This story was originally published in August 2020.
The basic steps to saving seeds may seem simple: remove the seeds, wash, dry and store them for next year, or for future generations. However, garden plants are so unique and varied that what works to save seeds from one crop may not work for another one in your garden.
Caleb Goossen, organic crop and conservation specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said that there are crops that are more difficult to save seeds from that should be avoided for first-time seed savers. Some are more challenging due to their morphology — namely, biennials like onions, carrots, beets and other root crops.
“Biennials are difficult to save seeds [from because] they don’t even flower the first year that they’re grown,” Goossen said. “For somebody to save that seed, they have to overwinter the plant, let it flower [and] collect the seed.”
Others may seem simple, but are trickier than they look. Saving cuttings from seed potatoes also may seem easy, but comes with a high risk of overwintering diseases, such as late blight.
Another deceptively challenging seed to save is corn. Morphologically, it seems easy enough to dry the crunchy kernels to save for next year, but it can be tricky to save genetically consistent corn seeds if you are a home gardener.
“Lots of varieties are hybrids, so you do have to be careful,” Goossen said. “There is potential for corn pollen to travel as far as four miles [and cross-pollinate].”
Genetics also play a role in whether or not a seed can be easily — and reliably — saved and successfully propagated in years to come. For that reason, another challenging category for saving seeds is brassicas. Not only are some species of brassicas, including broccoli, biennials, but they are also insect-pollinated and self-incompatible, meaning flowers on the same plant cannot fertilize each other.
“If you were to grow one variety of broccoli [and] let it flower and it could only pollinate with its own variety, the resulting offspring are going to, over time, decline,” Goossen said.
Goossen said that this strongly encourages outcrossing, or fertilization from other species, unless hand pollination is used before the flowers open. It can be challenging to navigate if you are not familiar with plant genetics or experienced with the process of hand pollinating.
If you still have your heart set on saving seeds from a brassicas, choose one with more predictable genetics.
“Rutabaga is a good candidate if somebody wants to venture into this area, “ Goossen said. “They’re happy to self-pollinate and they tend to be somewhat hardy.”
Once you have practiced saving seeds from some easier plants, you can prepare yourself to take on these more challenging seed saving projects.