This story was originally published in August 2020.
Saving seeds is a great way to save a little money on gardening supplies and preserve lines of crops for the next generation. If you are saving seeds for the first time, certain plants are easier to work with than others due to the variability in plant structure, seed size and other factors.
Now that the season is coming to a close, it is a perfect time to think about saving seeds. Herbs are starting to bolt, and juicy fruits filled with seeds are ripe for picking. If you are curious about saving seeds for the first time, here are a few easy plants to get you started.
Cilantro & dill
It is easy to collect seeds from cilantro and dill because their flowers have umbels, individual stalk-like structures in an umbrella formation that hold seeds up high off the plant. Plus, the seeds that you do not plan to save can be used as spices in the kitchen.
“[Cilantro] bolts [or] goes to flower, and that feeds pollinators as well as beneficial insects,” said Caleb Goossen, organic crop and conservation specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “Then it produces seed, which is just coriander. Dill is another one … let it go to seed and you have dill seed.”
To collect seeds from these herbs, let the flowers dry down on the plant. Goossen said you will see seeds begin to form where the flower used to be.
“There’s some leeway and room for experimentation, but you want to get them before the plant starts dropping them,” Goossen said. “Cilantro self-seeds quite happily; same thing with dill.”
To collect the seeds from dill and coriander, Goossen said to simply close your hand around the flowers and pull the seeds off into a container. You can also take up the entire plant and let it dry in a brown paper bag (one trick to speed the process along, Goossen said, is leaving it in the car with the windows cracked for some air flow). Then, knock the dried plants around in a five-gallon bucket or in the bag itself so the seeds fall off and you can separate them from the chaff.
“The old fashioned approach is to move it from one basket to another in a windy area so the heavy seeds fall down and the chaff blows away,” Goossen said. “You can do the same thing with five gallon buckets and a box fan.”
Not all herbs are as easy to save seeds from, but it is still possible to broaden your seed saving in your herb garden using similar tricks and tactics.
“Basil seeds are a lot smaller and not as easy to save seeds from [because it has a] different flower structure,” Goossen explained. “You can still let it flower go to seed, but you wouldn’t want to let it fully dry down unless you have it in a paper bag [so you can] shake it off in the bag. It should still work pretty well.”
Though they aren’t “seeds” in the traditional sense, Goossen said it is easy to save asexually reproducing seed garlic to propagate next season.
First, cure the bulbs by drying them in a dry, warm, dark and ventilated area for about two weeks. Hanging the bulbs from the stalks in a dark airy space is one of the best methods to do so. The bulbs will be successfully cured when the neck has constricted, the center of the stem has hardened and the outer skins are dry and crisp. Store the bulbs in a cool, dry location.
The cloves can be planted in the spring to grow green garlic or the following fall to form beautiful cloves in years to come. When it is time to plant, toss any cracked or mottled bulbs and only plant the unblemished cloves.
Most gardeners have that one tomato that they love in their garden and grow every year. Why not save some money by saving the seeds for yourself?
The best method to save tomato seeds is by fermenting the seeds over the course of a few days to slough off the gel-like sac that surrounds the seeds. The process is a little messy and smelly, but saving tomatoes seeds is still a fun, simple experiment.
Perhaps the most challenging part of saving tomato seeds is making sure that you are choosing the right tomato to save seeds from. Hybrid varieties are produced by cross pollinating a very inbred mother line with a very inbred father line to create uniform crops, but if you save seeds from those varieties, it will re-sort the genetics of the plant. It is possible to save seeds from hybrid tomatoes, to be sure, but the results can be unpredictable — the resulting plant may not even fruit.
“You want to make sure you’re not doing a hybrid variety,” Goossen said. “Or, just be prepared to experiment.”
Home cooks may already be used to seeding peppers before adding them to a recipe. Instead of tossing those leftover seeds, put them aside in a cool, dry spot to save for next year.
Like tomatoes, peppers are mostly self-pollinating, but Goossen warned that active pollinators might carry pollen between pepper plants. If pollinators take hot pepper pollen on a sweet pepper plant, the next generation might be a mix between two varieties — and it might be spicier than you’re expecting.
“Hot pepper is a dominant trait, so as soon as you have a pollen for a hot pepper, [you’ll get a spicy pepper],” Goossen said. “There’s a common myth that hot pepper pollen on a sweet pepper will make that sweet pepper spicy. It’s not that year, [though] — it affects the next generation.”
The fruit of winter squash have large, obvious seeds that are usually scooped out when they are cooked. Because of their size, squash seeds are just about as easy to save as they look — just wash off the pulp and set aside.
“For good eating quality, you want the squash fruit to be well matured,” Goossen said. “A lot of them continue to mature after they’ve been picked. You wouldn’t want to [save seeds] right after harvest. When it’s good eating, the seeds are good to go as well.”
However, the seeds come with some genetic caveats.
“Unlike cilantro and dill, squash is more than happy to cross pollinate,” Goossen said. “There are several species of winter squash that we grow [and] they won’t all cross pollinate with each other, [so it] depends on which varieties and which species you’re growing.”
Delicata squash, for example, will cross pollinate if grown near pumpkins because they are the same species. If delicata squash are grown near butternut or buttercup squash, though, the seeds will be free from trait-muddling cross-pollination because all three are separate species.
Regardless of whether you are starting simple or choosing to experiment, saving seeds is a fun project that will help you learn and appreciate more about your garden.
Correction: An earlier version of this reported incorrectly stated that cilantro and dill do not cross pollinate.