tomato plants (copy)

Young tomato plants can be grown from seed collected at the end of the harvest.

Do you love the green beans you grew this year? Tomatoes? Zinnias? Squash? Well, maybe you can collect seeds so that you can grow them again next year.

I say "maybe" because one of the most important factors in collecting seeds is whether your plant is a hybrid (a cross between two varieties) or an heirloom/open-pollinated variety.

Hybrids are developed to introduce beneficial characteristics (such as disease-resistance or an unusual color) or eliminate unwanted characteristics (such as a tough string in a string bean). Hybrids have their place in gardening, but they aren’t conducive to collecting seeds for the purpose of growing the same variety again next year. Invariably, seeds collected from a hybrid variety will revert to producing one of the parents used to create the hybrid.

Open-pollinated varieties are those that either self-pollinate or, when pollinated by a member of the same variety, will “grow true” (roughly identical) to their parents. Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down through families and friends for generations.

I grow tomatoes every summer. For most, I collect the seed to use to start plants next spring. I do buy a hybrid variety of cherry tomato, so I do not collect the seeds from it -- I just head down to Christiansburg and pick up two plants at Walmart. But I also grow an open-pollinated cherry tomato called Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato. After buying the first seeds three years ago, I’ve never had to buy any more. I just collect the seed from a couple of healthy tomatoes.

When collecting seed, it’s always a good practice to collect from multiple samples -- in this case, from a couple of tomatoes from a couple of Matt’s Cherry plants. The operative word is "a couple" – think genetic diversity and mimicking randomness. So if you’ve planted three Matt’s plants, take two or three tomatoes from each of the plants to collect seed.

Now, let’s get down to specifics. Collecting seeds from some open-pollinated/heirloom plants is super-easy; from others, more effort is involved. It’s a snap to collect the seeds from peas and beans. Think about all the times you’ve picked peas or beans, then come back a few days later to find you missed one. But now it’s so big and tough that it doesn’t look appetizing to eat. That’s OK – just leave it on the vine to dry. Once you hear seeds rattling around when you shake the pod, you can take it off the vine, peel off the pod, and lay the beans or peas on a tray to finish drying. It’s that’s easy.

Zinnia seeds are also quite easy to collect. Simply allow some flowers to turn brown and dry on the plants, then remove the flower head. If you carefully pull the dry petals from the flower, you will see an arrowhead-shaped green seed at the end of each petal. Break off the dry petal and save the seed.

A little more effort is involved in collecting squash, melon and tomato seeds. Scoop the seeds out of the fruit. If there’s gel on or around the seed, that’s OK. Just put the seeds in a small, labelled container with a little warm water and leave it on a windowsill for a few days to a week. It should start to ferment and mold should start forming. The good seeds will sink to the bottom while the bad ones will float. Scoop off the bad seeds and mold, and rinse the gel and mold off the good seeds using a fine-mesh strainer. Once you have thoroughly rinsed the seeds, lay them out on a piece of waxed paper or on a paper plate that has a shiny finish. (A waxed or shiny finish will prevent the seeds from sticking to it when they have dried.) To be certain that the seeds will be viable, be sure they are completely dry (allow one to two weeks to be safe) before storing for the winter in a seed packet or container. Some people store their seeds in the refrigerator or use desiccant packets to ensure the seeds remain dry.

All plants will produce seeds, but some are a bit trickier to get to. Carrots, lettuce, onions and other vegetables would have to be allowed to "bolt" (flower) or "go to seed" to collect for next year's crop. I have not expended the extra effort to collect seed from plants that have to bolt, but I’m a bit addicted to collecting the easier seeds. I guess I just like feeling that I’m involved in the entire process of growing, from seeds to harvest to more seeds. And now that you know how easy it is, maybe you’ll give it a try too!

Submitted by Susan Perry

Submitted by Susan Perry

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