You’re in luck if you have a shed with a tin roof on it; when you hear the plunk, plunk of acorns, you know cooler weather is on the way. In many parts of the country, that means a killing frost isn’t far behind. While the squirrels scramble to stash the nuts, the rest of us need to bring in any flowers and vegetables we want to save.
Autumn is a great time to save seeds from your garden, but don’t bother with the seeds of hybrid plants. Most hybrid seeds are sterile, or they won’t grow true-to-type, which simply means they won’t produce plants that look like the one you started with.
Heirloom seeds are another story.
Heirlooms are plants that have been around for fifty years or more, and they’re open pollinated—that is, their seeds produce baby plants that look like the parent. Most have adapted over time to whatever climate and soil they’ve been grown in, so they’re unusually resistant to pests and diseases.
(Hybrids are great, too; where would we be without tomatoes bred to resist diseases? Diversity is good for the garden, just as it is elsewhere in life.)
Besides being easy to grow, many heirloom flowers have rich perfumes. Heirloom fruits and vegetables usually taste better than hybrids created to store on supermarket shelves. Even their names evoke their wonderful traits: ‘Fragrant Delight’ heliotropes, ‘Ice Cream’ watermelons, and ‘Golden Sweet’ snow peas.
The end of the growing season is prime-time for collecting heirloom seeds. For flowers, allow some of your healthiest and most beautiful blooms dry on the stalks. They’re the ones whose genetics you want to preserve.
Watch for seed pods, heads, or capsules to form, and harvest the seeds when they mature.
For fruits and vegetables, scoop out the seeds of ripe melons, eggplants, squash, and peppers, and rinse them off. Pick bean and pea pods when you can shake them and hear the seeds rattle.
To save tomato seeds, cut ripe tomatoes in half, and squeeze them over a clean glass jar filled with water. Stir gently.
Let the pulpy mixture ferment for a few days, then add more water and stir again. The good seeds will sink while the undesirable ones float. Carefully pour off the water and rinse until only good seeds remain.
Not all plants are good candidates for seed-saving. Biennials won’t form seeds until their second year in the garden. It’s also better to buy tiny, hard-to-handle seeds, or those that have tough pods that are difficult to open.
Allow your seeds to dry thoroughly before labeling and storing them in a cool, dry, dark place. Many will stay viable for years.
And consider leaving some seeds on your plants for hungry animals and birds. You may see goldfinches plucking the dried seeds of coneflowers, or a turtle munching an overripe muskmelon. One melon isn’t a bad trade for the fun of watching wildlife on some quiet afternoon.
Seeds are tiny genetic packets of good taste or great beauty, just waiting to sprout and grow—one more thing to be grateful for in the season of thanksgiving.
Lynn Coulter is the author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits, & Vegetables for a New Generation (UNC Press).
Sunflower image: Shutterstock/SusaZoom
Poppy seeds image: Shutterstock/Andris Tkacenko
Seed image: Shutterstock/amenic181
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