How to save seeds

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Papaya seeds
The biggest trick to saving fruit seeds like papaya from one year to the next is making sure they are completely dry
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Find out how to effectively save seeds.

Many gardeners plant established plants from a nursery each year but then one day step their hobby up a notch. They move to the next step of experience: growing plants from seed.

Fewer gardeners continue to forge ahead to the next step: saving seeds from one year's garden to produce seedlings for the next year's crop. Saving seeds extends the gardener's year, if not the garden itself. This easy practice enables even beginning gardeners to repeat successful growing experiences. Saving seeds makes spring come earlier, at least in one's imagination. 


The Steps To Saving Seeds


If you have grown the most amazing tomatoes in the whole wide world, cucumbers worth their weight in gold or marvelous blooms from a neighbor's cutting, you are ready to learn how to save seeds. All you need is a bit of kitchen space, paper towels or other absorbent material, paper plates or a cookie sheet, a colander or strainer, small paper envelopes or plastic bags and a permanent-ink marker. The most important part of seed saving involves waiting. Before you store seeds for the following year, they must be completely dry.


Learn About Your Plants


Before you gather enough supplies to package up your entire garden, you need to find out the origins of your plants. Garden catalogs, magazines, local nurseries and experienced gardeners are all good sources to tell you whether the plants whose seeds you want to save are open-pollinated or hybrid.


Open-pollinated plants are grown from a single variety of plant species. They are internally programmed to grow true to type. That means that the seeds of the Brandywine tomato you loved will grow into more Brandywine tomato plants. 


Hybrid plants, on the other hand, are produced by cross breeding more than one variety of the same species. The parents of the plant you loved were hybridized to produce the best qualities of each plant: strong stems, heavy fruiting, disease resistant and other desirable qualities. Producing the best of the best is very exacting work and may require cross breeding of several generations of related plants.

Seeds from hybrids do not grow true to type. The old joke about the baby inheriting Dad's looks and Mom's brains instead of the other way around applies to hybrid plants. Your new plants may show the glorious yellow color you wanted, but they may also have tiny flowers rather than the large ones you so enjoyed last summer. If the flowers are as large as before, they may be another color. Hardy hybrid plants form the basis for much nursery stock for a good reason: they reflect lots of hard work and patience. 


Learning How Plants Mature


Seed saving involves understanding when and how plants mature. A garden not a grocery store will show you how many vegetables we describe as ripe when in fact they are harvested before they have reached true maturity.


What we call bolting is merely full growth. Stems lengthen and flowers bloom on the spinach, lettuce and onions that we fail to harvest in an immature state. Broccoli moves quickly from a meal-time staple to a bouquet of glorious yellow flowers. Beans, squash and cucumbers need to stay on their vines long beyond edibility. Carrots fulfill their destiny with blooms resembling those of their cousins, Queen Anne's Lace. Birds visit the flowerbeds long after the blooms have lost their beauty; seeds for next year grow ripe only when their host plants become truly seedy.


Be Patient


Some seeds require a cycle of two years before they can be harvested. A few host plants need to remain in the garden through the winter to produce viable seeds for replanting. Even seeds that can be harvested after a single-year's growth may need a semblance of winter to ready them for the next-year's growth. This is true more for seeds of perennial plants than for annuals, which can usually be stored in any cool dry place. If your seeds require some form of winter, your best ally is your refrigerator.


Garden Catalogs


You may need a bit more advice when you are actually ready to process your seeds. For example, savers sometimes suggest a fermentation process to make sure diseases in plants like tomatoes are not carried from the old plants to the new seeds.

Garden catalogs that promote preservation of old-fashioned or heirloom seed varieties often offer advice on saving seeds; gardening magazines may offer a swap-meet column or other network that connects seed savers with one another. Experienced seed savers are as generous with advice as they are with their seeds. With a little experience you may become the go-to seed saver for certain varieties of plants.


Learning how to save seeds will spark a lot of questions when you begin. But the learning experience is filled with fun. Saving seeds is economical and is often the very best means of keeping long-beloved varieties of plants still growing. And when spring returns, you will feel a new and intense bond with your garden.

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