.
- Wait for the lighter, thinner seeds to float to the top and skim these off. They’re usually faulty in some way and won’t be viable.
- Pour off the water from the remaining seeds through the strainer.
- Dump seeds onto paper or cloth towels and lightly pat dry.
- Lay the seeds out on a piece of screen or even a paper plate away from direct sunlight and heat; do be sure the area has good air circulation.
- Periodically check on the seeds to look for mold or other problems – discard any seeds that are spoiled.
- Disturb the seeds to turn them over and move them about – this will help dry the seeds on all sides.
- When seeds are COMPLETELY dry, place into a bag or envelope. Label the packet carefully.
Beans and peas are MUCH easier since all you have to do is remove them from their pods, and then follow steps 7-9. For more information on saving tomato seeds and beans seeds, please see our resources list below.
Tomatoes can be dried straight from the plant, but it’s helpful to put them through a fermentation process which is described in the linked article. It’s not too complicate, I promise!
Where is the Best Place to Store Seeds?
Many seed savers use envelopes of various sizes to store their seeds. I typically buy the coin-sized enveloped, especially if I’m going to be sharing my seeds at a swap or homestead gathering.
A paper or plastic sandwich bag also works well. Plastic can be helpful to ensure that the seeds don’t get wet. Some seed savers eschew plastic for fear of trapping moisture in the bag, but if you’ve dried your seeds thoroughly, you should be fine.
Similarly, some seed savers don’t like to store their seeds in glass jars. However, as long as the seed stock is completely dry, glass can be a handy storage container. I use pint-sized canning jars quite often for larger seeds like lima beans and/or when I’ve harvest a lot of seed, as usually happens with dill or fennel. Do be careful that any glass container doesn’t break.
I have a large, black lidded tote box that houses my seed storage. The three most important things to know about safely storing seeds is to keep them:
- away from light
Can You Freeze Garden Seeds?
Yes, you can keep seeds in the freezer – it will extend their life! The cool temperatures significantly slow the decaying processes of each seed, allowing you to keep your stash safe.
You do have to be aware of power outages, if that’s a problem in your area. Have a back up plan for storage in case your freezer is no longer freezing.
In fact, the world seed bank is located in Svalbard Norway specifically because the consistent cold and the layers of permafrost ensure that this global collection of seeds will remain safe even if there is a power loss.
How Long Can You Store Seeds?
The answer to that question really depends on the seed, so be sure to see our recommended books for learning to save seed towards the bottom of this post.
If seeds are kept cool and dry, they will always last longer than otherwise. Particularly long-lived seeds can include beans and corn which can survive for upwards of ten years (or even longer), with grains like wheat being viable for decades.
Then there are others like allium seeds – onions, chives, leeks – that are really only viable for about a year.
A general rule of thumb is that seeds saved from annual plants are good for anywhere from one to four years; perennials three to five years. But that is sooooooo general.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the conditions under which each batch of seed were saved will influence the viability of that batch of seeds, regardless of their genetics. If the saved seeds have been exposed to high heat or moisture that can cause mold, then they most likely won’t grow germinate no matter what you do.
Can you Plant Expired Seeds?
It is safe to plant expired seeds – as in, they won’t poison you. You can use expired seeds to start baby plants, or you can use them for growing sprouts (a common thing to do with older seeds).
What will most likely happen is you use expired seed is that the germination rate will be low. The germination rate is the percentage of seeds that sprout and form a baby plant. The older the seed, the lower the germination rate tends to be. This is true in people, too, if you think about it.
You can test your seeds for viability by pre-sprouting them. Pre-sprouting seeds is something you can do with any age seed, actually. Here’s how you do it:
- Dampen a paper or cotton towel – you don’t want it sopping wet, just damp.
- Remove the seeds from the packet and space them out evenly in the fold of the towel.
- Fold the towel over the seeds and place it in a plastic bag in a warm place – 65 to 75F is ideal.
- Check your seeds carefully every day to be sure they remain damp and to see if they have sprouted.
- Moisten the paper towel with a spray bottle, if necessary.
- Once a sprout has appeared – you will see a small protrusion that looks something like a tail from one end of the seed – your seeds are just about done.
- Once the sprout looks sturdy – has put on some size and dimension – use a toothpick or bamboo skewer to place your sprout gently into a prepared pot of soil.
- Cover lightly with the soil and tend as you would any other seedling.
- Discard any un-sprouted seeds to the compost pile.
Pre-sprouting can save you time and pot space because you needn’t waste either on a seed that isn’t going to sprout. This works best with annual veggies seeds like cucumbers and tomatoes. There are several perennial veggies and many herbs whose seeds take up to a month or more to sprout. Keeping tabs on them long enough to pre-sprout such seeds can be tedious.
To learn more about pre-sprouting seeds, please see our resources list below.
Seed Saving Activity
If you’ve never saved seed before, I suggest this little activity.
In your homestead journal, write down anything you already know about seed saving. If you can’t think of much, choose one of the books below to begin studying.
Make a list of at least five seeds you’d like to learn to save this year. If it’s the right time of year, allow one of your garden veggies to go to seed—lettuce is probably the easiest and quickest.
- Observe how and when the flower stalk emerges; watch how the flowers fade and the seed pods appear.
- Compare this process to what’s written in your seed saving book, or favorite online resource, to decide when you might harvest the seed from your chosen plant.
- Take notes in your journal about what you’re doing and the questions that pop up.
- Next, look around your neighborhood and wild spaces to see if you can find this seed setting process going on with other plants; see if you can identify which plants are going to seed using a field guide for your area.
Find a Seed Saving Group!
Whether you already know how to save seeds or not, it’s time to seek out your local seed swap group. If you can’t find one close enough to you, you’ll need to start one.
This group does not need to be large, especially at first. Talk to your neighbors and associates, especially the ones that have gardens, and see if any of them know how to save seed or if they’d like to learn.
Ask your local extension agent if there’s a master gardener who could teach a class on the basics of seed saving to the small group you’ve gathered. Be sure to keep in contact with those who are interested in learning more and organize another time to meet.
A group will form out of your first attempts because like-minded people eventually find each other. Be sure to keep all your notes, about who you’ve contacted and what you might do next, written down in your journal because you’ll need those when it comes time to organize a formal group.
Plan a Seed Saving Garden
Using your list of five plants from the journal activity above, begin to plan your seed saving garden for the coming growing season. You most likely chose plants you already enjoy eating from or growing, so perhaps you already have some experience with their care.
- The first thing to do is to determine if the variety you’ve chosen is a non-hybrid seed. Hybrid seeds are not used for seed saving because their genetics become unpredictable. Plan to use only non-hybrid or heirloom seeds in your seed saving garden. There’s nothing wrong with hybrid plants, but their children can be wild. (If you’re an experienced gardener, you might have some fun creating new varieties of seed by crossing plants. However, this is a next-level kind of experiment that might confuse a newbie seed saver.)
- The next thing to do is to pick a location to grow your seed saving plants. To keep the genetics strong and plan against any losses, be sure to plant as many of each type of seed saving plant as possible in the garden. For example, instead of planning to save seed from just one tomato plant, grow at least five of that kind of tomato just in case you lose some during the season. This also creates a nice mix of seed tomatoes from which to choose. The more the merrier when it comes to seed genetics.
- Using your reference books and websites, double check if these plants will require some sort of isolation from plants botanically similar to them to prevent cross-pollination. You don’t want to end up saving a pumpkin that tastes like cucumber just because the bees messed up your plans with their efficient pollinating efforts.
- You’ll also want to be sure to note how long it takes for each plant to mature the seed you’re looking to save; lettuce is a lot faster than melon, for example. Make a note of the timing in your homestead journal, so you can be sure not to miss it!
- Find a seed saving friend for this year’s planting, if you don’t have a group yet. You plant some seed saving plants, and your friend can plant some others, then you can share seeds at the end of the season.
- Be sure to have a selection of paper bags, or small muslin/acrylic bags on hand in case you need to cover a seed stalk head while it continue to mature. Covering a maturing seed head can prevent the cross-pollination we mentioned earlier. The video from Roots and Refuge below covers this in more detail.
Don’t Get Seed Saving Overwhelm!
If this is all new to you, don’t worry too much about trying to get EVERYTHING right this first year.
If five plants are just too many to plan for, plant only one type of plant for seed saving.
This is your garden; you pace yourself the way in which you feel comfortable.
Like I said, it’s best to have a seed saving buddy so you don’t neglect the steps outlined here. If you can find a gardening friend or group of friends to plan and experiment with, you’ll have way more fun and you’ll be able to compare results.
Maybe you hesitate because it’s in your nature to be shy around large numbers of people. If so, find a few seed-saving friends to hang out with. If you do better with larger groups, don’t stop gathering until you have a sufficient pool from which to draw. Know yourself, and don’t try to work so far outside your comfort zone that you fail. Have some fun.
Seed Saving Books
Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, has long been considered the Bible of seed saving and it is a fabulous book. My favorite part about it is the simplicity with which the material is presented. Anyone can understand what she’s written and adapt it to their own efforts.
Another great one is The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds, by Robert Gough, which has cool graphics and covers 322 different plants. There are others and, as always, I encourage you to read every single one over time because you’ll learn something new with each book you read. Books are cool that way.
If you’re a visual learner, I recommend Roots and Refuge Farm’s great informational video on seed saving. She shares just enough detail to be useful and get you started, without overwhelming you. Her other gardening videos are helpful, as well, FYI.
Seed Saving Resources
For more seed saving information on specific plants, as well as some other helpful topics, please see our resources list below. Be sure and leave a comment if you have a tip for other readers or a question!