How to Harvest Seeds from your Garden
(Fruit, Vegetable, or Flower Garden Seed)
Harvesting (saving) seeds from your vegetable and flower garden is an economical and rewarding way to ensure that your favorite heirloom varieties are always available to you.
Gardening Advice Tip: in many states, it is only legal to harvest seeds from natural/indigenous vegetable or flower plants, or from your own varieties of plants.
Also, if you try to grow plants from seed that originated with a hybrid variety, you will likely be surprised (or disappointed) with the results. Plants grown from the seed of a hybrid variety are often sterile, or else they revert to one of the "parent" varieties that created the original hybrid. Regardless, it will not reproduce true to the fruit or vegetable you started with.
Before You Get Started:
First, a little about plant reproduction, as that has a huge impact on your ability to harvest seeds that are true to the parent plants.
1. Plants of the same scientific family (genus), will cross-breed if given the opportunity. For example, cherry tomatoes and table tomatoes can crossbreed in your garden. As can squash and zucchini. You likely won't see the result of the crosspollination until the next generation of fruit or vegetables arrives. For instance, lets say a busy little bug visits your Big Boy tomato blooms, then buzzes over to the cherry tomato blooms. You save some of the cherry tomato fruits and harvest the seed for next year's crop. Next year, the fruit grown on the new plants will be some sort of hybrid version between the two, and not the cherry tomatoes you envisioned.
2. To minimize the risk of #1 (above), it is important to know that there are different ways that plants pollinate (depending upon the type of fruit or vegetable in question). There are 3 basic types:
- Self-pollinating (they don't need outside intervention)
- Wind-pollinated (such as corn, spinach, many trees and grains)
- Insect-pollinated plants.
3. There are ways to protect your plants, to ensure true-to-type reproduction. They are a bit painstaking, but worth the effort. Just consider it a science project, and get the kids involved!
Commonly practiced options, in controlling pollination for the purpose of harvesting your garden seed:
- Isolation (Space). Plant only one variety from any plant's specific family (genus). You'll also need to make sure that none of your neighbors have any other fruit, herb, or vegetable varieties planted for this family name. Couple that with the power of wind and insects to carry pollen long distances... and well, you can see how difficult it would be to practice this method effectively.
- Isolation (Time). If your growing season is long enough, you can stagger planting of your crops, so that similar plants aren't blooming at the same time. This can be a little challenging also, as some plants continue to bloom and produce fruit or vegetables throughout the growing season.
- Isolation (Bagging). This is particularly effective with self-pollinating and insect-pollinating varieties. Have an ample supply of little bags made from lightweight cloth (or you can purchase bags made from spun polyester - called Reemay - just for this purpose.) You'll also need some cotton balls, twist ties, and strips of bright colorful yarn.
The general idea is this: For a certain number of your blooms on the crop you wish to protect, when the blooms first appear, place a bag over the bloom. Use the cotton ball around the base of the bag to protect the tender stem from the twist tie (to secure it) and from allowing determined pollinating bugs from getting inside. Tie a strip of the yard on the stem, so that you'll later know which fruits or vegetables are for harvesting seed.
For self-pollinating plants, you just leave the bags on until the bloom pollinates itself. When you see the fruit start to form, you can take the bag off. But leave the yarn, and remember to save these fruits or vegetables for seed!
For insect-pollinating plants, you'll need to temporarily take the bags off a few of the blooms of any one variety. Then, with a clean, dry small artist's paintbrush, gently touch the parts of the inside of the bloom. Then, do the same with the other blooms, and repeat the cycle, touching each bloom several times before replacing the bags. Repeat this every few days until the fruit or vegetable starts to form. Then you can remove the bag. Leave the yarn though, so you know which fruit or vegetable to save for harvesting seed!
Note: For optimal plant health, pollinate from different plants, rather than from the same blooms on one plant.
Note: the advice and information contained herein is based upon our experience and study. As with any advice, please apply at your own discretion.