It’s a common practice across Appalachia—saving garden seed. With a long-seated history among our ancestors, many today still save seed from last year’s garden to start their crops for the next year.
This practice gives a sense of self-sufficiency to gardeners, and oftentimes, it saves money. Saving seed is one of the most common reasons why we still have heirloom varieties to plant in our gardens, plus it is a way to perpetuate the plant genetics that thrive in your garden.
While flipping through seed catalogs each winter gazing at all the beautiful colors and pictures is a pleasant activity on a cold winter day, saving seed that you worked hard to raise the previous year is just as satisfying, if not more so.
As with anything there are still some considerations to be made when saving seed from your garden. Seeds saved from hybrid varieties will not produce plants that are the same as the parent plants.
Ideally, self-pollinating varieties of plants are the best to save seed from. Varieties that cross pollinate, like squash are harder to save seed from because you may end up with some strange vegetables if you planted more than one kind of squash the year before.
Pay close attention to the kind of plants you are saving seed from to select varieties that have natural resistance to common diseases and pests, especially those that are seed born, as well as exhibit some cold hardiness. Examples would be powdery or downy mildew, rusts, anthracnose, and others that are common to our area.
If you experienced problems with these diseases in your last garden, it may be a better choice to purchase seed that has more resistance and save seed from those plants next year.
Proper drying and storage are critical for success at saving seed. The weather during the time you are drying the seeds may influence their viability later on.
If the humidity is high or it rains frequently while you are trying to dry the seeds, it may take longer to get them dry and ready for storage. Once they are dry, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Canning jars or baby food jars with a rubber seal are great examples. Make sure all seed is properly labeled with variety and date collected so you know what you have when it comes time to plant next spring.
If you have saved seed in the past, you may already have a stash you are planning to use later this spring. Before you plant your whole garden, do a germination test to check the viability of the seed. Simply germinate the seed in increments of ten between moist paper towels.
If you have a high percent that germinated, proceed to planting. If you only had a small percent germinate, you may need to increase the seeding rate to get the desired number of plants, or may need to consider a different option completely.
If you do not know how long they have been saved or you want to have an idea of how long you can keep seeds and they still be viable, check out the chart borrowed from Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension for the average amount of time seed is good for.