Special to the OBSERVER
Summer is ending and our garden produce is almost at its peak. You may be busy with freezing, canning, drying, or just plain cooking and eating your bounty. However, now is also the time to think about saving some valuable seeds for next year's garden.
Practiced generation after generation, seed saving is part of our gardening heritage. Heirloom varieties are becoming more popular as evident in listings in seed catalogs and seed-banks springing up across the country. Collecting seeds allows you to self-perpetuate your garden, knowing that the seeds saved are ones that thrived well in your garden's soil and climate. It is also thrifty and satisfying knowing that you have seeds safely tucked away ready to plant come spring. Nature is very generous with her seeds and you may have plenty to share with others too.
All vegetables produce seeds; the easiest vegetable seeds to beginning collecting are tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas. Other seeds can prove to be more challenging, but with some practice, they too can be successfully saved. Remember, seeds collected from hybrid plants may not reliably produce a plant like the one you grew. The seed packet or plant label should note if the plant is a hybrid (F1, for example). Another consideration is pollination. Insect pollinators, such as bees, often flit from one plant to another, cross-pollinating as they go. Thus seeds collected from squashes and pumpkins often will not produce the same plant as the one you grew. But some of the most fun is growing the seed next year to see what nature has created. There are also vegetables that need a two-year span to produce their seeds, like carrots and parsnips.
Once you have decided on the type of vegetable seed you want to collect, you need to select the best specimen possible. This could mean selecting the tomato that is the tastiest, largest, or over-all vigorous. Don't forget you can collect seeds from produce purchased elsewhere, like at the local farmer's market. Talk to the sellers/gardeners personally, if possible, and get their take on the specific qualities of the produce they are selling.
Wet processing is for seeds that are embedded in the fruit of the plant, such as tomatoes. The seeds and surrounding flesh are placed in a small container. Left in a warm spot, the seeds will ferment in a few days. After mold completely covers the top, the seed mixture is poured into a larger container and water is added. As you swirl the mixture around, healthy seeds will sink to the bottom. Carefully pour off the top water and debris. Keep repeating this step until you only have seeds left in the bottom. Place the seeds single-layered on a flat surface at room temperature with good air circulation, stirring occasionally with your finger. Never place drying seeds in direct sun or where the temperature is over 95 degrees and avoid placing on paper products as seeds tend to stick to those surfaces. Pepper seeds just need to be spread out to dry.
For legumes, such as peas and beans, dry processing techniques are used. Leave the pods on the vine until brown and dry. One test is to listen for the seeds rattling in the pod. Once you have picked them, store the pods in a dry place for several weeks before shelling.
After seeds are thoroughly dry, store them in a cool, dry place using airtight containers. Many gardeners keep their collected seeds in the refrigerator or cellar in baby food jars or canning jars. Label the seeds with the date and vegetable name. Time to plant them next year will be here before you know it!
Jack Pulpit, Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener