Seed that develops in a wet, fleshy fruit (tomatoes, melons, and cucumbers, for example), as opposed to a dry seedhead or pod (the case with most greens, herbs and legumes), often requires extra steps to extract. Such seed is typically encased in a gooey substance, from which it is not easily removed. The best way to remove the goo, as it turns out, is to put it in a jar or bucket with a bit of water and let the concoction rot for a bit. The fermentation process dissolves the goo and improves the germination rate of the seed. You then strain the seeds from the stinky liquid and dry them.
It’s with cross-pollinating crops – those that need pollen from a neighboring plant in order to set seed – where things get complicated. This group includes cucumbers, corn, squash, pumpkins, and melons. If you have more than one variety of the same cross-pollinating vegetable (a butternut squash and acorn squash, let’s say) growing in close proximity, pollen from one will inevitably end up in the flowers of the other, resulting in seeds that are a mutant hybrid of both varieties. Seed savers employ various strategies to prevent this, ranging from growing different varieties on opposite ends of their property (pollen only travels so far on the wind or via insects) to placing plastic bags over some flowers to exclude unwanted pollen (you must then use a paintbrush to pollinate them with pollen from the same variety). Another option? Simply grow only one variety at a time of these particular crops.
Just like picking the perfect tomato, you have to wait until seed is fully ripe before you harvest it – if picked from the plant too soon, the seed will not germinate. As explained above, optimal seed maturity is usually later than optimal crop maturity. Bean and pea seeds are not ready until the pod is brown, dry, and beginning to split open. This is true of any seed that grows in a pod, which includes most greens. Corn seed should be allowed to dry on the cob in the field. Some vegetables, including cucumbers and eggplant, should not be picked for seed until they are overripe and beginning to shrivel up and rot.
Seeds of Some Crops Are Easier to Save Than Others
To save seed is to participate in the process of natural selection. If you save seed only from the biggest tomato of the bunch and replant them year after year, you’ll eventually end up with seeds that produce plants on which all the tomatoes are bigger. The same holds true for almost any other trait. Want tomatoes that ripen earlier? Save seed from the first fruits to ripen each year. Want disease resistant plants? Then definitely don’t save seed from those that are disease-infested. This is essentially what professional plant breeders do. You don’t need to get too scientific about it, but as a rule of thumb, only save seed from your healthiest, most robust, tastiest plants.
Seeds denoted on the package as “F1” are hybrids, meaning two varieties have been bred with one another (cross-pollinated, that is) to produce a third variety with a combination of traits from each “parent.” If you were to save seed from this hybrid offspring and plant it, each seed would grow into a plant with a random combination of the traits found in the gene pool of the original parents, which rarely produces something you’d want to eat. The only way to reproduce the hybrid “true-to-type,” as plant breeders say, is to cross the two original parents. That’s a big part of why most seed savers stick with old-fashioned heirloom varieties, which by definition are not hybrids.
Seeds are the products of pollination, the botanical version of sex. Some crops are self-pollinators, which means individual plants are fertilized by their own pollen. These crops, including beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers, and cauliflower, are among the easiest to save because you don’t need special botanical knowledge to ensure that the seeds grow out true-to-type.
Bean seeds are big and easy to remove from their pods. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Carrot seeds, for example, are no bigger than a baby flea and easily disappear into the nearest crack or cranny as you try to knock them loose from their seed heads. Plants hold their seeds in an array of husks, pods, capsules, and other coverings, which are often not easily removed. This process varies depending on the species in question, but typically involves threshing (separating the seed from the plant) and winnowing (separating the seed from its hull). If you’re collecting only a very small quantity of seed, you’ll probably perform these tedious tasks by hand, but specialized tools are available for processing larger quantities.
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Anything that will hold the growing medium and has drainage holes will work, but we recommend specially designed seed starting kits because they include everything you need to grow strong, healthy seedlings. Burpee offers a variety of seed starting kits that include trays with cells, expandable coir pellets, a tray to set them on and a clear lid to hold in humidity during the early stages.
Seed-starting happens in two stages: germination and growing. Germination is the sprouting stage, when the root and leaves emerge from the seed. You won’t need light at this stage because it occurs under the soil, but you will need gentle warmth (not harsh heat). You can provide heat by using special heat mats available from Burpee in a range of sizes to fit your seed starting needs. These will keep your seedlings about 10 degrees F warmer than the air temperature, allowing the seeds to germinate faster, leading to healthier seedlings. Once you see green sprouts about half an inch tall, you need the plant lights. You can remove the heat mats as long as the room temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees F.
Note that not all plants should be started indoors, some are best sown directly in the garden (see this article on direct-sowing seeds ). Different plants have different needs, so always refer to the directions on the seed packet to tell you when and how to sow your seeds.
As your seedlings grow, watch the weather. Although a few crops can go outside earlier (refer to the seed packet), most should stay indoors until after the last frost date for your area has passed and your soil has warmed. If your area is having a cold spring, hold off. Gardeners are always eager, but many a carefully nurtured tomato seedling has been killed by a May frost or simply slowed down by cold soil. Protect your investment of time and attention by planting later rather than earlier.
A timer can be helpful to turn the lights on and off so the plants get the 16 hours of light they need every day, and a good rest at night. You want to keep the lights just 3 to 4 inches above the plants.