Seed Saving Tips – Part 1, by St. Funogas

This is not a how-to article, but rather a few tips on what I do to save seeds each year. I’m hoping we all can share ideas in the comments section to help us all become more proficient seed savers.

My first experience at saving seeds happened when I was nine years old. I grew lots of sweet corn in my little garden and decided I better save some seed for the next year. I let it dry enough so I could remove the kernels from the cob then stored them in a green candy tin. A few months later when I opened the tin, there was nothing but a large multi-colored mass of various fungi and my seeds were a total loss. I’m surprised the lid hadn’t blown off. Hence I learned Rule Number One early: always let seeds dry sufficiently before storing. Fortunately, I’ve learned many other seed-saving tips since that time.

First, A Little Botanical Enlightenment

Botanically, fruit is a ripened ovary. Much of the produce we call vegetables is actually fruit. If it has seeds it’s a fruit, if not it’s a vegetable. Tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, peppers, okra, eggplant, etc., all have seeds making them a fruit. In some cases, the only part of the fruit we eat is the seeds such as peas, dry beans, and walnuts. Any produce coming from the vegetative parts of the plant are vegetables. Radishes, carrots, beets, and turnips are roots. Celery and rhubarb are leaf stalks while asparagus and potatoes (yes, potatoes) are stems. Sometimes fruit is fleshy like peaches, plums, pears, and pomegranates, and sometimes fruit is dry such as pecans, peanuts, and pearl millet. Sometimes it’s something in between.

The majority of the plants we see around us produce flowers and have covered seeds. Only a few of the higher plants have naked seeds (not covered by the ovary) such as conifers. If you see a “naked seed” from a flower-bearing plant, those are not the seeds even though we refer to them as such, but are actually a type of dry fruit. These include things such as sunflowers and most other daisy-type flowers, and umbelliferous plants such as celery, carrots, cumin, and cilantro.

A fun fact: what we call the strawberry “fruit” is technically not a fruit at all but a part of the flower base called the receptacle. Since seeds from flowering plants are never naked, each “seed” on the outside of a strawberry is actually an individual dry fruit called an achene. Apples are another exception. What you eat is a fleshy receptacle and when you get down to the core, that’s the actual fruit. When you cut an apple along its equator, you can see the distinct line separating the receptacle from the fruit.

For the sake of keeping things simple, I’m going to refer to dry fruits like marigolds, buckwheat, and cumin as “seeds” even though we’ve just learned that these are actually fruits. 

Seed Collecting

There are many different ways to collect seed and each kind has certain requirements. Many seeds we separate out as we are preparing the fruit to eat such as squash, or while eating such as watermelon, so there isn’t any actual collecting involved. Other seeds require that we let the fruit ripen beyond prime eating stage, such as cucumbers. Cucumbers for eating and pickling are best when the seeds are underdeveloped and not yet large and hard. When harvesting cucumber seeds, we have to leave a few cukes on the vine until they turn from green to yellow to a dark yellow/brown. Only at that stage are the seeds mature enough to be viable.

Green beans are another example and the beans must be left on the vine until the pods are dry before the seeds can be collected. Anytime we are collecting seeds we should be sure the fruit is at its maximum maturity. Letting a tomato ripen on the vine until it’s past the normal harvest stage will ensure success.

Many other seeds, especially very small ones such as basil, oregano, and quinoa, have to be sampled from time to time to check if the seeds are ready yet, often turning from light to dark as they mature. Others like poppies have heads which dry out and open up when the seeds are sufficiently mature enough. Yet others like bee plant and various mustards (radish, turnips) often have pods which can shatter and lose the seeds if not collected soon enough after the pods dry. Even more extreme are the ballistichory plants which, yes, go ballistic and shoot their seeds, some up to 200 feet. Impatiens and some lupins are in this category so plan ahead when collecting these.

There are many ways to collect seeds in the garden. I use a contraption I made from a small bathroom wastebasket, a piece of nylon strap, and a buckle as shown in Photo 1. I not only use it to harvest things like blackberries, cukes, and green beans, but at the end of the season I use it to collect seeds as well.   The double loop of the strap holds the 2-gallon bucket firmly in front of me where it’s easy to drop seeds into.

 

 

 

 

PHOTO 1 – Collecting Bucket

You’ll learn from experience which seeds can be collected just by picking the fruit or entire seed heads, and which will require special treatment. Some of these such as amaranthus, lambsquarters, and celosia require handling the seed heads very carefully as they are tilted into the bucket lest the seeds fall out before they can be collected. Others will require multiple visits if the seeds don’t ripen all at once.

Aside from my harvesting bucket, I also carry small plastic ziplock bags in my vehicle. When I’m out and about and I see interesting herbs or flowers, I can take advantage of the situation and grab some seeds and sometimes cuttings. This has the added advantage of cleaning dead seed heads from the gardens in front of public buildings, in parks, and on town squares helping to keep them beautiful. I count this as doing my civic duty and the majority of my flower seeds come from various foraging sources.

Seed-Processing Equipment

There are a few pieces of equipment I use for much of my seed processing. Most seeds will pass through various sizes of hardware cloth and screens to separate out the chaff. Photo 2 shows two of the mesh sizes, ⅛” (A), ¼” (B), and the lid from a box of copier paper (C). A third screen (not shown) uses common window screen with an opening of 1/16”. The box lid makes a good tray for catching seeds or detritus after they’ve passed through screens and during other processes.   I also have various old baking pans and cookie sheets I use for trays as well.

 

 

 

 

PHOTO 2 – Screened Frames and Tray

Photo 3 shows a coffee can with the bottom cut out and replaced with a piece of window screen. In some situations this works better than the frame with window screen, in other situations, not.

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO 3 – Coffee Can with Screen

Another piece of equipment I use is a slanted board with various pieces of cloth, each having a different pile or texture. The smoothest pile is from a bed sheet, the slightly fuzzy one is an old dish towel, and a third one (not shown) is very fuzzy and was part of a fleece jacket in its former life. The purpose of the pile is to catch the rough chaff as the smooth seeds slide down the cloth when the board is tilted and drummed with the fingers. In general terms, the larger the seeds the coarser the pile should be when using this piece of equipment. The bottom board is ¼” plywood with two sides made from ¾” thick scraps of wood to keep the seeds within the channel as they slide down into the tray below.

 

 

 

 

PHOTO 4 – Seed Board

The final type of equipment I use are two fans, one a large 20” box fan which doubles as air conditioning for the house, and a small 12-volt, 4” computer fan. With certain seeds, the best way to get rid of chaff is to blow it away. (Apologies to Clint Eastwood fans: A .44 magnum won’t work.)

Cleaning Seeds 

Some things I keep in mind as I’m cleaning and packaging seeds:

  • When collecting seeds, be sure to either label them as you collect them or include an identifying piece of plant material with the seeds as seen in Photo 5. This can be a few leaves or flower petals (A), a hand-written label (B), or some part of the seed-bearing structures (C).
  • Seeds don’t need to be perfectly clean when packaging, a little chaff or dust is okay.
  • Seeds should be as dry as possible before packaging.
  • Seeds need to be packaged in a sealed container or envelope to help keep the pests out, and envelopes should be stored in a pest-proof container such as an ammo box, plastic tote with a tight-fitting gasketed lid, a refrigerator, etc.

 

 

 

PHOTO 5 – Seed ID While Harvesting

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)




27 Comments

  1. Carrots, beets, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, swiss chard, onions are biannual seed producers. At least in my area NH require overwintering in a damp sand 5 gallon bucket for replanting in the spring for seed production. With cabbage I found cutting a X into the head past the yellowing storage leaves encourages the formation of the seed stalk.

    Please remember that hybrids are going to revert into the MANY parents that it was created from. Heirloom are most likely to be as the parent plants BUT cross pollination WILL occur. Squash is the most obvious this way giving very odd crosses. Cross pollination generally UNDO’s decades of careful plant breeding of Heirlooms.

    1. Hey Michael, good points.

      As you mentioned, squash are the most notorious of the garden-variety cross pollinators. The best way to minimize the problem is to grow only a few different kinds each year. For those who aren’t aware, the good seed catalogs, such as Baker Creek and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE), list the Latin name after each variety of squash they offer. By selecting just one squash from each of the three main species, your chances of a cross will be greatly minimized. Common names can be deceiving so be sure to pay attention the the Latin name. “Pumpkin” is a look, not a species of squash, and things we call pumpkins can be found in various species of squash.

      The three species of squash are Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima, and C. moschata.

      Summer squash tend to be mostly C. pepo. The rest are all over the board. “Pumpkins are mostly C. pepo and C. maxima. My favorite, butternut, is C. moschata.

      “Gourd” is also a look and even though most of them are C. pepo, other ones like birdhouse gourds are a fourth less-common species C. siceraria.

      So, if you want to avoid crosses, check the Latin name before you order, order one of each, and then plant them as far away from each other in the garden as possible.

      1. Yes, St. Funogas, I was going to go over the squash family (Latin) names and the cross pollination but my 94 year old was coughing badly so I closed the message.

        Something else to *think* about is Co-Operation with your neighbors. Cross pollination is very possible over 100 meters apart due to the pollinators traveling that far routinely.

        Stories from my friends that survived the crash of the Soviet Union mention just how VALUABLE Good Quality Seeds were to them. HIGH Value Trade Items.

        If your garden struggles or fails Today you have the Grocery Store. If the garden does poorly when shelves are bare or too expensive to afford your in Trouble.

        Are you going to mention the soil borne diseases and pests that NEED you to move your garden plants to keep under control in Part 2?

        Maybe chicken tractors to keep down the bugs issues?

        Are you going to show how to get fertilizers like compost and fish traps for emulsion to keep your yields up season after season? I don’t know about you but I only have a few large bags of 10-10-10/5-20-20 and such stored.

        How about the hazards of Roundup contaminated straw and such destroying your garden site even before you plant those seeds? A “Scott’s Yard” is a death sentence to Heirloom Seeds. HINT, if you have Dandelions growing there it’s a GOOD Sign for a new garden site. They don’t thrive in poor roundup soils.

        A large heavy duty tarp is an excellent way to convert a Dandelion “infested” lawn into a survival garden using light starvation. Not to mention useful for rainwater collection for garden and *ahem* toilet use. 🙂

        1. Hey Michael, you bring up a lot more good points. I won’t be covering those in the rest of the article, this one is strictly about collecting and processing seeds. Sounds like you’re the man to write an article on many of the other seed saving aspects to look at.

          I totally agree that seeds will be a hot barter item when it comes to that. After the SHTF, people should also remember all the seeds in their larder already: wheat, dry beans, mustard seeds for pickling, some of the spices like caraway and cumin, which is one of my top three spices and others. All of those will grow in temperate climates. Others like ginger and turmeric roots which many have in their pantries, will also grow as house plants then put outside during the summer, to be harvested when the rhizomes grow large enough to take some branches off.

          1. St. I’m not a writer, some folks have taken some of my ramblings and cleaned them up for articles but I’m not disciplined enough to write.

            I wander through freeform thoughts once I get much past a short solid reply.

            But I DO enjoy reading yours and Tunnel Rabbits thoughts 🙂

            How about a little thought about Winter Sowing? I know a few folks that do it successfully in NH.

  2. We store in ziploc bags in small rubbermaid containers in our chest freezer. Hopefully extending their shelf life. With all the crazy BS the left is pursuing, growing your own food might be challenged as well. Communists main weapon throughout history is starvation, never forget. God bless DJT and America…

  3. Just THANKS…..You know we think we know something until we run into someone that knows so much more. The more I learn the more I know I don’t know. Looking forward to tomorrow.

  4. Looking forward to next part. So much to learn!

    I am a novice at seed saving so I appreciate all the shared expertise. With all the craziness going on I ordered seeds from Baker Creek and Johnny’s and got some of my potato starts locally. Will try harder to save more seeds next season.

  5. ‘Yes’, the ability to choose abundant accessible nutritious edibles is the difference between free folk and everybody else.

    And ‘yes’… the favorite outcome of marxists is murder-by-starvation.
    Those people ain’t right in the head.

    *****

    On a related note, we watched a couple wonderful movies nearly about food security:

    * a ‘little’ movie, FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS is a semi-realistic almost-documentary about a tiny village of secessionists on the coast of England… and they have a community choir!
    The villagers are so self-sufficient, many brits rely on them… and they sing!
    They go to pubs… and organize a sing-along!
    They go to church… and sing!
    They are on YouTube… singing!
    Caution — may contain harmonizing.

    For contrast…

    * hollywood spectacle THE OLD GUARD is about the consequences of each choice.
    Do good, hardly anybody knows or remembers.
    Do bad, wealth/fame/power are yours to abuse as you wish.
    THE OLD GUARD pokes at global pharmaceutical conglomerates (aka ‘BigPharma’), and their quest for wealth/fame/power at any cost.
    Caution — may contain megalomania and poor dietary choices.

    And one to only go into with your eyes open…

    * AGATHA CHRISTIE’S A B C MURDERS stars [a shockingly-horrid] John Malkovich as a pudgy French detective.
    The lead primps his tiny fussy beard, gets ignored by ignorant up-starts, and receives daily letters with the closing salutation “chin-chin” so viewers know it must be from some unsavory ne’er-do-well brimming with ill intent.
    Nobody gardens, hardly anybody eats, and many leave un-ate chow on the plate as they throw tantrums or dash off to save TheNextObviousVictim… so right there, SurvivalBlog readers know this’s a fantasy.
    Caution — may contain [indecipherably-goofy] clues… and the phrase ‘chin-chin’.

  6. Great article and very timely too. If that is a photo of your seed box it looks a lot like mine, lol. This morning I couldn’t sleep so I was out in the shop at 3 am sorting all my new seeds I’ve ordered in the last couple of weeks. I felt like King Midas sifting through his gold, only my gold is seeds. : )

    1. Hey TeresaSue, yes, that’s one of my seed boxes. I actually have three at this point, plus some of the larger quantities in pint and quart jars. The one in the photo was put together to show some variety and in reality, my three boxes are organized by classes of seeds. I even have some weird things like lambsquarter that I selected for large plants and a heavy seed harvest.

      I’m glad someone else feels the same way I do about playing with seeds. I don’t feel like Midas, I feel like Scrooge McDuck sitting on his piles of gold and bags of money, except that I don’t have a frock coat and I willingly share with anyone showing the remotest interest in gardening. Sounds like at the SB reunion, we need to have a giant seed swap. 🙂

  7. What a nice refreshing, refocusing article. Thank you for it!

    Reminds me that the entire stems I harvested from radishes and chard that I harvested with intact seeds are still awaiting my action in the barn.

    As my seed collecting expands I am happy to say those tins with lids I’ve been scavenging are increasing in number and I’ll be having various varieties sorted by tins rather than all of them able to fit in one popcorn tin.

    The voles consumed pretty much my entire garden this year so my seed collecting was the primary benefit.

    1. Voles, bane of my life. Get a good ratter dog or plan on sleeping in the garden to keep them out when things go sideways.

      Warning Ratter Dog no matter how brave isn’t a good match against a Racoon or larger non-herbivore pests. Got to back them up friends.

      My Cherokee Grandmother told stories about why Cherokee Children used to stand guard at night in the 3 sisters fields. They got extra praise for getting some extra protein during guard duty killing a garden pest.

    2. Hi Wheatley, I had the same problems this year except with deer. Even when the critters do the maximum amount of damage, there always seem to be enough seed that survived to at least get next year’s crop planted. I do have moles in the garden, yard and pasture, but they only rarely cause significant problems. One of my cats was an excellent hunter and would bring them to the back deck. They’re very interesting looking creatures.

      My deer fence upgrade is making progress. I’ll let you know if I run across any plans for vole fences. 🙂 Next year will be better.

  8. Thanks for the great detailed information. As we expand the types of seeds we save will definitely make some of the tools you describe.
    We have found the book “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth a good reference for saving seeds. We have been saving tomato, squash, cucumber and other seeds using this reference for years.
    Looking forward to Pt 2 of your article.

    1. Hi ORG, I’m glad you’re enjoying the article. The beauty of all the seed-processing equipment I make is that it can all be made from scraps and things on hand. The board with the cloth on it can even be jury rigged with a cookie sheet and binder clips, then returned to the pantry when finished.

  9. Seeds will be golden. I learned this during this spring when neighbors were unable to purchase the seed they needed. I was able to help several out with old seed.

    The most surprising was 11 year old kale seed from Johnny’s Seed. It was stored in a big glass jar for most of the time. The germination rate was very low, yet because there were several ounces of seed, there was enough seed that lots of seed could be sowed, and an acceptable harvest was possible. Storing what most might consider an excess of seed is a strategy for long term seed storage. Other techniques involve drying the seed adequately enough that it can be frozen. I would not attempt this unless I was certain the technique used to dry the seed was effective enough. Sealing this seed in Mylar or glass jars, frozen or not, does in my experience work. Half of my freezer is stuffed with seeds.

    I am also happy that is article reminds me to put up a hot box over some Swiss Chard. The trouble with chard is that it produces seed on the second year. This means pulling the plant root base out after it goes dormant, and storing it where it will not freeze. Or one must pile on the mulch, and leave the roots to over winter in place. If the winter is not severe the plant will produce leaves even in the snow and holds on until spring. Once spring arrives, it’s mission is to rapidly produce as much seed as it can, and it does. I have massive amounts of seed from this last summer. However, I am concerned that there might not be enough genetic diversity because the number of plants involved was likely too low. Perhaps it may have managed to cross pollinate with another type of chard, and that just might be enough to ensure vigorous plants next year.

    I believe Swiss Chard is a good choice, even if seed production is problematic relative to other choices, but only if an excess of Swiss Chard seed can be stored. Chard is prolific throughout the hottest parts of summer, and frost resistant. I would choose chard not because of it’s flavor, but as a hardy leafy green that fits my definition of a survival food.

    1. Hey Tunnel Rabbit, glad to hear you were able to help some neighbors out with seed. Most of my crops produce so much seed I end up storing them in bulk packs. Even my smallest packs for things like basil, oregano, and grain amaranthus have a bazillion seeds in them and would be easy to divide up among 10-20 families if the SHTF. I also have many bulk packets of the same species as well. I guess I better get my shingle ready to hang up in case the SHTF soon. 🙂

      The other thing you point out is that no matter how old seeds gets, it has to be fairly old before none of them will germinate. During hard times, people will be grateful to have a packet of seeds with 10% germination rather than no seeds at all. A very loose general rule on seed longevity is that the smaller the seeds, the fewer years they will remain viable.

      “Chard is prolific throughout the hottest parts of summer, and frost resistant. I would choose chard not because of it’s flavor, but as a hardy leafy green that fits my definition of a survival food.”

      You bring up another great point. We generally grow things we like but which aren’t necessarily productive. My experience with buckwheat this year is a good example. The bees loved it but as a food source, it wasn’t worth the amount of garden space it took up. How often do we think about growing things that will provide the most actual food in our larders? I think most of us would tweak what we grow if we knew the grid was going down next year and we’d have to depend on our gardens more. I call the very productive things like tomatoes, winter squash, dry beans, and sweet potatoes my “cash crops” because they save me a lot of cash and can be canned or stored in a back room for 6-8 months. I also grow cantaloupes but they’re strictly a luxury for me and there’s not a good way to get a lot of food out of them because they are 98% water. If the SHTF, I’d have to phase them out and use that space inside the deer fence for something much more productive.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      1. Just got in from chasing a radio cable problem…. We must be shrewd and pragmatic, and grow what will provide the most nutrition out of my small garden. For myself, given my local climate, I would grown only potatoes, chard, and carrots. I will again leave some chard in the ground under mulch in hopes the winter is mild as this plant will produce an abundant and early crop. Potatoes will be planted early in large containers inside, and moved outside into a poly tunnel once the snow is gone. This method will produce the earilest potatoes that can be consumed after a long winter without enough food. In Northern Europe, early potato production is encourage through custom of acknowledging the farmer who can produce the first potatoes in the region. Other potatoes will be planted directly and latter. We must look at what we know and go with the strategy that will produce the most calories, and then nutrition.

        Most people I know are not geared up for what is headed our way, and I will have to help them. Growing potatoes is about the easiest and most productive crop one can grow, and you’ll need a hundred pounds or more as ‘seed potatoe’ for the following year. Once the sparks fly, this old man will finally get some help in the garden, but I must produce the potato seed for the follow year this coming season. If there is not enough to fill bellies, there could be trouble.

        When the USSR collapsed, there where no jobs and little food. People stole from farmers. Seeds are not a good long term storage of wealth, but precisely because they are perishable, they will be worth more than precious metals. I expect that the street value of gold and silver will decline during the depths of the collapse, while the price of seeds will skyrocket. Be smart, be diversified. Essential tangibles are the way to go.

        Okay, back to chasing my radio antenna cable problem while there is still day light. The good news is that my homemade antennas stored well, but the bad news is cables on the roof degraded. I expect the worst and that they will intentionally cut communications, one way or another. 2 meter will be jammed up, but there are other places to be….

  10. Wow. So much great information. I am a novice. I have purchased seeds. And I’m trying to improve and expand on my elemental gardening skills. I hope to be able to improve on seed saving as well. As we all know, simply ‘buying more’ may not be all that simple.

    1. Hi Michele, we all gotta start somewhere. Glad to hear you are expanding your gardening skills. For me it’s a huge rush to be able to plant seeds which I collected myself and then watch them turn into plants. When my yard-long beans all came up this year at the same time and looked like 100 little soldiers all standing in a row, that’s pretty cool.

      I started out in my single-digit years with corn, pumpkins, and squash since they’re so easy. Many of the flowers are super simple as well and if you just pick some dried marigold heads off the plants, roll between your palms, then drop them a the base of the plant, you’ll get a ton of volunteers next year. Basil is another one that produces more seed than you can use in a lifetime and not only is it easy to harvest but it reseeds itself as well and will come up again in the same spot next year. My butternut squash which is the sweetest tasting thing you can imagine, was from some seeds tossed into the compost pile from a store-bought butternut. I’ve been using that unknown variety variety for 7 or 8 years now. There’s lots of ways to avoid buying some of the seeds we buy and a good way to get our feet wet at seed saving.

      Good luck on next year’s gardening and seed saving.

  11. St. Funogas – great information here, and appreciated the botanical lessons too. Brought back memories for me of my parents, especially my dad, and their seed-saving efforts. I remember him drying and storing them, and then in the spring soaking in a little water to see which ones germinated before planting. Truly a great way to see the garden through, literally from seed to harvest. I need to get and be better at this, for sure. Always a work in progress! Thanks again.

  12. Great article! We’ve always saved seed from the various squashes and pumpkins we grow in the garden, along with some “seed” sized potatoes, as well as some wild concord grapes and raspberries that I foraged and dried and planted in a “wild” section of our yard for naturalization, but I haven’t tried saving tomato or cucumber seeds yet. Normally I buy up whatever is on clearance at the end of every summer for next year, but due to the covid-19 craziness, the seeds all sold out and were gone even before summer hit. Our garden fared poorly this year due to the drought and watering restrictions, so not a lot of seed, but seed-saving is something we’ll be doing more vigorously in the future because we can see where this all is going.

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