Seed-Saving 101

Organic cantaloupe from Better Farm's garden, chock-full of seeds ready for saving.
Saving seeds has multiple benefits including continuing a plant's genetic line, increasing biodiversity, and keeping you out of the supermarket while saving you money! Here are a few simple ways to save your own seeds from your best-producing fruits and veggies.

An important note before we start: Most supermarkets carry hybrid fruits like cantaloupes (cucumis meo var. cantalupensis) and the seeds are often sterile. Open-pollinated seeds, however, have no problem reproducing. For this same reason, you want to be careful not to plant many different kinds of the same plant as they are likely to fertilize each other! In order to know which seeds are worth saving, consider the following information we gleaned from Mother Earth Living:
GM seeds, or genetically modified seeds, are seeds that have been created under artificial conditions to meet a specific list of criteria, usually resistance to a package of pesticides and herbicides sold with them. The home gardener is not likely to come across this type of seed because at the moment GM seed is mostly confined to large-scale commercial agriculture. GM seeds are also patented, which means you cannot legally reproduce it unless you pay the maker a royalty. Without belaboring the arguments pro or con about GM seeds, you should avoid buying any seeds that are patented. Most seed packets will state very clearly whether they contain patented material. 
Another type of patented seeds are the F1 hybrids, crosses between different plant species. You cannot save seeds from hybrids because they will not grow true to type. Hybrids are common in seed catalogs everywhere and must be listed as such. After World War II, a few seed companies got the lucrative idea that F1 hybrids were better than traditional seeds and thus began to market them based on perceived benefits, primarily that the cross would have some special trait, such as wilt resistance. More importantly (to the companies marketing them), because you cannot save seeds from F1 hybrids, you have to keep buying new seed. F1 hybrids eventually lose their special traits, and companies must create new ones every few years to adjust for this decline. The seedless watermelon is a good example. It is a patented food because the seeds have been bred out, which is not natural, and the cross is not stable. Indeed, it will produce no viable seed. 
A third type of seed—and the only one you can save—is old-fashioned open-pollinated seed. This means that nature did the pollinating: bees, wind, birds, dew or rain. These seeds are the most “natural,” with no intervention by humans, and can be further divided into heirlooms and nonheirlooms. Heirloom varieties have been around for several generations and have thus proven their worth; they are true hand-me-downs like the tasty and attractive ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon developed in the 1920s. Nonheirlooms are more recent open-pollinated plants, such as the ‘Green Zebra’ tomato developed in the 1980s, that are heading toward the heirloom category.
Garden seeds have three camps: annuals produce seeds and die at end of season; biennials (such as beets, carrots and cabbages) bloom and produce seed the following spring as long as you protect them during winter in a frost-free environment; and perennials (i.e. asparagus, horseradish, strawberries and rhubarb) return on their own. We're going to focus on annuals today: specifically, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

  • Leave at least one melon (watermelon, caneteloupe, etc.) on the vine until it reaches maturity, as fully ripe meolons will have fully developed seeds.
  • Cut the melon in half and scoop the seeds from the center with a spoon.
  • Rinse the seeds in warm water to separate the juice and pulp from the seeds. Rub the seeds in your hands to help separate the seeds and fruit.
  • Place the seeds in a clean pot or bowl, then cover the seeds with water; the good seeds will stay on the bottom of the pot, while bad seeds and fruit debris will float to the surface.
  • Pour out the water, debris and bad seeds from the top of the pan. Hold your hand over the pan to catch any good seeds that might slip out as you drain the water.
  • Move the seeds to a wire mesh strainer. Run cold water over the seeds, using a sink sprayer hose, to remove any remaining sugar. Turn the seeds frequently to spray all sides.
  • Place the seeds on a clean paper towel and blot with a second paper towel to absorb excess moisture or surface moisture from the seeds.
  • Spread the seeds out to dry on a flat surface, such as a plate or shallow baking pan.
  • Store the seeds in a cool, dry place, such as a basement or refrigerator until ready to plant the following year. Keep the seeds in an air-tight container lined with a paper towel to prevent moisture from getting to the seeds.
  • Choose your biggest, most lovely, tastiest tomato and save her seeds. Scoop out the seeds and their gelatinous "goo" into a container. 
  • Add a few tablespoons of water to the seeds and cover the container with a piece of plastic-wrap.
  • Poke holes in the plastic wrap to allow air to enter (this will help foster fermentation).
  • Put the container in a warm location such as a sunny windowsill or on top of your fridge for two to three days.
  • During this time, remove the plastic wrap each night and stir the mixture before replacing the lid. Fermentation will make the liquid look scummy as the seeds separate, while also killing potential tomato diseases. 
  • After two or three days, take off the lid and carefully scrape off the scummy surface with a spoon. Pour the remaining contents through a fine sieve and rince very well.
  • Spread seeds out on a coffee filter or waxed paper and leave the seeds for several days to dry. You will know they are dry when they do not stick to anything.
  • Store your seeds in paper packets or vacuum seal. Make sure your seeds are completely dry before storing to prevent them from harboring mildew and rot!
  • Harvest the fruits, then cut them in half lengthwise. 
  • Scoop out the seeds from the center of each half. 
  • Add about as much water to the bowl as the amount of seeds, and set aside in a warm, sheltered spot to ferment, much as you would if you were saving tomato seeds. Fermentation of cucumber seeds can occur in as little as one to three days; once most of the seeds have sunk to the bottom of the container, they are finished fermenting. 
  • Add more water to the bowl at this point to clean your seeds. Debris and bad seeds will float to the top, where you can discard them easily. The good seeds will be at the bottom. 
  • Rinse them a few more times
  • Strain them out and place them on paper towels or uncoated paper plates to dry. 
  • Once they are completely dry, label your seeds and store them in a cool, dry place.
  • Harvest the squash, cut in half lengthwise, and scoop out seeds.
  • Wash the seeds to remove any flesh and strings. 
  • Lay the seeds out in a single layer on a paper towel to dry. Store them this way in a place that is dry and out of direct sunlight. 
  • Once thoroughly dried, in 3 to 7 days, store them in an envelope in a cool dry place with the rest of your seed supply. Dried squash seeds will store up to 6 years if kept in cool, dry conditions.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.