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garden zinnia

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – With summer gardens starting to dwindle, growers can take this opportunity to get started on next year’s vegetable and flower gardens. Saving seeds from this year’s plants can help growers get a head start for next year and preserve those hard-to-find varieties.

Bethany O’Rear, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System home grounds, gardens and home pests regional agent, said the first step to properly saving seeds is knowing if the plants are hybrids.

“If the plants are hybrids, then saving the seed will be fruitless,” O’Rear said. “Seeds from hybrid varieties will not produce the same plant as the one from which they were collected.”

Open-Pollinated Varieties

When choosing plants to save for seeds, O’Rear said open-pollinated varieties are the best choice.

“Plants pollinated by insects, wind or other natural processes classify as open-pollinated,” she said. “Generally speaking, these plants will render seeds that, when planted, will produce the same desirable traits as the parent plant.”

However, there is always the potential for cross-pollination. This is when genetic material from one variety crosses with that of another closely related variety. This can result in a variety of offspring and their traits are often extremely unpredictable.

“Cross-pollination can occur with plants pollinated by insects or wind,” O’Rear said. “Some examples are cucumbers, melons, corn and squash. To prevent cross-pollination, only grow one variety in a single growing season.”

Self-Pollinating Varieties

If growers are looking for plants that make seed saving easier, self-pollinating plants are their best option because they rarely cross pollinate.

“Some examples of self-pollinating vegetable varieties are tomatoes, pepper, beans and peas,” she said. “Zinnias and sunflowers are just two of many annual flower varieties that are self-pollinating.”

Collecting

Before collecting seeds, O’Rear said to let them fully mature.

“When it comes to vegetables, the fruit should ripen completely before harvest,” O’Rear said. “With flowers, collect seeds after the petals have dried and a seed pod has formed.”

Remember, growers should only collect seeds from strong, healthy plants. Plants that have any diseases or a weak growth habit generally produce low-quality seed.

After collection, the seeds should be cleaned. O’Rear said this process is different depending on the type of plant.

“For some seeds, growers must clean them by a wet process, such as those in tomatoes, cucumbers or melons,” she said. “Cleaning dry-processed seeds, such as beans, peas and annual flowers, require the separation of the seed from the husk, flower head or pod.”

For seeds that require a wet process, remove the seed from the fruit and wash in a large container.  Viable seed will sink to the bottom, while non-productive seed will float to the top.  Remove the floating seeds and pour the seeds and water through a strainer. Dry the seeds completely by spreading them in a thin layer on a flat surface. For dry-processed seeds, use hand screens and winnow the seeds to separate them from additional plant debris.

Storing

Storing seeds correctly is an important part of the process. After cleaning, place the seeds in a paper envelope. To ensure the seeds stay dry, include a packet of silica gel (available at craft stores) or dry rice in the envelope.

“Always label any saved seeds,” O’Rear said. “While you may know the exact varieties that you are saving at the time, a year or two down the road that may not be the case.”

Store the envelope in a tightly closed glass jar and keep in a cool, dry place. For extended quality, store the seeds in the refrigerator. Most seeds remain viable for three to five years.

More Information

For more information on saving seeds from this year’s garden, visit www.aces.edu or contact your county Extension office.

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