Food Crops & EdiblesOrganic Growing

Easy Seed Saving

Seed saving is one way to lower food costs. The secret is timing and knowing your veggies and perennials. Seed saving is one of the oldest agricultural activities that date back to the earliest of human activities.

Say you want to grow a particularly tasty heirloom tomato. Obtain seed from a seed source; this could be a seed company or even your neighbor, but it should be an “open pollinated” variety. Germinate the seed in soil flats or pots, grow and harvest the tomatoes and enjoy the fruits of your and the plants labor.

The next step is to extract seed into a container and allow outer “jelly” to ferment for 3-4 days. The mass will ferment and then liquefy. Do not leave the seed too long or they will sprout! Wash seed and let dry on paper towel and allow the seed to dry out in a cool, dry place. When the seeds are dry you can store seeds in glass jars or seed envelopes out of direct sunlight and excess moisture until next year. When seeds are in a storage container you can insure a dry environment by reusing the gel packets from vitamin bottles and packaging and placing it in the storage container with you home made seed packets.

As a “good gardening tip”, rotate where you plant next years’ tomato plants to prevent spreading plant diseases and preserve fertility in the soil. Tomatoes have “perfect” (male and female) flowers so they are not likely to cross with other tomato plants. Grow different types of tomato plants but rotate types from year to year.

Even though tomatoes have perfect flowers, a good rule to remember is to separate different types of the same species at least 25 to 400 feet or by blossom isolation, is seed that has produced “true” to form for generations.

These open pollinated and often heirloom, are not “hybrid” (this will not produce true to form) or “GMO” (genetically modified organism that are patented.) which can not be sold by anyone other than the patent holder with out paying a royalty fee. A true open pollinated plant will grow, can grow, and if it is local for generations to your area, all the better. You have helped create a “landrace” variety of your favorite vegetable.

The following terms provide a basic understanding of seeds and seed production.


Part of flower pollen is produced.


The tube that supports the anther.


The portions of plants where reproduction takes place and seeds are produced.


This contains ovules and when fertilized, ovules develop into mature seeds.


The female reproductive organs of plants.


The sperm in plants.


Living, hibernating embryos that have a life span and survive longest if kept cool, dark and dry.


Male reproductive organs in flowers.


The opening in the pistil where pollen passes down to the ovary.


The pollen tube between the stigma and the ovary through which the pollen is carried.

Pollination is the process of sexual fertilization in plants. The different methods a flower uses for pollination will dictate the spacing or isolation necessary for plants to produce dependable seeds.

Self-pollination occurs without need for other flowers or plants because it takes place within the flower before it opens. Isolation distance to prevent cross-pollination is not necessary. Perfect flowers contain stamens that produce pollen and the pistil which receives the pollen, resulting in self-pollinate.

Self-incompatible, means they will not “take” their own pollen. Cross-pollination takes place when pollen is exchanged between different flowers on the same or different plants. If it is not prevented, unwanted characteristics and traits may result in the offspring. An example would be a pumpkin crossing with a squash resulting in a lumpy, oddly colored squash. Isolation distance to prevent unwanted cross-pollination is the distance between two different flowers necessary to prevent pollen from being exchanged.

Common Terms

Pollination: Wind and insect pollination is a pollen exchange that results in fertile offspring.

Hybrid: Varieties resulting from the pollination between genetically different parents.

Open-pollinated: Varieties that are genetically “stable” and pollinate similar or the same parent. This is the opposite of a hybrid plant

Monecious: Separate female and male flowers on the same plant. The Squash family is a good example with the difference in male and female blossoms easy to see.

Dioecious: Separate female and male flowers on different trees or plants. Kiwi fruit is an example as are Ginkgo trees.

Mutt Melons and Really Scary Pumpkins

Seed saving is easy if you have a plan and follow it. Choose the healthiest specimens of plant from which to save the seed. Depending on how much you want to plant in subsequent years save at least 100 to 500 seeds or more to insure diversity and viability.

Collect seed and store to dry in a paper bag. Clean the seed then store in paper envelopes or glass caning jars depending on the quantity f seed that is being saved.

Date and label collected seed, better yet, have a garden journal to record weather moisture and temperature from year to year. This will allow you to collect many varieties that will grow in extreme conditions fro year to year. Storing seeds in plastic is a moisture and mold risk. It is better to store dried seed envelopes in canning jars or organizer file boxes in a cool dry place with silica gel packets reused from packing or vitamin bottles.

The only difference in annual and perennial seed starting is that perennials seeds need a “cold snap” (cold stratification) which often kills annuals. Perennial seed can be stored in the refrigerator at 36 Degrees Fahrenheit.

How long will a “saved seed” remain viable in storage?

Common Garden Vegetables

Beans                      2-3 years                     

Beets                       3-5years

Broccoli                  3-5 years

Brussels sprouts      3-5 years  

Cabbage                  3-5 years

Carrots                    3-5 years

Cauliflower             3-5 years

Celery                     2-3 years

Chives                     1 year

Corn                        2-3 years

Cucumber                5-10 years

Eggplant                  2-3 yeas

Kale                         3-5 years

Leek                        2 years

Lettuce                    2-3 years

Melons                    5-10 years

Onion                      1 year

Parsley                    2-3 years

Parsnip                    2-3 years

Pea                          2-3 years

Peppers                   2-3 years

Pumpkin                 2-5 years

Radish                    3-5 years

Soybean                 2-3 years

Spinach                  2-3 years

Squash                   2-5 years

Tomato                  5-10 years

Turnip                    3-5 years


Basil                       5 years

Allium species       1-2 years   

Clary Sage             3-4

Coriander               3 years

Dill                         5 years

Parsley                   2-3 years

Thyme                    3 years      

Remember, that we live in an age of genetics, and genetically modified organisms or GMO’s. Saving seed that is patented is illegal and can subject the grower to fines and worse. Just ask the corn, soybean and canola farmers who are not allowed by contract to save seed. One of the most revolutionary things anyone can do is save, preserve and grow out open pollinated seeds.

Caron Wenzel is an author, environmental educator and the owner of Blazing Star Inc, (founded 1990) a native seed nursery, restoration and soil amendment consulting business based in Northern Illinois. For more information visit

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