Not only can you save your own vegetable seeds to grow the next year’s crop, but sometimes you can even end up with a plant that surpasses your expectations. Of course, most often you’ll get something similar to the original plant.
You can also end up with big disappointments. Using seeds from traditionally stable parent plants and taking care in how you produce your seeds will impact how much control you will have in the growth of the next generation seeds.
Start planning ahead of time
Decide what vegetables you want to grow as ‘parent’ plants for your seed collecting. Annual vegetables (plants that grow, flower, seed and die all within one year) are the best choice.
You can grow biennials (plants like carrots and cabbage), but you will have to wait for a second year before the plant will bloom to collect seeds. Some perennials (plants that grow year after year, like artichokes and asparagus), will bloom in their first year but may take longer to produce enough fruits to make seed collecting worthwhile. Then, you will have to wait again for the plant you grow from your collected seeds to mature.
Choose your parent plants carefully
Collect seeds from vegetables that are not hybrids. If you grow your vegetables from open-pollinated—sometimes called heirloom varieties—your seeds are more likely to grow true from seed without unpleasant surprises. Some seeds from hybrid plants can be sterile. And, as I said before, rarely, you might accidentally grow a gem!
How you grow your parent plants matters
Plant your vegetables in isolated groups if you want to control pollination. Otherwise wind, bees and other insects may cross pollinate your vegetables with varieties that may introduce unwanted characteristics to the genetics of your seed. You can also prevent adding those unwanted genetics by making sure any other potential cross-pollinators will bloom before or after your chosen plants are flowering.
Keep self-pollinating plants growing in a group at least 10 feet from other potential pollinators. Self-pollinating plants are those that have both male and female flower parts on the same plant. Corn, onions, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, radishes, melons and squashes are just some examples.
Isolate and hand pollinate your vegetable flowers under a tent of plastic or fine cloth if you want to be fully in control of the pollination process to be extra sure your plants will produce reliable or ‘true’ seeds.
Or…If all this sounds a bit too demanding you can collect seed informally.
Expect variable results if your plants are open to cross pollination or if you are mixing varieties. If you just want to grow your vegetables informally in a mixed vegetable garden, chances are your seeds will likely produce good enough seed to grow next years’ crop. You may also get a number of inferior plants, some sterile seed or even that occasional unexpected unknown hybrid of your own.
Since people have been tinkering with cross-breeding plants for centuries, even heirlooms have some variability. Most vegetables – unless you are seeking to recreate a special growth pattern or color – will produce predominantly good, tasty vegetables without too much fuss.
Collecting and preserving your seed
Collect seed from your healthiest and most successful plants. This way you know at least one genetic contributor is exactly what you want to reproduce.
Dry seeds indoors and keep them safe from humidity and pests. Over-winter your seeds in glass jars to keep them fresh. If you add a packet of silica gel it will keep the air in the jar dry, preventing rot, mold or early germination. You can also refrigerate seeds since most refrigerators stay at around 40 degrees F. Never freeze collected seed as most vegetables are not hardy in frost.
Some vegetables I have found easy to grow from plants originally raised from packaged seed in my garden are lettuce and Swiss chard (both will self-seed) basil, fennel (even the fancy bronze variety although it throws a number of green plants), oregano and even peas. Tomatoes are almost always good, although I grow an assortment of varieties so I never know what size, shape or color the resulting crossbreeds will be. So far, they’ve all tasted good!
Note There are a number of ways to know if you are growing your original plants from hybrids. Sometimes it’s a simple as reading the label of the parent plants. It may state “Hybrid” or “Heirloom.” Or look for varieties listed in Latin. Most of these are likely to be free from hybridization. Plants or seeds labeled with letters F1, F2 or ‘cv’ are cultivated varieties and less likely to produce fertile, reliable seeds for you to collect to use for future planting.
So whether you like the challenge of producing your own vegetables, are curious to see what your current plants will offer for the next generation, want to do your own scientific experiment, or simply want some tasty fresh veggies to grow for free, try collecting your own seed. You can also try it out with flowers for your garden. It’s a learning experience — and it’s fun!