Saving Seeds: A Fun and Frugal Way to Garden

By Cyndy Crist

Saving out tomato seeds (by Cyndy Crist)
Saving out tomato seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

Many of us take the easy way out and purchase plants and seeds from markets and garden centers, but you can save money and have a little fun at the same time if you save seeds from your own garden (or, with permission, from the garden of a friend, neighbor, or family member).  If you keep a few tips in mind, it’s easy to do.

Before You Start

First, there are some rules of etiquette to consider.  While it doesn’t hurt a plant to pluck seeds or a seed head from it, courtesy dictates that if they aren’t in your garden, you should ask first.  Since deadheading plants generally is beneficial to plant growth, it’s unlikely that a request will be turned down (and it may even be welcomed). But unless you ask, you won’t know if the owner likes to let plants self-seed or to leave the seeds on to feed birds through the winter.  Similarly, seeds found on public land aren’t automatically fair game. Being public doesn’t mean that anyone is welcome to take whatever he or she desires, but in some settings, taking a few seeds is considered acceptable. Just ask first.

Check seed packets for patents
Check seed packets for patents

Second, some plants are patented, making it a crime to propagate them by seeds or cuttings.  If you’re saving seeds from something you’ve purchased, checking the plant tag or seed packet should tell you whether propagation is legal. While it may be easy to dismiss this issue, given the likelihood that the holder of the patent will never know if you violate legal restrictions, these protections are given for a reason and fairness matters.

Third, be aware that not all plants grow “true” from seed.  Many plants cross-pollinate or set seeds more typical of just one of the parent plants.  As a result, saving seeds from a particularly beautiful columbine, for example, may not produce a plant next year with the same flowers you prized this year.  In general, open-pollinated plants are better for seed saving than hybrids (think heirloom vs Big Boy or Early Girl tomatoes), which will be unpredictable in their characteristics when grown from saved seeds. In any case, results, as they say, may vary.

Overall, some plants grow seeds that are more easily saved than others and some plants are easier to start from seed than others.  A little homework will help you increase, though not ensure, the likelihood that you’ll be happy with the results of your efforts.  One good source to consult is the Seed Germination Database found at


Tips for Successful Seed Saving

Hollyhock Seeds (by Cyndy Crist)
Hollyhock Seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

There’s no real mystery to how to save seeds, but there are a few things to keep in mind.  One is that your seeds must be dry in order to remain viable.  Some plants make this really easy.  Marigolds, for example, form seed heads from which you can readily pluck and save individual seeds, and it’s easy to see the seed heads on sunflowers and hollyhocks.  Columbines also form a clearly visible seed head which you can remove and from which you can then shake the small, round seeds.

Obviously, you will have to let some plants “go to seed” in order to have anything to save.  In other words, you’ll need to resist the urge to eat all the tomatoes or deadhead all the flowers before they have a chance to set seed.  If you have a large bed, simply leave a few flowers on until seeds have been set, but do be certain you remove them before the plants drop their seeds or temperatures dip below freezing.

In deciding which seeds to save, choose plants that have performed best in your garden.  For example, pick the tomato that produced fruit with the best flavor, the bean that produced most prolifically, or the zinnia that showed the most disease resistance.

If you want to save seeds from plants that cross-pollinate but increase your chances of getting the results you desire, Emily Dydo, writing on-line for Horticulture magazine, offers three suggestions:

  1. physically separate plants known to cross pollinate (for urban gardeners, this may require more space than you have);
  2. stagger planting times so that different varieties of the same plant aren’t blooming at the same time; and/or
  3. create barriers to pollination (e.g., bag flowers or use row covers) and don’t forget that both wind and insects carry pollen.

One of the most important steps is to properly dry seeds before storing them.  As noted earlier, the seeds of many flowers dry thoroughly on the plant and are easy to remove.  Among edibles, the seeds of some plants, like peas and beans, dry right in the pod and are easy to save, and it takes little effort to remove and dry seeds from peppers.

Tomatoes require a little more work.  One recommended approach to saving tomato seeds is to scoop them into a jar with the gel that surrounds them, add water, and swirl the mixture daily.  After about 5 days, the seeds will have settled to the bottom so that you can pour off the liquid, rinse the seeds, and spread them on paper towels to dry.

Finally, don’t forget that seeds need to be stored in a cool, dry environment to maintain viability.  The best container is a glass jar that can be sealed tightly.  Multiple seed packets can be put in the same jar, and a desiccant (silica gel or a small amount of powdered milk wrapped in cheesecloth or a tissue) can be added to remove any moisture that may be remaining. The optimum temperature for seed storing is between 32 and 41 degrees, which makes the refrigerator an ideal choice.

Some Good Choices

Among fruits and vegetables, and as noted earlier, the seeds of tomatoes, peas, beans, and peppers are easily saved.  Because cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, and corn are cross-pollinators, they are riskier to grow from saved seeds.  Biennial crops like carrots and beets are challenging, since they require two seasons to set seeds.

Many annual flowers also make seed saving easy.  Again, sunflowers, hollyhocks, and marigolds are especially easy because the seeds are so visible and easily handled.  Others that work well are coreopsis, bachelor’s buttons, verbena, zinnias, and cleome, many of which will readily self-seed in your garden if left to their own devices.

As for perennials, it will take several years for a seed-started plant to reach a mature enough stage to flower.  This is why many people prefer to grow perennials from divisions or cuttings.  However, nearly any plant can be grown from seed, so with a bit of patience, you can give just about anything a try, and success can be especially gratifying.

A Final Piece of Advice

Although many seeds are easily distinguished from each other, it can be hard to remember what specific plant produced the seeds you’ve saved without some labeling.  At the very least, write the name of the tomato or pepper variety on a packet of folded paper.  Better yet, write a few notes about time to maturity, spacing needs, height, etc.  Come spring, unless your memory is a whole lot better than mine, you’ll be glad you did!