Gardening Tips: Saving Seeds 2.0

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written.


What to do this week

This week, I’d like to give you a few tips on how to get started with seed saving. If you followed my advice in the spring and planted things the proper isolation distance, with the requisite minimum number of plants, and all the other details I covered, you can save seeds for yourself for next year. That is a good thing to do for many reasons — one of the most useful results is that, as you save seeds from plants that do well in your garden, you are gradually selecting seeds that are adapted to your personal part of the world.

Bags of seeds.

Plus, you will save money.

Plus, you will have a lot of fun.

All of that adds up to a good thing.

Let’s talk about tomatoes first. They are starting to ripen now (or have been, depending on your microclimate and the varieties you planted). Ideally, leave them on the vine as long as possible but if our weather doesn’t cooperate, you may end up ripening your chosen seed tomatoes indoors. This can work, although your germination rate will drop. The best situation is that the tomatoes are fully ripe before you pick them. A little over ripe is actually good when it comes to seed saving.

Select one or two tomatoes from each plant and mark them to leave for seed saving. Don’t pick all of your samples from the same plant. You are looking for diversity within the plants that did well in your yard. Once these tomatoes are very ripe and picked, you cut them along the equator line and squoosh* the seeds into a little jar (you can, of course, use the rest of the tomato for a sandwich or sauce).

Cover the jar and put it in a warm place, away from direct sunlight, and let the seeds ferment for three or four days. Don’t let it go longer than that or the seeds will start to germinate. (You want that later, but not now.)

The next step is to rinse the seeds in a fine mesh strainer. Most people have one in their kitchen somewhere. Use cold water. The fermentation process dissolves the gel coat that normally surround tomato seeds, and it inoculates the seeds against bacterial infections. When you rinse that gooey gel off you should be left with nice tomato seeds. The next step is to dry them.

Use a plate or tray that has a smooth, hard surface, or even a fine mesh. Don’t use paper towel or anything that the seeds will stick to as the seed coat will be damaged when you gather them after they are dried. Mesh is best because the seeds will have circulation all around, and dry more evenly. I have some window mesh stretched over wooden frames and it works great, but a plate will do if you are just doing this for the first time and not devoting your life to seed saving like me!

Back to your seeds. You will know when they are dry when you take a seed between your thumb and forefinger and squeeze it, and it breaks rather than giving in to the pressure. If it is still soft enough to give in to pressure, it is not dry enough. If it breaks, the seed has no moisture left in it. Seeds can be damaged by all kinds of things, but moisture is the biggest bad. Once your seeds are dry, store them in a cool, dark, dry place until planting time.

This fermentation process can be used to save cucumber seeds too. The only difference is that you don’t let them ferment as long. Twenty-four hours is enough.


Better than bubble wrap

Let’s move on to beans. Leave mature bean pods on the plant until they start to soften. This will likely not happen for a few weeks yet. Ideally you pull the whole plant, leaving all the pods you have isolated for saving seed attached. If you see a lot of rain coming a few weeks from now you might decide to pull the plants a little early — oo much moisture before you pull them can lead to mold. The perfect situation would be a dry fall because if the seeds have not fully ripened on the vine, and the pods are not yet soft and starting to wilt, you will have immature seed stock.

Beans. (Photo by Nadia Talent)

Beans. (Photo by Nadia Talent)

I pull my plants and dry them on trestles or tied in bundles and hung, under cover in a shed or barn or basement. Avoid damp places. You can hang the plants across a few lengths of lumber stretched between two card tables or milk crates. In one way or another try to ensure that there is circulation on as many sides as possible. You are looking for air circulation to help to further dry the pods, and to avoid mold. Once you have them spread out or hung, you just walk away and leave them until they are nice and dry and crispy. At that point you can shell the beans, and I can tell you it is better than bubble wrap. It is the best feeling.

If you don’t have space to leave your plants to dry you can take the mature pods and dry them separated from the plant — but only if you must. Drying the pods attached to the plant slows the process, and leads to better results.

You can also save seeds from your winter squash, although you will probably wait until first frost for that. This actually includes zucchini because those huge mature ones that you couldn’t find anyone willing to accept are almost winter squash by this point. You can tell that zucchini is mature enough if you cannot cut the skin with your fingernail.

Even though the squash may be mature when you pick them, the seeds need more time to mature within the squash. Store the squash somewhere dry for another month or two, perhaps until almost Christmas time. If the zucchini goes bad in this time it is because it wasn’t ripe enough to use to save seed. Winter squash will be fine for that amount of time. Cut the squash and scoop out the seeds. Rinse and wash away as much of the spongy material that covers them as possible. You may have to find an old towel you don’t care about, place the seeds on it, then fold it and gently wipe off any material you couldn’t wash away. Put the seeds on a mesh or hard plate and let them dry until they break rather than bend under pressure. Once they’re dry, store them in a closed container in a cool, dry, dark place until planting time.

There are lots of resources available if you are interested in finding out more about seed saving. Seeds of Diversity has excellent information, and also produces the book I go to whenever I have to check something about seed saving, even though I have all of the other books.

*’Squoosh’ is a word of Michelle’s own invention that means to gently squeeze the seeds out of a ripe fruit.


Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.