In the northern reaches of the country we are just starting to see the first ripe tomatoes rolling in. Very soon there will be not only red but purple, yellow, orange, green, striped, white, long, fuzzy, and flattened tomatoes ready – a cornucopia of colors, textures, and flavors to delight the senses. Why not carry a bit of that abundance forward?
Believe it or not, there are several crops that make seed saving easy as pie—and tomatoes are one of them! We’ll also talk about peppers, peas, and beans, and how to Cross Your Own Hybrid. The even better news is that you don’t need to sacrifice your whole crop to save seeds—just a few fruits will do. After all, producing seeds is the end goal for most of these plants….we just happen to like eating what grows around them. Here are some easy seed saving techniques perfect for kids’ activities and adults alike.
For Ages 2+: Peppers are one of the easiest crops to save seeds from for two reasons:
they are mainly self-pollinated annuals, and the seeds are ripe when the pepper is ripe. That means you get to have your cake (the seeds) and eat it (the pepper) too! About 20% of them are pollinated by insects, however, so you need to be ok with a few surprises in the mix. If different varieties are isolated from each other by 200-300 feet, you may be able to get completely “true” seed just like the parent variety; however this is probably not practical for most people. That being said, peppers are even easier than tomatoes to save! Here are the steps:
- Harvest your favorite kind of ripe pepper (that means if it’s a red pepper, harvest it red, not green)
- Cut the pepper in half and use your hands to gently brush the seeds onto a plate or cloth. If need be use a 1/8” screen or colander to remove any detritus. Pat seeds dry with a paper towel.
- Store the seeds in a cool, dry place for up to 3 years.
For Ages 3+: Tomatoes are nearly as easy as peppers—they are self-pollinated annuals, and the seeds are ripe when the tomato is ripe. Many vegetable crops are insect-pollinated (like squash) or wind-pollinated (like corn). But tomatoes can pollinate themselves because they have perfect flowers (with both male and female parts). So that means that they should nearly always “come true”, or make plants just like the parent plant, and it also means two different kinds can be side-by-side and not cross-pollinate each other. Here’s how you save the seeds:
- Harvest your favorite kind of ripe tomato(es).
- Using a spoon or your hands, squeeze the seeds and juice into a jar and add about the same amount of water as tomato juice. (Use the leftover tomato flesh to make sauce!)
- With the jar open, allow the tomato seed-juice-water mixture to ferment in a warm place for 3-5 days, stirring each day, until the seeds sink to the bottom of the jar.
- Rinse the seeds thoroughly with water (a 1/8” screen or colander may help) and let them dry on a paper plate or dish cloth. Once fully dry, the seeds can be stored in a cool dry place, such as in a container in the refrigerator, for 4-10 years.
For Ages 5+: Peas and Beans can be pollinated by insects, but it’s very rare. These have perfect flowers too—in fact, the flower is usually pollinated before it even opens. One thing to consider is that mature plants will produce more viable seed with wider spacing—so consider this if you’re planning to grow peas or beans for saving next year.
- Harvest all the peas and beans you want when ripe, then leave some on the plant to mature seeds. For peas this is about 4 weeks after they stop producing edible peas; for beans it takes about 6 weeks after your last harvest. The pods should be completely dry when it’s time to harvest the seeds.
- If rain or frost threatens while your pods are drying down, dig up the entire plant and hang upside down by the roots in a cool, dark place (such as a garage or basement) until pods are completely dry and papery – the beans should be hard enough that your fingernail doesn’t leave a mark.
- For smaller quantities, you can shell the pods by hand, but for larger quantities you will probably want to thresh the plants. This means laying out a tarp and jumping on the pods until they open. Who needs a trampoline when you can thresh!
- Remove any remaining chaff (plant residue) by winnowing with a box fan – set up a fan on a chair blowing over a bin next to it, then pour your seeds into the bin. The fan will blow away any lighter chaff but not the heavier seeds. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place for up to 4 years.
Ages 8+: Cross Your Own Hybrid using two related varieties of the same species that have qualities you like, such as the Powdery Mildew-resistant Success PM Straightneck summer squash and the adorable round Ronde de Nice summer squash. Making a hybrid is a bit more complicated than simply saving seeds, but you might just invent something great that no one’s ever seen before. To make a hybrid, you’ll need:
- A few plants of each squash variety
- Some twist ties
- A few surveyor’s flags or neon-colored ribbon
- A permanent marker
Each squash plant has some male flowers and some female flowers. You can tell which flowers are female because they have a bulge at the base of the flower where the squash will form. The female flowers will only accept pollen the first morning they are open. This means you need to have them properly identified when they’re still closed, the night before they’re going to open. They should be bright orange and very full. Here’s how it’s done:
- Go to your squash plants the evening before you plan to make your hybrid. Use the surveyor flags or tape to clearly mark the flowers of each variety you plan to use so you can find them easily the next day. For example, let’s say to mark the female flowers of the Success PM plant and the male flowers of the Ronde de Nice.
- Locate the male and female flower(s) that will open the next morning. Use the twist ties to tie the flowers closed so that they can’t open by themselves.
- Return early the next morning and harvest a few twist-tied male flowers from the Ronde de Nice plant. Take the male flowers over to the females and untie all the twist-ties. Remove the pollen-coated stamen from the male flower and use it to brush pollen onto the stigma inside the female flower. Then twist-tie the female flower closed again so no other pollen gets in.
- Mark the stems with pollinated female flowers with flags or tape, noting the date and varieties used with permanent marker.
- Allow the fruit to ripen and grow far beyond the edible stage. Harvest once the outer shell hardens, then allow to cure 3-4 more weeks in a warm, dry place. After curing, cut open the squash, scoop out the seed, rinse it in warm water, and pat dry with a paper towel. Allow the seed to dry completely on a cookie sheet. Store seeds in a cool, dry location.
- Next year, plant out your test crosses and see what happens!
Check out our Hand Pollinating Squash video for visual instructions, and find growing and seed saving information for every crop type on our website.