As concerns about genetically modified organisms continue to rise, the hobby grower may not want to rely on genetically engineered seeds. The solution is deceptively simple, and, like all simple things, can be difficult to implement effectively: collect and save your own seeds.

Before starting your own seed bank, however, know that for all of the benefits, there are some drawbacks to seed saving. For better or worse, seeds are modified to achieve a variety of desirable traits, such as improved disease and pest resistance and increased cold tolerance. Other traits bred into these seeds include uniformity of size and color. When you begin to save seeds, make sure that the varieties of plants that you cull your seed from are native or hardy for your area.

Hybrid seeds should not be confused with GMO seeds—hybrid plants are cultivated by crossing two or more species with desirable traits, while GMO seeds have been altered at the molecular level to achieve a trait that would not be achievable through hybridization.

Seeds from hybrid plants should not be saved, as they will not yield traits that were displayed by the plant they originated from. The seed from hybrid plants may develop into either of its parent plants, or some combination of the two. There is nothing unsafe about hybrid seeds per se, but you probably won't obtain the results you are seeking.

Many heirloom varieties of plants fell out of favor with commercial seed suppliers because they are only suited for specific climates. Use this to your advantage and find varieties traditionally grown in your area. These will be cold hardy or conversely heat tolerant to your climatic zone.

Benefits of Seed Saving

  • Preserves historic and heirloom varieties of plants that may be facing extinction
  • Contributes to the biodiversity of flora and fauna in your area
  • Produces fruits and vegetables of unmatched flavor and freshness
  • Practice is cheap or even free, as you are taking seeds from plants or fruits that you already haveCan
  • be done year after year

Drawbacks of Seed Saving

  • Can lose saved seed to fungus and disease if not properly handled and stored
  • Fruit may not yield true to type if seeds are saved from hybrid or GMO plants
  • Plants from saved seeds may not have disease, pest or cold tolerance if they were culled from GMO or hybridized seed
  • May be illegal if patented seed is saved (only save seeds from heirloom, heritage or non-patented plants)

Selecting Suitable Plants Pollination considerations

To know when to collect a desired plant’s seeds, it is important to understand how the plant is pollinated and when it develops its seed. When growing indoors, it is especially helpful to know if a plant is self-pollinated or requires some help, since natural pollinators such as birds, insects and wind are not present.

Plants such as beans, peas and tomatoes are self-pollinated. Seeds from these plants can be collected when they set their fruit, which is the seed-bearing vessel. Other types of plants, including root vegetables like beets and carrots and leafy vegetables such as spinach and Swiss chard are open-pollinated, meaning the plants are pollinated by birds, insects, wind or other natural mechanisms. These plants set seed after they flower. Some should be left in the soil and allowed to flower to collect seeds.

The indoor grower can play the role of the hummingbird or honeybee with a small paint brush or an electric toothbrush. When open-pollinated plants are in flower and producing their pollen, gently swab the flowers and do the same from flower to flower.

How to tell if a plant is an heirloom variety

If a plant is not readily identifiable as an heirloom, it may take a bit of research to establish its origins. All heirloom plants have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • The plant's seed has been collected over several generations
  • It is native to your region
  • The plant is open-pollinated (some exceptions to this include the legumes and tomatoes mentioned above)

The most widely accepted date serving as the cutoff for whether a plant is considered an heirloom or not is 1951. Many seeds introduced on the market since then are hybrid or genetically modified seeds. Establishing the origin of a plant species is much like establishing the provenance for artwork. It may take some digging (pun intended) for the answers.

If the plant was germinated from a commercial packet of seeds, check the label. If it says F1, F1 Hybrid, F2 or any related term, it is not heirloom seed. F1 means the seed is from the first filial generation of a cross of plant breeds, F2 is from the second generation, and so on.

If you are not sure about the origin of a species, there are several reputable, non-profit organizations that have made it their mission to help retain these heritage and heirloom varieties and maintain vast, publicly accessible records on their websites. Do an online search for heirloom seeds and you will get millions of possible results.

Saving and Storing Seed

When you have decided which varieties of plants that you wish to save seeds from, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, do not be too hasty. It is better to collect seed from ripe or even over-ripe fruit than from younger fruit.

The seeds in younger fruit are not fully developed and may not be viable yet. The same is true for plants that set their seeds in their flowers, though it is harder to collect young seeds from these plants, as they will not come off easily until they are ready to.

Only save seeds from healthy plants. A diseased plant may not produce seeds with acceptable vigor or germination rates. Seeds should be collected from many plants of the same variety if possible to ensure robust and productive seeds.

The process of seed collecting and curing varies depending upon whether wet or dry seeds are collected. Wet seeds are those collected from the center of fruits such as tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins. Dry seeds are those collected from seed pods such as peas or those collected from flowers such as onions and radishes.

Wet seed collecting

  1. Scoop out seeds from the desired fruit. Place them in a plastic bag or humid environment to favor fermentation. A fuzzy mold will appear on the seeds within three to five days. This is normal and should be expected.
  2. After the seed has fermented, clean off the mold and wash the seeds.
  3. Place the cleaned seeds in a bowl or sink filled with water. Discard any seeds that float; the desirable seeds are the ones that have sunk to the bottom. These seeds have more nutrients in their storehouse and are more likely to produce healthy, vigorous plants.
  4. Collect the seeds and rinse them off in a strainer.
  5. Allow the seeds to completely dry before attempting to store them. Adequate air circulation is a necessity. Both sides of the seed need to be devoid of any moisture. A fan can be used to speed up the process.

Dry seed collecting

Dry seeds can be left on the plant until ready to be collected. For podded seeds, open the pod and collect them into a container. For seeds that develop from flowers, shake off loose seeds into a container. For seeds that are not ready to come off the plant, follow these steps:

  1. Tie a bag around the flower head to collect seeds as they fall off of the flower.
  2. Thresh the seed after collecting it. This is the process of separating the seed from the protective sheath known as the chaff. This can be done while the seeds are still in the bag. Place the bag of seed on a cutting board or flat surface and gently crush the seeds or run a rolling pin over the bag.
  3. Winnow the seed after threshing. This is the process of cleaning off the chaff after threshing. Empty the bag of seed and chaff, and collect the seed only for storage. Discard or compost the rest.

Seed Storage

After your seeds have been thoroughly dried, it is time to store them until next season. For indoor growers, the seed need not be stored, but can be sown and the process can begin anew.

All seeds should be stored in a dry atmosphere. A good rule of thumb is that the sum of the temperature and the percentage of humidity should not exceed 100°F. For example, a cellar with a temperature of 60°F and a humidity level of 40% is acceptable. Lower temperatures and a lower humidity will keep the stored seed viable for longer.

Seeds should be separated by variety and stored in envelopes. Label each package with the date of storage and variety of plant the seed was collected from. Many seeds look similar and it can be difficult to separate them by sight alone. Store these envelopes in an airtight container.

Suitable storage areas include the refrigerator, cellars, drawers and even freezers. If there is any risk of insect or pest eggs being collected with the seed, a dusting of an organic material known as diatomaceous earth can be safely applied to the seeds prior to storage. Diatomaceous earth is a rock dust that consists of pulverized fossils.

This material acts as an insecticide by wicking away the moisture from insects, causing their death by dehydration. There are no synthetic chemicals in diatomaceous earth and it is fully compatible with organic food production.

Seed viability and germination rates decline over time and even when properly stored, germination starts to decrease after one to two years, so seeds should be planted as soon as the ground can be worked, or when appropriate growing media is prepared.

Summing it all up

Seed saving can be a fun and educational endeavor. It is a good tool to teach about heritable traits as well as inherited traits of plants. The practice can be a way to save money every year and help take control of the food you and your family eat. It is also a great way to avoid genetically modified, commercial seeds that may or may not be safe for consumption.