Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: How do I best save plant seeds?

Seed packets line the walls in the warehouse at Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom, Pennsylvania.
Seed packets line the walls in the warehouse at Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom, Pennsylvania. MCT

Question: I am continually amazed at the price of seeds. They seem to be rising daily. So I guess it’s time to think about saving my own seed. Any info would help.

Answer: It is somewhat dismaying to watch the ever-rising cost of seeds. I know that it costs a lot to keep up research and production costs for seed companies. Given that the trend in cost is moving ever more quickly, it’s clever of you to expand your choices by producing your own.

Before you choose the plants you want to save seed from, be aware that hybrid plants often do not breed true from seed. So seeds from a hybrid tomato plant won’t necessarily produce the same kind of tomato it was saved from. So save seed only from nonhybrid plants.

Starting out, accept that saving seed is extra work and that it will take some planning. Start the process in the fall by going over a crop and picking out a few of the best plants. Mark them so you don’t inadvertently harvest them to eat. Allow those plants to go to seed. Allow the seeds to ripen. Birds often like to eat the same seeds you’re trying to save, so if that’s a problem, tie the seed heads within a piece of light fabric.

Always pick the best overall plants as your seeders. With plants whose leaves you eat — spinach, lettuce — select plants that take a long time to go to seed. Root crops that go to seed first should be selected, as you’ll get the earliest crops from those seeds.

The easier seeds to collect include beets, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, peas, potatoes, radishes, tomatoes and turnips.

To ensure success in storing the seed that you collect, you’ll need to store it in the best place. And that best place is within a large tightly lidded jar or other airtight container that has within it a large pack of desiccant. It can be bought inexpensively in craft stores, as it’s used to make dried flower arrangements. You can recharge the pack of desiccant once a year by putting it into a 250-degree oven for a few hours.

To keep the seeds cool, another necessity, store the jar under the house or in a cellar, or keep it in a refrigerator. If none of this is available to you, store the jar in a cool closet along a north wall. Seeds degrade quickly in heat, so do your best to find a good, cool spot.

To save cucumber, squash or tomato seeds, choose your best specimen, let them ripen to almost mushy, then scoop out the stringy inside. Remove the seeds, wash, and let them sit in shallow dishes of water to ferment for two days. Wash them again, pat dry with a towel, then dry further by layering them between sheets of newspapers. Before storing them, be sure they are absolutely dry.

To save seed potatoes, pick your plumpest, best shaped, scab-free ones. Store whole, buried in dry sand.

If you end up with more seeds than you’ll need, keep your eyes open for an annual seed exchange that occurs in Bellingham. It’s a great way to meet other gardeners, and learn new tricks, as well as complete your spring seed needs.

Q: I’ve heard that Neem is a good thing to add to my controlling pests arsenal. Can you tell me more about it?

A: Humans have used all parts of the mammoth Neem tree for hundreds of years. It’s only recently that it’s begun to be used widely in the U.S.

Though it is a pesticide, and even though it’s derived from a plant, care must be taken to follow the application directions carefully. Many gardeners are finding that it has fewer harmful side effects than other products. It has also been reported to prevent diseases such as mildew, fungus and rust. Still, be alert to never introduce it into ponds, lakes and streams. Also, it may harm bees, so don’t spray it onto blossoms that you know bees feed on.

Spray on plant leaves, as Neem repels many insects from landing. By upsetting the regulatory mechanisms of insects, the insect is doomed to die within days. Insects that Neem controls are many, including aphids, beetles, mealybugs, spider mites, whiteflies and termites. It does not affect adult forms of such beneficial insects as ladybugs, lacewings and predatory beetles. They eat pollen and nectar, not leaves.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com. For more gardening information online, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html.

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