“June is busting out all over!” as friends of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel” remember. The tomatoes and peppers are ripening quickly in the sun, and squash, melons, cucumbers and other garden goodies are not far behind. In addition to fresh vegetables, our gardens are offering up a lot of beautiful flowers this time of year.
Calendula, poppies and pansies are finishing up their cool-weather blossoms, and summer flowers like zinnias, sunflowers and salvia are coming in strong. Roses have finished their first burst of plentiful blooms but continue to offer up enough pretty flowers to bring indoors and enjoy.
There are also other gifts in the garden right now that you may not recognize right away — seeds. As flowers and fruits and vegetables mature, they produce the next generation in the form of seeds. After all, the goal of all plants is to reproduce and ensure their future.
Gardeners save seeds for several reasons, and if you haven’t started this adventure, you might want to consider it.
For one thing, every year a plant grows in your garden — your soil, your weather, your light, your moisture conditions — the better adapted it becomes in your garden. The seeds from this spring’s plants already survived one season in your spot, and that makes them a bit more likely to survive another. Seeds you buy grown in California or Connecticut don’t have that advantage. After a few years of growing and saving seeds — from tomatoes, for example — they become not only tomato seeds, but your tomato seeds, beautifully adapted to your garden.
Another reason to save seeds is that it is not always easy or even possible to find your favorite variety on the market. Commercial seed producers base their production on how many packets of seeds sell. If your favorite tomato isn’t a huge number of gardeners’ favorite, the company might just drop it from their list.
Big seed companies want to maximize their profits, and they do that by selling hybrid seeds. Hybrids must go through a process in a lab that creates them, and companies own patents on those seeds, so you can’t re-create them in your home garden. Also, commercial growers want fruits and veggies that can be shipped across the country or the world and still arrive at the grocery store looking good. The emphasis is on shipability, not flavor. In your garden, you want things that taste great. Many great old heirloom plants that were grown for their wonderful taste have been lost because they can’t be transported long distances. Seed companies also want varieties that will grow in every climate — not just yours. Plants have a way of preferring one climate over another — lots of heat for one, plenty of rain for another.
You can save seeds from vegetables, flowers, wildflowers and even trees. Most hybrids will not produce plants like the ones you grew this year, and trees or other plants that grow on grafted rootstock will not prove true either. Otherwise, the field is wide open.
Some seeds are very easy to save. Beans, corn, poppies, bee balm and calendula, for instance, only have to be left on the plant to dry. Once they are dried, they can be put in a dry, dark spot and kept until you are ready to plant once again.
To save any seed, you should select the best of your crop and let it reach full maturity. Only mature seeds will germinate next season. When the fruit or flower is dead ripe, pick and separate the seeds from the rest of the plant.
Humid weather makes it hard for seeds to dry completely on the plant. Wait until they are mature, and then bring them indoors to complete the drying process. Spread them out and let them dry until your fingernail will not dent the surface of the seed.
Tomato seeds have a protective coating on them to keep them from sprouting on the vine. That coating is naturally removed by the fermenting that happens when the fruit falls to the ground and begins to rot.
You can save the seeds yourself by picking a ripe and beautiful tomato from your garden. Cut the tomato and gently squeeze the seeds into a container of water. Then eat the tomato. Leave the water and seed mixture sitting on the kitchen counter until you seed a white scum forming on the top of the liquid.
Once the scum has formed, pour the contents of the container through a strainer, wash the seeds thoroughly and lay them out to dry on a coffee filter. Coffee filters won’t stick to the seeds as other paper might.
Once they are dry, put them into envelopes and write the variety and date on the envelope. All of your saved seeds should be identified. You’ll be glad you did next spring when you’re ready to plant.
Other wet seeds like those from melons, squash and cucumbers will need to be separated from the fiber that encases them, rinsed to remove any coating and then spread out to dry. For daisylike seeds (zinnia, sunflower, coreopsis, coneflower), the whole flower can be saved, or you can separate the seeds as you pick the dried blossom. Dill, fennel and cilantro seeds will ripen on the plant and turn a light brown color, indicating that they are ready to pick.
To make sure that your seeds are all you hope they will be, keep in mind that plants can cross-pollinate and change the seeds into a different plant. The best way to ensure that your seeds produce replicas of the original plant is to select only one variety of each plant to grow at a time.
Some plants cross easily. Some don’t cross at all. Potatoes, garlic and sweet potatoes are all asexually reproduced, so you don’t have to worry about them crossing. Common beans, peas and tomatoes don’t cross readily, but it is best not to plant different varieties side by side. Sweet and hot peppers grown near each other might cross, and the resulting peppers will always be hot. Sweet corn will cross with field corn and result in field corn. Cantaloupe, watermelon, gourd, squash and cucumber will not cross-pollinate with each other, but they will cross within their species — melons will cross with other melons, etc.
The easiest way to avoid cross-pollination problems is simply to decide which squash (or melon or corn or peppers) you want this year and grow that one.
Keep your saved seeds in a dry, cool, dark place — the opposite of what seeds need to germinate. Glass jars and paper envelopes are good for storage. Plastic bags seem to attract moisture. If you think there might be insect infestation in your seeds, freeze the thoroughly dried seeds for a week before storing. Do not ever bake the seeds in the oven or dry in full sun.
Another good reason to save seeds is to keep heirlooms going. Who knows what genetic treasures might be hidden in tasty old plants?