Botany for Beginners

Pollinated flowers develop into fruits. So even though culinarily we consider squash, tomatoes, and peas in the pod to be vegetables, botanically, they are all fruits. In some plants, a flower can be pollinated by its own pollen (self-pollination). In other plants, pollen from another flower is necessary (cross-pollination). Whether the pollen comes from the same flower or from a flower on a different plant, it has no bearing on the size, shape, or flavor of the fruit. But, the origin of the pollen has everything to do with the nature of the seeds growing inside the fruit. If pollen from one variety of squash, for example, fertilizes the egg cells of another variety of squash, the seeds that develop inside the fruit will be crossed and not true-to-type. Crossed seeds (known as F1 hybrids) produce plants that are uniquely different from either of the parent plants.

Factors to Consider When Saving Seeds

  • Lineage: Seeds that develop from F1 hybrid plants should not be saved. These seeds will not produce plants that have the same characteristics as the F1 hybrid. Only open-pollinated plants produce seeds that, when saved and replanted, will yield another true-to-type plant of the same variety. Note: heirloom seeds are open-pollinated.
  • Pollination: It is very difficult to save seeds from cross-pollinated plants because, unless sufficiently isolated, chances are good that they have been pollinated by another variety. Beginning seed savers are well-advised to save seeds only from self-pollinated plants.
  • Population: Some cross-pollinated crops require a large population of plants of the same variety nearby in order to produce good seed. For example, unless you have a stand of 200+ corn plants of the same variety, the resulting seeds will be inbred. Be sure you have adequate genetic diversity for the seed crop you are growing.
  • Life Cycle: In the world of vegetables, most of the crops are either annual or biennial. Annual crops (e.g. basil) produce seed within that same year. Biennial crops, (e.g. parsley) produce their seeds in the second year. Be aware of your plant’s life cycle so as to know when it will produce its seeds.
  • Parent Plant Characteristics: Always save seed from healthy plants that bear heavily. Taste should also be a consideration. Cull any nearby plants of the same variety that exhibit non-uniformities, such as in size, shape, or color.
  • Maturity: If you were to take the seeds from a cucumber in your fridge and try to plant them, you would be very disappointed. Most of the seeds we plant in the garden have been taken from fruits that have matured well past the edible stage. In the case of cucumbers, the fruits will have begun to soften and change from green to white.
  • Growth Inhibitors: Tomato and cucumber seeds are coated with a gelatinous layer that keeps them from sprouting in the middle of the moist fruit. This layer is removed by fermentation. Naturally, it happens when the fruit falls off the plant and rots on the ground. We mimic this process by gathering these seeds with the pulp of the fruit and setting this brew in the sun for a few days until a smelly layer of scum forms on top. You can then remove the seeds, dry them, and plant them next year.

Some Good Candidates

  • Peas and Beans: These legumes are self-pollinated annuals. Also, it’s unlikely that the seed you purchased from that seed catalog is hybridized. Most legumes are open-pollinated. Leave the seeds in their pods on the plant to dry until the pods are crisp. Harvest, shell, and store.
  • Tomatoes and Eggplants: These plants are self-pollinated and produce seeds in the first year of their lives. Many of the varieties available from seed catalogs are hybrids, so be sure that you choose open-pollinated or heirloom varieties to grow in your garden. Tomatoes selected for seed should be fully ripe. Don’t forget to ferment them to remove the growth inhibitor. Eggplants should be allowed to grow well-beyond the edible stage. Look for dull, matte skin and squishy texture.
  • Garlic and Potatoes: In reality, gardeners rarely save the seeds of garlic or potatoes. Instead, they propagate them vegetatively. In the case of garlic, that involves saving some of the largest garlic cloves, still in their skins, to be planted in the coming fall. In the case of potatoes, vegetative propagation involves saving a few potatoes to be replanted the following spring. If your potato crop fell prey to late blight, though, don’t save any potatoes. The potatoes are contaminated and will spread disease to next year’s garden.

Seed Storage

  • Keep seeds cool and dry. Place seed packets in a plastic bag and store in your refrigerator.
  • When using your seeds, keep them in the shade. Never leave them in the sun or in a hot car.
  • Some seeds are only good for one year: parsley, parsnips, and most seeds in the onion family (onions, leeks, scallions, chives…)

Download a printable PDF: Saving Seeds