Issue: June 19
Saving vegetable seeds can be interesting, but must be done properly
Q. I want to save seeds from plants in my garden. I understand that there are some problems with this, but I cannot always find the varieties that I want. I thought saving the seeds would help. What do I need to do to avoid the problems?
A. Saving seeds can be a good idea, but as you mentioned, it must be done properly. Seed produced from hybrid varieties will not produce the same variety the next year. Hybrids often have greater yields than "open pollinated" (non-hybrid) varieties, but you are always dependent on the seed company for that variety.
Another concern is that the variety you are saving may cross pollinate (hybridize) with other varieties in your garden, or nearby gardens. This will also result in off-types the following year. Seed harvesting and storage are also matters of concern.
If you avoid planting hybrid seeds, the first problem is avoided. If you plant your crops far enough away from varieties that can cross-pollinate with your desired variety it will help, but sometimes that is not possible. It is possible to "isolate" the desired variety by growing the plant inside a cage to prevent bees or other pollinators from bringing foreign pollen to the flower. However, you must fulfill the function of the bee pollen and see that the flower is pollinated. You can do this by using a small paint brush or cotton tipped swab to collect pollen from a flower of the same variety and transfer it to the stigma of the plant to be pollinated. In most cases, this should be done in early morning. Instead of caging whole plants, you can also put individual flowers into a small, white, cloth pouch and hand pollinate it. You will need to put several flowers into the pouches to collect enough seeds.
Some plants, such as beans and tomatoes, are able to self-pollinate. While they can also be cross pollinated, and require caging or isolation in pouches, you will not need to hand-pollinate these plants.
Once the flowers are successfully pollinated and the fruits containing the seed begin to form, these fruits can be removed from pouches (if necessary) and allowed to mature. The fruit must mature completely to allow the seed to mature. Cucumbers, squash and other plants that are often harvested while still tender and immature, must be allowed to mature. Other plants such as melons are harvested when mature, so their seeds will be mature. The seeds should be removed from the fruit, washed, allowed to dry, and then stored at low humidity and low temperature (40 percent relative humidity and 40 degrees) until needed for next year. Some plants, such as tomatoes, may need additional treatment when washing to remove inhibitors from the pulp surrounding the seeds; other species are easier to treat.
Seed saving can be a lot of work and a lot of fun. You may still want to purchase seeds, but when your preferred variety is not available, you can still grow it. Once you start doing this, you may decide you want to try controlled hybridization to develop new varieties, or just careful selection to save seed only from plants that produce the best, tastiest fruit. This can become an interesting and beneficial addition to your gardening experience. You can do the same thing with your favorite annual flowers.
Send your gardening questions to:
Yard and Garden, ATTN: Dr. Curtis Smith
NMSU Cooperative Extension Service
9301 Indian School Road, NE, Suite 112
Albuquerque, NM 87112
Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.