A Beginner's Guide to Saving Seeds

Saving seeds for next year’s garden is fun and rewarding.  Seeds can be saved from annuals, perennials and vegetables. It is so worthwhile to gather and save seeds with your kids and grandchildren. It teaches them many things about nature; the life cycle of plants, where a great deal of our food comes from, how many parts of nature work together to create plants, the importance of preserving seeds for the future and patience!

As our climate changes, we face the real possibility of entire crops of food being eliminated. In some countries this is already happening. Disasters such as fires, floods, war and extreme weather are occurring at a rapid pace, making it more important than ever that we save seeds for future generations. For the most part, this is accomplished by the 1,750 Seed Banks found around the world. Seed Banks were created many years ago to preserve the diversity of the world’s plant species. Perhaps you have heard of the largest seed bank called the Global Seed Vault on the island of Svalbard, Norway; built in 2008. Norway owns this seed vault and other participating countries store seed at this location.  They also store tubers, rhizomes, bulbs and plants that do not produce seed. It is worth a Google search just to learn more about this amazing endeavor. 

If a plant produces a seed, you can save it. Many seeds require special treatment before and during storage but the plants we have in our gardens in Zone 3 are easily started from seed. For seed saving beginners, there are a few plant and seed classifications you need to know. After that the choice is up to you!


Open-pollination is when pollination comes about by bees, butterflies, insects or wind. Nature controls the pollen dispersal from plant to plant. The resulting seeds/plants will become more genetically diverse improving plant hardiness and health. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year. 

Some open-pollinated plants are self-pollinating. The plant has both male and female parts in each flower and pollination can occur even before the flower opens. Tomatoes, peas, and beans are all self-pollinating plants. 

Heirloom Plants and Seeds

Heirloom seed comes from plants that were grown before 1951. Seeds from heirloom plants produce the same plant as their parent plant.

Heirloom seeds have been planted and passed down through the years from generation to generation in families and within communities. There is usually a written record. Years ago there were no such things as seed catalogues and seed companies. Seed saving was a very common and necessary practice if you wanted a vegetable and flower garden the following spring. Every fall the healthiest, strongest, and tastiest plants were chosen to go to seed and saved for the next spring. Heirloom plants are all open-pollinated.  

Hybrid Seeds

After 1951, hybrid seeds became available in stores.  A hybrid plant is the result of humans deliberately cross-pollinating two different plant species or varieties and growing the seed this cross produces. The resulting plants are considered ‘hybrids’ and are also called F1. You will find this F1 designation on some seed packets which indicates the seed inside is hybrid or first generation offspring. Seed gathered and planted from F1 hybrid plants will not be the same as the parent plants. Hybridization is done to secure the best qualities of the parents. This can be improved taste, better disease resistance, bigger blooms or higher yields.  Hybrids are NOT GMOs.

GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms (seed) created in a lab environment – not a garden. Their genetic make-up is altered. More about GMOs in future blogs!

How to Save Your Own Seed

First, decide which plants you will be using for seed saving.  Mark them with a small colorful ribbon. Choose healthy plants that during the growing season did not have disease or insect problems, had great flavor, were very productive, or had prolific blooming ability. Leave one or two of these plants to go to seed. Do some seed saving research about your chosen plants.

Check your plants daily for ripe seeds. Seeds mature differently – beans and peas mature within their pods, lettuce seeds ripen in flower capsules, tomato and cucumber seeds mature within fleshy fruit.

Harvesting time varies for each plant. For example, cucumbers should be left on the plant for a few weeks after the rest of the cucumbers have been harvested. 

Generally let veggies dry on the plant as long as possible. If the fall is rainy, you can pull up the entire plant and hang it in your basement or garage.  Beans and peas should be ready when the pods are brown, dry and the seeds are rattling in the pods.

For annual and perennial flowers, allow seed heads to dry on the plant. Seedpods that turn green to brown is usually mature. Perennial poppy seeds ripen in a pod and are ready when you hear a distinctive rattle when shaking the pod.

Harvest seeds on a sunny day. Seeds that scatter easily (dill) will need the seed heads shaken over an open paper bag.  Remember to label the bag with the name of the plant and date collected.

Before storage make sure they are completely dry. Spread the seed out on a flat surface like a screen or tray and store in a dark, airy place. 

Some flower heads may need to be cut open and others will need the seed covering cleaned off. 

Once completely dry, put seeds in paper envelopes and label each one with name and date collected. Enclose the envelopes in an airtight container. You can also use individual tiny glass jars for each seed type. A great way to ensure dryness in storage is to include a small bag of silica gel desiccant in each container.

Store in a cool, dark, dry place for the winter. A temperature between 0 and 5 degrees celsius is preferable. If you are lucky enough to have a second fridge, that would be an ideal storage spot. 

Most saved seeds can be started early the next spring to get a jump on the season. Check with online seed starting charts to determine the best starting dates for Zone 3.

Saving Tomato Seed

When saving tomato seed the first step is to save seed from your healthiest tomato plants and their tomatoes. You should only save seeds from open-pollinated plants including the heirloom varieties. Do not use the seed from hybrid tomatoes.

Tomato seed must be fermented before drying. Yes, fermented. 

Scoop out seeds and pulp from a fully ripe tomato.  Put this mash in a glass container and  add enough water to cover the mash.  Cover with plastic wrap.  Let stand for three days at room temperature. As you may have guessed already, this is going to smell awful as the days go by. Set the bowl in a spot well out of the way! The fourth day, uncover the bowl and you will observe a moldy mess on the top of the water.  This is normal.   

The viable (alive) seeds will have sunk to the bottom of the bowl. Carefully pour off the moldy water over a fine mesh screen letting the viable seeds remain on the bottom.  Rinse seeds and drain. You may have to rinse and drain a few times to make sure the remaining seed is clean. Spread the clean seeds out on a paper plate or glass cake dish to dry for 7-10 days. Make sure they are completely dry before putting each variety in a labelled paper envelope and then in a sealed container. Tomato seeds will remain viable for four years. 

Saving seeds is important – a seed is a tiny miracle of nature. Within that tiny speck there is the genetic code to create a whole new plant! 

So, as you can see, saving seeds is relatively easy!  The above is only an introduction to the topic; much more information is available in books and online. The best education is joining gardening groups or the local horticultural society where you will find members that are more than happy to share their knowledge. 

A bonus information:

Heirloom Tomato Varieties

Brandywine, Beefsteak, Roma, Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Mortgage Lifter, Bonny Best, Black Cherry, Black Russian, Yellow Pear, Oxheart Pink, Tumbling Tom Red, Chocolate Stripes and Heirloom Rainbow Blend

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