Like many gardeners, when I see a plant that I must have in another garden, I begin to look for the seeds to grow one of my own. Depending on the variety it is coming from, I may be able to harvest it directly from the plant, or else I will have to find it in the local market or in a catalog to purchase.
The autumn season is the best time to get out in the garden and collect seed for the following year. I typically collect flower seeds for spring planting as it can get expensive to purchase numerous flats of annuals, especially common ones. If collecting seed from hybrid plants, always keep in mind that you may not get the same plant upon germination the following year. Many times you will acquire a parent plant, or a scrub plant in which the hybrid was derived.
Many vegetables in the garden will cross-pollinate with others such as squash, cauliflower and broccoli creating either sterile or undesirable seed. Since many of those are hybrids, it is just best to buy that type of seed for later use.
Items such as beans, peas, peppers, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes are the easiest to save and get a quality product the following year. It’s always best to leave the last crop for seed, as once you leave a vegetable on the plant, it will quit producing. Beans are one of the easiest to collect. Once the seed pods have dried, simply pull them from the plant and shell them to allow the seeds to become completely dried for storage. Peas are collected in the same manner, but oftentimes in midsummer when the plants begin to die.
With cucumbers, leave a few on the vine at the end of the season and allow them to grow large. Once they turn yellow and somewhat soft, pull them from the vine and split down the center. Take a spoon to scoop out all the seeds and gently rinse them to get rid of all the pulp. Place the seeds on a screen or hard surface to dry before storing. Peppers are collected in the same manner, but if working with hot peppers, make sure to wear protective gloves to keep the oils from burning your skin.
Tomatoes are processed a little differently as the seeds are covered in a slippery membrane inside the fruit. Harvest a large tomato from the vine that is red and beginning to feel soft to the touch. Cut the tomato in half and gentle squeeze out the seeds and juice onto a plate. Next collect the seeds and place them into a glass and fill it with water, twice as much as the contents in the glass. Stir the contents twice a day for the next three to four days. This is the fermenting process that eliminates the membrane from the seeds to allow them to cure. The mixture will begin to smell after a few days and create a mold on the top of the liquid, so place it in an area where it won’t get spilled. The fermenting process will also eliminate any bacteria or virus that may have been on the seeds. After the fourth day, pour the contents into a strainer and rinse thoroughly, then place on a flat surface where they will be allowed to dry quickly. Avoid placing them in the sun as this may cause them to germinate.
Flower seeds are less work for processing and can be a bit more fun. Seed is collected from the spent and dried flowers on the plant. Common flowers where seed is readily available are from snapdragons, which have seeds the size of fine grains; marigolds, with their numerous seeds in cupped clusters; balsam, cosmos, zinnia, four o’clocks and petunias. With flowers, half the fun is finding out what colors you will get the following year. I like to use it as an experimentation process and await the surprises.
Many times I will go to the petunia, balsam, snapdragons and alyssum plants and shake the seeds onto the soil. The winter season will work them into the ground and in the spring, they will emerge on their own. White alyssum always comes back white, but the rest come back in numerous other colors. Petunias will always be of an older variety. Rarely will a wave petunia come back as a wave, so do not expect that to occur.
Once your seed is collected and thoroughly dried, place each type into a small snack-sized Ziploc pouch or small jar and label the contents. Place them into a cool and dry place over the winter for the best storage results. Most seeds should be used within the first year for best germination, but many will retain their germination ability for up to three years. Get this done now before the snow flies, otherwise it will be too late.