Seed Saving

October 17, 2014

Author: Ian Whittington

Category: General News Stories from the Garden

As we get deeper into fall my plot keeps changing.

My turnips and carrots are doing well. In fact, I’ve already started to see turnip tops popping up. Could it really almost be time to harvest them?

Close up of my turnips tops popping up.

Close up of my turnips tops popping up.

My sweet potato greens are finally starting to turn yellow, meaning I’m getting close to digging up what I hope are tons of sweet potatoes.

My sweet potato greens changing color means its almost time to harvest.

My sweet potato greens changing color.

My okra plant just isn’t producing anymore so I decided to pull it. This opened up a space next to my spinach and lettuce, and keeping with the theme of greens I decided to seed mizuna, a Japanese green similar to arugula.

Speaking of lettuce, my Tom Thumbs are doing pretty well. Since almost two rows of lettuce didn’t sprout (Although I did notice a few red lettuce sprouts for the first time) I decided to try transplanting some of the crowded Tom Thumbs rather than thinning. I don’t know if this will work, but I’m hopeful.

Tom Thumb lettuce. Some were transplanted (bottom right) to reduce overcrowding.

Tom Thumb lettuce. Some were transplanted (bottom right) to reduce overcrowding.

I do have one more new addition. No, I didn’t plant another green. I planted pansies.

During my last day with Love & Carrots I noticed that they, along with other landscapers I saw throughout the day, were going pansy crazy. Apparently it’s the time of year to plant them. I’m a little skeptical that they’ll last for long, but hey, the whole city can’t be wrong. Right?

Newly planted pansies.

Newly planted pansies.

With the season winding down I’m starting to think about next year. I’m pretty revved up to continue gardening. The question before me though is where? I’d really like to continue at the NFI garden, but realistically the logistics aren’t great. Living in Arlington makes it a trek, so I’m coming to the realization that I might just have to make use of the space I have at home. Honestly I do have space, I’m just not sure yet how I’m going to use it.

If I don’t end up gardening at NFI next year I’d love to still take some seeds with me from the experience. Actually, that almost happened. Since I didn’t harvest my bean plants often enough many pods dried out, providing me with seeds to use for the next year.

Dried bean pods read to harvest for seed.

Dried bean pods read to harvest for seed.

I will not, however, be putting them in the ground come spring. Why? Because I didn’t take into account one thing: moisture. I stored them in a plastic container completely sealed. Not all of them were completely dry, and the next time I took a peak mold had claimed them. Suffice it to say I was not pleased.

Wherever I garden next year seed saving will be something I factor into my planning. Planning ahead is necessary because the very nature of seed saving is counterintuitive to growing food.


Because ideally we harvest either before plants go to seed or we harvest the fruit that contains the seed. Going back to my bean example, if I had harvested often enough to glean all the bean pods that developed there wouldn’t have been any to mature and dry out. This year it was an accident that I briefly had viable seeds for next season. Next year it’ll take some foresight. Sacrificial foresight.

You may have already guessed it, but seed saving will require me to give up some of my potential harvest. This is because:

  • Plants that go to seed get the signal that they’ve completed their job and stop producing fruit.
  • Greens that go to seed become too bitter to eat.


Tatsoi from the NFI garden. Now that it's flowered it wouldn't be pleasant to eat.

Tatsoi from the NFI garden. Now that it’s flowered it wouldn’t be pleasant to eat.

Now if I plan it well I should be able to harvest for food before I let plants go to seed. Still, there will be some sacrifice even if it’s small. Instead of having eight spinach plants for all of spring I may have to make due with only seven for the latter half of the season. Again, it all goes back to planning ahead. When Joe thinks about his garden layout, he likes to keep his plants meant for food and plants meant for seed saving separate to make things easier.

The fact that I’ll have to let some plants complete their life cycles earlier than the others begs the question: Why bother seed saving at all? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to my local garden center and buy a packet of seeds? After all, professionals choose them, and this way I wouldn’t have to lose some plants early.

Since I’m starting from scratch next year I will definitely have to buy seeds. But after that using my own seed will be the way to go because:

  • Since you choose seeds from the plants that were the most successful in your garden over the years you get a lineage that is best suited to grow there.
  • It helps with biodiversity.
  • When working with heirlooms you’re helping to preserve history.


Okra seeds from an NFI plant.

Okra seeds from an NFI plant.

I’m all about local food and sustainability, and there’s nothing more local and sustainable than using seed from your own garden’s previous generation. But as exciting as this may be, not everything is a good candidate for seed saving.

Ones that you need to be cautious when seed saving include:

  • Carrots
  • Nightshades
  • Cucurbits


Really you need to be wary of anything that cross-pollinates because they can mix traits you weren’t planning to have together. While you could end up with a tasty and alluring hybrid, you could also wind up with a dud. A cross between a cucumber and pumpkin sounds interesting, but is it? Planting plants that can cross-pollinate far apart from each other can mitigate this possibility. Some can make due with a few feet while some need at least half a mile. But this is risky, so for cases like these Joe prefers buying new seeds.

Once you get to the point where you’re ready to let some plants go to seed, you’ll obviously need to harvest them. How you do this will vary depending on the plant in question. For legumes you’ll want to let pods form completely, dry out, and then break the pod open. Something like fennel will form flowers and dry out, leaving seeds in their place that can be shaken off. For some tips on how and when to harvest seeds check out the chart HERE.

Fennel seeds ready to be shaken off.

Fennel seeds ready to be shaken off.

As I learned from my bean fiasco, harvesting seeds means nothing if you don’t store them right. To keep seeds viable you’ll want to:

  • Make sure to remove all other organic material and make sure the seeds are dry or you will get mold that can ruin the seeds. This happened to me.
  • Store the seeds in a dark, cool, dry place until they are ready to be used.
  • Make sure to label them because you will likely not be able to tell them apart from other similar seeds.


Of course it doesn’t all end with storing your seeds away. At some point you’ll want to plant them. Depending on the seeds you’re working with there are things you can do to help them germinate better. This includes:

  • Scarification – Cutting slightly into seeds, especially thick ones, right before planting. Not recommended by Joe.
  • Seed soaking – Soak seeds in water overnight. My manager at Love & Carrots especially recommended this for spinach.
  • Stratification – Letting seeds go through a period of cold. This applies to perennials, as they are hardwired to go through a winter before making seed.
  • Sowing more seeds the older they are as the germination rate decreases with time.
  • Sowing twice as many seeds than you would’ve with store bought ones as those are tested for viability before being distributed.


If it seems like there’s a lot to consider with seed saving, that’s because there is. Some plants are easier than others, but with time and practice you’ll be able to handle seed saving tomatoes, a process that involves fermentation. If you don’t want to deal with all the hassle you can just go to the store. Those seeds would work, but if you’re already working hard to know where your food comes from, why not go the extra mile and know the full story?

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