Saving seeds at the end of the growing season reduces reliance on commercial seed companies

By Kathy Hansen, WSU Extension Master Gardener, Stevens County

It’s always exciting in the late winter when seed catalogs start arriving in mailboxes. But remember that the cost of buying seeds can add up, and if you get into the sustainable habit of saving seeds, you can reduce your reliance on commercial seed companies. While it’s too late this year for some seed-saving practices (such as saving seed heads from plants you would normally deadhead), you can still save many of this season’s seeds, as well as pick up practices to employ next year.

Which plants can I save seeds from?
You can save seeds from most open-pollinated plants, including tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, squash, melons, sunflowers, and many flowers. Hybrid plants, on the other hand, should not be saved for seed, as they will not produce true-to-type offspring. Some especially easy-to-save seeds come from echinacea (also known as coneflower), zinnia, foxglove, delphinium, and rudbeckia, according to a publication from Thurston County Master Gardeners.

How to save seeds:
The specific steps for saving seeds vary depending on the type of plant. However, some general guidelines include the following:

Choose the right plants. Select plants that are healthy and vigorous, and that have produced good quality fruits, vegetables, or flowers.

Harvest mature, ripe seeds. It’s a good bet at this time of year that seeds are mature. When thinking about saving seeds next year, be aware that immature seeds will not germinate. Signs of maturity include a brown and dry appearance, flower heads that have dropped their petals, and seed pods that have formed. Be sure to harvest them in the time between maturity and when birds and other animals eat them, or the seeds drop off or fly away.

Clean and dry the seeds. A Spokane County Master Gardeners publication notes that some seeds may need to be cleaned, “especially if collected from fleshy fruit,” such as tomatoes. The publication recommends removing the pulp and laying the seeds out to dry for 5-7 days. Avoid direct sunlight on the drying seeds.

For next year, as you collect seeds through the season, be aware of pod bursters, such as lupine, California poppy, and pansies; seed spillers, such as petunias, Shasta daisy, and coreopsis; seed holders, such as delphinium, marigold, and columbines; and closed-pod heads, such as zinnias, sunflower, and penstemon. See fuller explanations about these categories in the link in the Resources section below.

How to store seeds
Once the seeds are dry, store them in a cool, dry, dark place. “Moisture, heat, and light are potential enemies causing seed to germinate, sprout, or rot,” the Spokane County Master Gardeners publication notes.
Airtight containers are ideal, as they will help to keep the seeds fresh and viable. Foil and wax paper are also options. Expect the seeds to remain viable for two to three years if stored correctly.

How to test seed viability
Before you plant any saved seeds next year, it is a good idea to test their viability to make sure that they will germinate. To do this, simply plant a small sample of seeds in a moist potting mix, as you would plant any seeds you were starting indoors. If the seeds are viable, they should germinate within a few days or weeks.
It seems another season of bringing you this gardening column has whizzed by! I’ll be back in March to begin a new season of articles. In the meantime, you can refer to my website for resources and more of my gardening columns at:

The WSU Extension Master Gardener Program trains volunteers to be effective community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship. Master Gardeners provide information generated from research at WSU and other university systems. Kathy Hansen is an educator, writer, instructional designer, and happy grandma.