Saving seeds has been a tradition among farmers and gardeners for thousands of years. Successful methods have been passed down from generation to generation, along with the seeds themselves.
Last Wednesday, WVU Extension Agent Greg Hamons led a seminar at the Green Bank Library, sharing the basics of how to properly and successfully save seeds.
The focus of Hamons’ talk was vegetables, and he began with pollination.
“Some of the plants we’re going to talk about have a complete flower and some have an incomplete flower,” he explained. “A complete flower has male and female parts in the same flower, so basically it’s fertilizing itself. Tomatoes are a good example of that.
“There are some vegetables that don’t have complete flowers,” he continued. “There are male flowers on one part of the plant and female flowers on the other part of the plant.”
With the complete plants, a little bit of wind will be enough to help the plants pollinate, while the incomplete plants can be subject to cross pollination due to the distance between the male and female parts.
Due to the threat of cross pollination, Hamons said it is more difficult to get a true seed from those plants.
For instance, if there is an incomplete plant you want to save a seed from, it is possible the plant was pollinated by insects or cross pollination and will not be true to the original plant.
Those seeds are considered hybrid seeds.
“What you’re getting in that hybrid is somebody that’s actually cross pollinating two different species to make a certain fruit that they worked a really long time at – going back and forth and cross pollinating two species to get something they really like,” Hamons said. “We usually do not recommend that you keep hybrid seed varieties, so if you get a plant of a hybrid seed – it grows a tomato and you really like it – then you’re going to have to buy that hybrid seed again.
“If you keep the seed out of that hybrid variety, it probably will not be true to what you think you’re going to get.”
The best seeds to keep are called heirloom seeds, and they come from plants that are complete and pollinate themselves.
To ensure that incomplete flowers pollinate properly, Hamons said it is best to hand pollinate by taking the pollen from the male flower with a Q-tip or brush and shaking it onto the female flower.
Once you know which plant you wish to save seeds from, Hamons said you need to know the best time to harvest that seed. The timing is everything and varies depending on the plant.
“A good rule of thumb for tomatoes – when that fruit is ready to eat, the seed can be saved out of those,” he said. “Some other things, like beans, need to stay on the vine and dry on the vine to make sure that seed is mature. Squash, cucumbers and melons – a lot of times you’ll see a color shift, especially with cucumbers– you see them kind of go yellow. They need to go a little bit longer than when they’re ready to eat before that seed is mature enough to save.”
After the seeds are harvested, they need to ferment.
“You won’t want to leave them in direct sunlight and you won’t want to leave them where it’s going to get super hot or super cold,” he said. “Let that thing sit for four or five days in room temperature, somewhere it’s not in direct sunlight.”
From there, the seed is washed and laid out to dry on newspaper, paper towels or a fine screen. Hamons said all seeds should be given four to five weeks to go through the drying process.
“I know a lot of people think that’s a long time, but they need to air dry four to five weeks, and that ensures that their moisture level gets down to a stability point that you can put them in a package and save them,” he said. “Again, we don’t want to do that process in direct sunlight. We don’t want to get them too hot or too cold.”
Seeds that are properly harvested and processed can be viable for up to four or five years.
Throughout the process, Hamons said it is important to keep records and label everything.
It is important to know which seeds are self-pollinated versus cross-pollinated, as well as what variety of plant they are.
When it comes time to plant the saved seeds, those records continue with monitoring the germination of those seeds.
“That’s one thing you want to check when you’re starting those seeds next year,” Hamons said. “Germination rate is something you want to keep track of, too. If you put in ten seeds and you get one of them to sprout and grow, either you did something wrong or that seed is not shelf stable.”
Hamons provided handouts about seed saving from the PennState Extension website, Michigan State University Extension website and The University of Maine Cooperative Extension website. He also recommended that those interested in seed saving watch a video created by Dr. Lewis Jett, WVU Extension Service horticultural specialist. The video is available on YouTube, just search WVU Extension seed saving.
Hamons said if there are any questions about seed saving, he is available at the extension office in the basement of the courthouse, in Marlinton. People are welcome to stop by the office or call him at 304-799-4852.