Though we try to be thorough in our pole bean picking, there always seem to be a few that hide so well that they become huge before we find them. These are perfect for using as seed. Any bean pods that are fully mature and large can be set aside in a sunny window to finish drying and then cracked open to reveal the beans inside, which are useful for next year’s planting. Just be certain that you allow the bean pods to completely dry before removing the beans, which are the seed. I also leave the beans out on a tray or rack for several days to ensure they are fully dried before storing. Mold and mildew can destroy the bean’s usefulness.
When I cut open cantaloupes and honeydew melons, I scoop out the seeds into colanders over the sink. I try to avoid including much fruit pulp or seed strings, but some is inevitably going to get included. When eating watermelon, we save the seeds on our plates, which I combine into a colander. Then, the colander(s) are taken to the sink, where I run cold water over them with the sprayer to thoroughly rinse them for a good long while. During the rinse, it is my hope that the sprayer will remove most of the slimy coating off of the seeds as well as loosen any strings and pulp that might be attached to the melon seed. Then the seeds are dumped out onto parchment paper on a tray or plate and spread to be air dried for a minimum of three days. Once, they feel brittle on the parchment paper, they are stored in either plastic bags or jars.
Squash, whether zucchini, yellow, butternut or another, are cut open (before cooking) and the seeds pulled from the meat/flesh. Then, I wash the seeds in a colander under cool water and lay them on parchment paper on a tray or plate to air dry. After several days of drying, they are stored in plastic bags or jars.
Corn is allowed to mature and dry on the husk on the stalk, if possible. Then, I break the corn cob from the stalk and remove the leaves and silks. I also dry it for another day or two in the dehydrator on the lowest temperature of about 110 degrees until the corn kernels are very hard and easily break off the cob. With this completed, I then take a spoon and push it between the kernel rows to begin the whole kernel separation. I separate the kernels from the husk into a bucket. There will be some bits of husk that fall into the bucket too, so I toss the kernels around in the bucket to allow the light, static-attracted husk pieces to stick to the edges of the bucket or to fall to the bottom. Then, I scoop out the kernels to use for planting. (Only kernels that are not damaged by worms, mildew, or another imperfection are kept. Extra kernels are kept for making cornmeal. (The germination rate of corn diminishes more rapidly than most vegetables over time, so it is important to collect seed each year and to use fresh seed.) There is very little heirloom, non-GMO corn available, so I encourage folks to grow as much of their own heirloom, non-GMO corn as possible and then to collect their own seed from year to year. The problem is that if you have neighbors living close to you who gardens, their corn (if it is a GMO type) will likely “infect” your through cross-pollination. If you have a good relationship with your neighbors, you might consider buying enough non-GMO corn seed to share with them and then harvesting enough corn for seed to share with them in order to keep your crops “clean”.
Like corn, pepper seeds are temperamental and do not store long so it is important to collect them each year and take extra care in preserving them. To collect them, simply cut open the pepper and remove the membrane and seeds. I prepare a tray with parchment paper, which allows some air flow but keeps seeds from sticking, in advance and use a spoon to strip the seeds from the membrane walls of peppers. Then, they are allowed to air dry for several days before being stored.
Parsley is a bi-annual plant, meaning it lives for two years and then dies. In the second year it produces an abundance of seed on tall stalks. The seeds form after the whirly-shaped, white, tiny flower clusters, which resemble Queen Anne’s lace, have been pollinated. Let the seed turn from green to brown before cutting the stalks, and then shake the seeds or use your hands to brush the seed pods down inside a large bucket to release the seed and let it fall into the bucket. Pick out any stems that may have fallen into the bucket, and then spread the seed out on trays to completely dry for a few days before storing them.
If a significant number of leaves are left on a basil bush, it will produce a stalk that will grow ringed clusters of flowers up the top portion of the stalk. These flowers, if pollinated, will mature into seed. Let the stalks dry on the bush. I usually wait until the stalk is completely dry before harvesting seed. Often there are few or no green leaves remaining at this point. Then, I merely grab tightly around the lower portion of the stalk with my gloved hand, place a 5-gallon bucket underneath, and slide my hand upward on the stalk, knocking the seed and seed pods off the stalk and into my hand or down into the bucket. Once the seed is all collected and in the bucket, depending upon how much seed I have collected I use either a ladle or a hoe to crush the seed pods to release the seeds from the pods. Then, I pour this into a large-holed colander to separate most of the chaff from the seed. Some of the chaff is not going to hurt to go into the dirt along with the seed. I have successfully grown dozens of basil plants each year for many years using this method, and at times I didn’t do much chaff removal, so it is optional.
Oregano, if not cut for a good while, will grow long stems and then bloom with white flower that will mature into tiny seed. Gently cut the dried oregano flower heads and then shake them to release the seed. I then let them dry on a parchment paper-covered plate for at least a day before storing to ensure they are dry.
If cilantro is not cut when the leaves are large and plentiful, it will grow tall and the leaves become lacy. Eventually, white flowers will form and then green, round pods. These round pods, when they are golden-brown, are coriander, or cilantro seed. Just break them off of the plant and store them. Sometimes, my cilantro plants are bushy and produce an abundance of seed. In this case, I will cut the dried plant at the base, place it over an empty, clean, 5-gallon bucket and slide my hand up the main stem to force the seeds off of the plant and into the bucket. If you only have one plant, you may choose to break them off one at a time, but they can be fragile and fall off easily, too.
Borage is a delicious, blue flower filled of Omega vitamins and a nutty, sweet flavor that is great as an accent in green salads. It also helps deter tomato worms and makes tomatoes and vegetables more flavorful and abundant. I don’t understand how this relationship works, but it does…year after year. The blue star-like flowers, when pollinated, close up and become an oval, dark seed. I tend to wait until they have fallen off of the plant and then I gather them from underneath the borage plants. This way I know they were mature. I rinse them with water, lay them on paper towels to dry, and then put them on parchment paper on a tray and leave for several days to finish drying before storing them.
Marigolds are abundant seed providers. Every flower that is pollinated produces about ten and sometimes many more seeds. The part that appears to be a dried flower bud can be opened to expose long, thin cream and brown straw-like pieces. These long internal two-tone pieces are marigold seed. Simply pull out any dried petals from the dried flower and then crack the base to expose the seed. Spread the seed out on parchment paper to dry completely for a day or two before storing.
Nasturtium flowers, if pollinated, produce a seed pod. When the pollinated flower has dried, there will be a large seed at the base. Simply pinch the dried flower head, lay the small nut-looking seed on parchment paper to dry for a few days, and then store it.
Storing the Seed
Once the seed of any plant has been air dried, I am still not 100% certain it has dried thoroughly enough to seal into plastic, as moisture can cause mold and mildew to grow and ultimately ruin the seed. We must get our seed to a point where it has less than 10% moisture throughout the seed. So as a final moisture-removing step, I put the seed in an open plastic bag with a paper towel on top of it, seal the bag, and put the bag in a sunny window for at least three days to about a week, during which time I daily shake the bag gently to mix the seeds around to allow moisture to rise from the seed in the sunshine and be captured by the paper towel. (I suppose that if I weren’t using my dehydrator, I could use it on the lowest setting also, but I keep it running most of the time during late summer and fall, so the window is my main mode of operation for warm dehydrating of seed.)
Once I am sure there is no further moisture to escape and rise into the paper towel, I will remove the paper towel, transfer the seed to another bag, and place the fresh bag of seed inside a jar that has about an inch of powdered milk in the bottom of it or some silica gel packs in the bottom of the jar. (The powdered milk or silica gel packs will absorb any moisture trapped in the air that might cause decay of the seed.) I fill the jar with multiple bags of seed, sometimes containing a variety of seeds, vacuum seal the jar closed, and then store the jar in a refrigerator at a temperature between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit until I am ready for the Spring planting. The lack of oxygen from vacuum sealing does not seem to harm the seeds in any way. Storing in a refrigerator that is a bit colder than 50 degrees is acceptable but do not let the seeds get colder than 40 degrees. I use a small refrigerator to store seeds and antibiotics at warmer temperatures than my food. By keeping these items separate from food they are also protected from bacteria that might be present in fresh vegetables stored in my refrigerator. To me, it is worth the investment for a dorm-size mini-refrigerator. Some seeds need to go through a freeze-thaw cycle to be viable for germination, but the seeds listed in this article have all performed well handled in this way without freezing. It is generally perennial seeds that require a freeze period and/or stratification in order to germinate. Annuals will generally do well using the storage method described here without freezing. In fact, freezing may damage them. The key is to dry well (to less than 10% moisture), seal, store in cool but not freezing temperature in the dark for months until a week or so before you are ready to plant.
A week or so prior to planting, remove the seed from the refrigerator (or cold, non-freezing place you have stored them) and let them come to room temperature. Then, remove them from the jar, open the bags, and let them begin to breathe and absorb some moisture from the air. For the larger seeds, such as beans, you may want to soak them in tepid water the day before planting to help them activate with moisture. (Beans and peas may also require an inoculant to strengthen and feed the young seedling plants that will emerge, and soaked moisture in the seed helps the inoculant stick to the seed for planting, root development, and even transplanting, if necessary.)