Idaho Falls Community Garden Association

Pass It On!
A Beginning Guide to Saving your Own Seed

Why harvest your own seed?
What else can you do that’s fun, satisfying, challenging, significant, easy to share and saves money??  Below are the basic steps you can follow to begin the rewarding adventure of saving your own seed.

What to Harvest?
There are a few basic tips in this area that will ensure your early success:
Start with the simple things; lettuce, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, many types of flower seeds. Some plants like squash and corn require special isolation practices because they cross-pollinate so easily. Others are biennials like carrots, parsnips and cabbage and won’t set seed the first year.  These are best tackled when you have more experience. Many perennials once established set seed every year and are good candidates for seed saving.

Be sure that the seeds you want to save do not come from hybrid seeds. Hybrids may have many desirable characteristics but they are not good for seed saving because they revert back to their parent stock in the second generation. This means you may get something interesting but it won’t be the same as the plant from which you are collecting. Save seeds only from open-pollinated seeds.

Once you have decided which type of seeds you are going to collect choose the healthiest specimen plants from which to gather the seed. Select the plants based on the desirable characteristic which you want to preserve: Good flavor, size ,hardiness, early maturity, color, etc.  Be sure to collect the seeds from more than one parent plant if possible. This ensures a broader genetic diversity within your seed collection.

When to   Harvest?
This is the easy part:

The only challenge here is to not leave the open seeds on the plant too long or you will find yourself with lettuce volunteering in every available space next year.  This just takes a little practice and can best be mastered by regular visits to the seed plant to run your thumb against the seed heads. If the seeds are near the “point of departure “ it’s time to collect your due. Another option is to remove seed heads once they are drying and let them finish drying in a partially shaded area.

How to Harvest?
Again this is quite straightforward:

For open seeds, a cookie sheet, paper bag, etc. will work fine.  For many seeds you can simply collect a whole seed head and separate the seeds later. (Don’t neglect this separation step, however, because proper drying ensures seed viability.) Once the seeds are collected and separated spread them out in a cool dry place and let them complete their drying.

For seeds inside a fruit carefully cut the fruit open and squeeze out the seeds.  If the seeds are basically dry like a pepper simply separate the seeds and allow them to air dry as above.  For tomatoes and other ‘slimy’ seeds a special process to remove the gelatinous, sprout-inhibiting coating is necessary but very simple:

Put the seeds with pulp in a glass and add just enough water to get them floating. Set it on a windowsill for several days until a moldy scum starts to form.  Remove the scum and any floating seeds, drain and rinse the seeds and spread out on a screen or glass or plastic plate for several days to dry. Don’t leave them for long after the scum forms or they will begin to sprout in the water - very hard on viability!

Generally speaking, with seeds big and fat is good! The larger and plumper a seed (relative to other seeds of its type), the greater the viability.  When separating seeds with the wet method the seeds that float can be discarded as they will not be as strong as the seeds which sink. For seeds of peppers, eggplant, etc. which don’t require fermenting you can assess potential viability by placing in water for 24-36 hours and, as before, saving those that float, discarding those that don’t. (Those that float are not always ‘empty’ seeds but research has shown that they are not as vigorous as the heavier ‘sinkers’.)

This stage is not as critical for home gardeners as for commercial seed handlers. You can determine how much chaff you are willing to handle. Many of the larger seeds can be adequately cleaned by hand. For smaller seeds with a lot of chaff a small 3-speed household fan can handle all but the smallest. Another method is to use screen with varying mesh sizes and shake the seeds over a large flat surface. It is important that no green matter be left in with the seed but if they are adequately dry this is not usually a problem.

How to Store?
You need only two words here, repeated over and over: COOL and DRY.  Apart from the original quality of the seed you save this is probably the most critical factor in successful seed saving. Keeping your seeds dry and cool  plays a major role in assuring their long term viability. Controlling moisture and heat - the less of both the better since those are the very factors which encourage germination - is essential to good storage. Fortunately the Idaho climate keeps this fairly simple:

Some sources of open-pollinated and/or heirloom seeds:
Following are several companies that deal solely or primarily with open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. Go to Seed Sources for their contact information.
Nichol’s Garden Nursery                              Territotial Seed Co.                                                        Seeds Blum
Vermont Bean Seed Co.                                Pinetree Garden Seeds                                                   Seed Savers Exchange
Johnny’s Selected Seeds                               Abundant Life Seed


Growing Garden Seeds  by Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds; Albion, ME 04910

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth 1991: Seed Saver Publications; Rural Route 3, Box 239; Decorah, IA 52101

Saving Seeds: The Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds, Marc Rogers, 1990, Storey Communications, Inc., Schoolhouse Road    #1 Box 105   Pownal, VT 05261-9988

Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel 1988: Rodale Press, 33 East Minor; Emmaus, PA 18098

Serious Seed Savers

Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, 222 Main St., Box 451, Great Barrington, MA 01230; E-mail:; Website: Send for a free catalog featuring native eastern seeds.

Native Seeds/SEARCH, 526 N. Fourth Ave., Tucson, AZ 85705; Web site: For a catalog featuring traditional native crops of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico, send $1 with your request.

Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 N. Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101. For a brochure featuring a broad range of native seeds and information on membership, send a stamped self-addressed envelope with your request.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, PO Box 170, Earlysville, VA 22936; Web site:  For a catalog featuring native seeds of the South, send $2 with your request.

Interesting websites for seed-saving info:

Seedsaving and Seedsavers' Resources
National Seed Storage Laboratory
Seed Saver’s Exchange
Seeds of Change

Terms to Know:

Heirloom: These are plants from yesteryear, whose seeds have been passed down for many generations. Generlly have that luscious taste you remember and long for and many are very easy to grow. All are open-pollinated.

Open-pollinated: Plants which will produce seeds that grow true to the parent plant. Not as old as heirlooms.

Hybrid: These plants are a cross between two desirable parents. They are more uniform, have more disease tolerance and are often higher yielding. Flavor varies. They do not grow true from saved seeds.

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