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15 December 2008

Saving vegetable seeds - how to

Technically, some common vegetables like tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, are fruit. For this post, I'm referring to everything as "vegetable".

After you grow your vegetables and before you save the seeds, you need to know how they're pollinated and if the vegetable is annual, biennial or perennial. Annuals will produce viable seed in the first year, biennials take two years to mature and produce seed, and perennials, produce viable seed in the second year and from then on until the plant dies.

When I write about drying seeds, I don't mean you wait until the outside of the seed is dry. The seed - inside and out - needs to be dry and this will require leaving most seeds on a china or glass plate for a number of days or weeks to dry out completely. Drying seeds on paper towel or newspaper is not the best way to go as the seed will stick to the paper.

You need to monitor your vegetables as the grow to see when they need picking. In the photo above there are two lazy housewife beans. The smaller one is the size I pick them for eating, the larger one I let stay on the vine until it was bigger and I could see the beans developing in the pod. Then I pick it for drying (for the pantry) and for seed.

This is a very good site that lists whether vegetables are annual, biennial or perennial and also how they are all pollinated. Grandpappy also gives excellent instructions for saving seeds, so instead of reinventing the wheel please refer to his site to get instructions for each vegetable. I will write about general principles of seed saving and some differences between warm and cold weather vegetables.

Always pick the best vegetables when you collect seeds and if you have two or three of the same vegetables you can collect from, do that because you provide a stronger gene pool for the plants you grow.

This is a yellow zucchini and a good example of male and female flowers. The male flowers are those on the long stalks and they stand up tall to attract bees. The female flowers develop lower down on the plant and are bigger with a distinct ovary inside the flower. You can see here the female flowers are still attached to the end of the developing zucchinis.

I categorise vegetables, for the purpose of seed saving, into three groups:

WET - tomatoes, cucumbers, luffas. These vegetables have thick flesh around the seed that needs to be removed, and in the case of tomatoes and cucumbers, fermented. Fermentation will happen when you add the seeds to a jar of water and leave it for a few days. Luffas don't have to be fermented but you leave the luffa on the vine until it's brown, then crack it open and pour out the seeds. If you're in a cooler climate, you can pick the luffas green and store them in a dry place until they turn brown and crackly. Melons are another wet seed but you can save these when you're eating the melon. Watermelon seeds just need to be dried. Save rockmelon (cantaloupe) and honeydew melon seeds and put them in a sieve to clean under running water until all the fresh is removed. Then dry them.

DRY - these are the easy seeds to harvest. Let pumpkin and squash mature for a few days after you pick them. Then cut open, scoop out the seeds and dry them. To harvest corn seeds, pick all the corn you will eat, leaving behind the best cobs. Let them sit on the plant for another month and when they look dry, harvest them, peel back the husks and let them dry out more. Tie the cobs together by the husks, and hang them up to finish drying, then pick the kernels off or rub two corn cobs together and they will fall off.

LEGUMES: Beans and peas have pods that are just broken open and the seeds are there waiting. They need to be dried before storing.

These are lazy housewife beans drying on our verandah. These are a great bean as they can be eaten as a green bean or you can dry them out and add them to your pantry.

Sometimes you don't have to sacrifice the vegetable to save the seeds. For instance, pumpkins and squash can be cut open, scoop out the seeds and you can still eat the vegetable. These are dry seeds so when you scoop them out, they just need to be dried before storing.

These are pigeon peas, a great permaculture plant, still in their green stage.

When they're like this, I pick them to use like lentils. These peas make an excellent pea soup and they can be stored in the pantry for months. Pigeon peas may also be fed to chooks when they're still green, and the foliage is an excellent fodder or mulch.

In the middle of our tomato season I generally pick two excellent tomatoes to save seeds from. These are processed in the usual way of scooping out the seeds and adding them to a jar of water to ferment. If, the following day, I cut open another tomato to eat and find it's a really good one, I'll save a few seeds from that one too and just squeeze the seeds from a wedge of that tomato into the fermenting jar.

Tomato seeds must be fermented and dried before storing.

If the vegetables you want seed from are easily cross pollinated you need to plant those vegetables away from their cross pollinators. For instance, chillis and capsicums (peppers) may cross pollinate, so even though they're different varieties of the same vegetable, you need to be mindful of the pollination factor and grow the plants you want to sow seeds from at least 15 metres (50') apart.

While your vegetables are growing, check if they are pollinated by bees, many vegetables are. You have to make sure there are bees in your backyard to pollinate so early one morning, go out to your garden and look for bees. If there are none, you'll have to hand pollinate. If you are serious about your vegetable growing, it's a good idea to grow a small number of flowers in with your vegetables to attract the pollinators like bees and other insects. These flowers can be things like nasturtiums, which are edible, little daisies that bees love, herbs - tansy, oregano, thyme and borage, or marigolds, cosmos and sunflowers.

Luffas should dry out on the vine. If you can't do that, pick them green and dry them in the shade until all the flesh has dried up and the skin will crack open.

Generally, in the case of flower forming vegetables like carrots and lettuce, you only need to put one plant aside to harvest seeds from, but it must be the best plant. You are looking to select the best plant so that you pass those trait onto what you grow in the seeds you save. Look for vegetables that are not diseased in any way, are strong growing, and display the qualities you want in that vegetable, such as early maturing, as well as size and abundance of the crop. If there is only one perfect fruit on the vine, that is not the one to select. Go instead for a vine or plant that has a good yield of many good vegetables, is a good size and is strong.

Lettuce, carrots, celery, parsley - all form flower heads. You have to wait for the flowers to turn to seed but if you can't do that for reasons of weather, wait until the flower head is almost ready to seed, then cut the whole flower off and store it in a paper bag in the house. After a couple of weeks you hear the seeds rattling around in the bag when you shake it. All you have to do then is clean the dried old bits of flower away from the seeds and store them.

The biggest threat to your seed treasure is mould. The seeds must be dried completely before storing, and then stored in dry conditions. The fridge is ideal for most seeds. Pack them in their own little packet with name and date of collection on it, place that, along with all the other packets or little jars, into a larger plastic box and keep it in the fridge until needed. If you live in very humid conditions and this way of storing doesn't work for you, add a little diatomaceous earth to the seeds, shake off most of it, and store the seeds. If you want to be an organic grower, don't use seed fungicides.

I know some of this is confusing if you're new to gardening but it's a very simple process and once you've done it once, you'll realise just how easy it is. This post is a bit disjointed but I just wrote it as it came to mind and now I don't have the time to tidy it up more. I hope you can make sense of it. I'll try to get back later and change a couple of things so it is more coherent.

Annete McFarlane's vegetables stories


  1. Good morning Rhonda,

    This message is so good and really does make perfectly good sense. We bought our tomato plants from Bunnings so I wonder whether they would be good for saving the seed or perhaps we would do better to buy some heritage seed from a reputable seed saving nursery and start from there, next season. I think you might have started a new revolution with this topic. How do you feel about your blog friends swapping seeds or battering for good seeds? If this could be done, do you have any thoughts on whether plant diseases can survive in dried seeds? Is there any way around this? Thankyou again for the wonderful information you put forward on your blog. You certainly go the extra mile. Have a great day.

    Blessings Gail

  2. What a great how-to. I've always wanted to save seeds, but just end up buying them from a catalog each year.

    It makes so much sense to keep your own, particularly from successful plants! They're free, and they're virtually guaranteed to do well the next year.

    Thanks for the motivation!


  3. Hi Rhonda.

    I have been nervous about saving seeds but I am going to try to save seeds from most of my veggies this season.

    There are alot of things to think about, but I guess you just have to jump in the deep end and give it a go.


  4. Next year I am going to try seed saving for the first time in the meantime just thinking about it makes my head spin... I know I can do and that it isn't hard I just need to read up on the specific varities I'll be growing and then saving.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful post. I appreciate the how-to steps for storing seeds. I've saved seeds before, but mainly just large squash. I never knew how to save tomato seeds or dried beans. So thanks!

  6. I guess I'm like Emma - nervous for some silly reason though I never let that stop me with flower seeds. I did save some squash seeds this year. I'll aim for tomatoes next year. Thanks for the how to, Rhonda.

  7. The seed saving posts are very enlightening! I'm going to be starting my first garden in the spring, and have already started thinking about seed saving. I'm starting out by buying seeds, but from a local, organic seed company, so I can start with a good crop to seed save from. So thank you!

    I have one question though, and I'm hoping you'll be able to answer it. It sounds silly, but I really don't know- can you save seeds from more than a year ago and use those? How long can you save seeds? Do they stay dormant infinately, or is there some sort of cut off date that you know of?

  8. For some reason I, too, am scared. I have such a small piece of land and can't separate varieties of plants. I want to grow more than one variety of different veggies but still want to be able to harvest seed. It all just makes my head spin. Yet I really don't want to have to buy seeds every year. We are really wanting to push as close to self sufficiency as we can. I tend to be a nervous Nelly as it is. This year is the first year we are 100% committed to saving some seed. Thanks for the great post as always.

  9. Rhonda,
    Would you mind explaining a little more about fermenting the tomato seeds? Timeframes, purpose, how to tell that you can take them out of the water. I've always bought seeds, but would love to try this with next years garden. How long do seeds keep? I can do the research as well if there are too many questions :)

  10. As per usual - an amazingly helpful post and what a fantastic link. Thanks so much, again!

  11. Hi Rhonda,
    This is such a great post - so helpful for a new gardener like me. I saved my heritage beans last year, but I saved so many that I didn't need them all - do you know if I can store the leftover beans for use in cooking? Or will they last another year or two for sowing out next summer?
    I'm just loving your blog, Rhonda -can't wait for your book.
    I have 4 and a bit weeks to go now until the baby is due, so I'm trying to get all the garden and house all up to scratch.
    Rachel from NZ

  12. Thank you so much for this post Rhonda. I've got my veggie patch up and running with heirloom veggies, and really wanted to save seeds, but didn't have the know-how. Now I do! Perfect timing too as my carrots are finally flowering.

  13. Hi Rhonda! I think this was an excellent, informative post, and not disjointed at all. Thanks!

  14. This is very helpful - thank you. I like the way you separate the seeds into three groups - that will make it easier for me to remember the basic procedures. I plan to give this a try next summer.

    On another topic, I just want to tell you that I've purchased the basic ingredients for making my own laundry soap using your instructions. I'm getting ready to mix up my first batch.

  15. Good post, not disjointed at all. We're starting our backyard garden next year. Last summer we experimented with a sideyard. It's a lot to grasp for this suburban bookworm but I figure I'll read up on it (of course!) then put it into practice and learn as I go. It's comforting to hear about other 'Nervous Nellies' out there. PS I love the tone of your blog. You're like the Mary Poppins of sustainability.

  16. This is so good! will refer back to this when we save our seeds next summer as it is the thick of winter here now!
    Thank you as ever.

  17. Well thank you, thank you. Good information. Flowers are so important in the garden. I had a wonderful gathering of insects. On my blog side bar is a great site for live insects that are a gardeners delight.

  18. What a timely and informative post for me. Our garden is really taking off and I'm hoping to avoid buying a zillion seeds again next season/year. Those seed packets could sell me most anything. :)
    I shared a link to this on my blog this weekend ( Thanks again!

  19. I thought that when you collected tomato seeds, it couldn't be guaranteed to be like the "donor" - anyone know if this is true?


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