HUERFANO — During harvest and as we clean up the gardens, the question often asked is, “Can I save seeds and use them next year?” In general, yes, but first you need to know a few things to be successful.
First, you need to know whether the seeds you save come from plants that are hybrids or non-hybrids. If they are from hybrid varieties, the plants you grow from them will not be the same as the parent plant. This can lead to some interesting new variations, but you should not expect the saved seeds to produce plants like the preceding crop. So, if you have planted hybrid varieties (check your seed packet to find out), don’t bother saving seeds from those plants.
If the plant is open-pollinated or non-hybrid, the seeds you save may produce identical plants next year. However, you need to consider whether the plants have accidentally cross-pollinated with another variety. You can usually prevent cross-pollination by isolating crops from others of the same species. Every species has a required isolation distance, based on whether it’s pollinated by wind or insects.
If you plan to plant saved seed, you must plan ahead to avoid cross-pollination. You will need to know the isolation requirements and means of pollination of the plants you will grow for seed. For vegetables, see the Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook online at http://howtosaveseeds.com/seedsavingdetails.php.
At http://howtosaveseeds.com/table.php you can find a table that gives plant isolation distances for planting different varieties of vegetables. For instance, if you want to plant two different varieties of basil to save their seed, you will need 150 feet between the two varieties so they do not cross-pollinate. For spinach, you’ll need 5 miles because of pollination by wind. These distances are not practical for the home gardener; thus for some crops we turn to planting from commercial seed each year to keep things simplified and have vigorous, usable crops.
Many vegetables are self-pollinated, such as beans, lettuce, and tomatoes, making those vegetables the easiest to grow from saved seed. When you save seed, harvest seeds from the most vigorous and desirable fruits.
Clean dry seeds by winnowing or separating out the debris from seeds that have matured and dried on the plants. Wet seeds, such as tomato, need to be separated out from the surrounding pulp. Scoop out the seeds from the fruit and pour the seeds and pulp into a large bowl filled with water. Healthy seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl, while dead seeds and most of the pulp will float. Use your fingers to gently separate all the seeds from the pulp and dry them on paper.
Let your seeds dry completely and store them in closed, clean, glass jars in a cool, dark location. Plant the seeds within 3 years, as long-term storage lowers the viability of the stored seeds.
Because there are so many variables, much has been written about seed saving. I recommend Growing Garden Seeds, by Rob Johnston, which covers the fundamentals of saving seeds.