Whether you grow heirloom varieties or simply want to save a little money for next year's garden prep, harvesting seeds can be a fun and rewarding way to get ready for the next season. With most plants the seeds will reach their full maturity at the same point in late summer or fall, but each plant requires its own unique tricks and techniques to get the seeds out just right. Once you have your seeds in hand, it's best to dry them for winter storage so you can a have a bountiful germination with them the following spring. Follow these steps to make sure your seeds grow beautifully when planted.
Get to Know Your Seeds' Needs
Saving seeds is always rewarding, but some seeds harvest more easily than others. For instance, peas and beans often need only to be picked and allowed to dry in their pods. Once those pods are brown and crunchy, you can remove the seeds and save them all winter. However, plants like tomatoes, with gooey gel around the seeds, benefit from strategies like placing them in water, allowing a few days of fermentation to separate out the seeds, and then drying. Look up your local Seed Savers Exchange or a group that does seed swaps if you aren't sure how to harvest seeds from a particular kind of plant.
Once you've learned a bit about your seeds, consider starting with some simple plants. You can look up what mature lettuce seed pods look like (you'll be able to tell when lettuce bolts, or gets very tall, and flowers), and make sure to harvest enough to be able to peel away any outer casing.
Plant Extra and With Plenty of Space
One mistake gardeners make is eating all the fruits and veggies in the garden, which can sometimes impact your ability to save the very best seeds. Bell pepper seeds, for instance, will be more fully matured if you wait for the pepper's "fruit" to wrinkle up a little, so leave some of the uglier but fully formed peppers on the plant in anticipation of getting at those seeds at the perfect time. Make sure you're comfortable leaving fruit on the plant that is a bit beyond ripeness, since just on the other side of ripe tends to be a good time to save seeds, when they are absolutely mature but before any rotting happens.
Another issue that can affect your seed integrity arises when you plant multiple varieties too close together. Over time, different plant varieties, tomatoes for instance, can be cross-pollinated and create seeds for hybrid tomatoes that aren't the same as the ones you'd initially planted, and were hoping to grow again. You can help prevent this by planting your tomato varieties in separate areas, with different plants between them and plenty of space for all plants. This is important for other varieties as well.
Make a Time and Space for Wet Fruited Crops
Tomatoes are a popular wet fruited crop, a crop where the seeds are in a wet gel or stringy mass that you have to remove. Most pumpkins and squash also have these kinds of seeds. Don't despair! Just make sure that after you harvest your pumpkins, squash, and other wet fruited crops, you have plenty of clear space covered in newspapers and some supplies to clean off and dry the seeds. Many use running water and a colander to remove seeds from the goop. Keep in mind that you're not going to be planting hundreds and hundreds of seeds next year, so it's fine to leave some behind while you scoop and strain those squash guts. That being said, if you save edible seeds like pumpkin seeds, you might want to roast them up and eat them like popcorn!
Another difficult kind of seed to extract can be those that are surrounded by brambles or sharp thorns. Make sure you wear tough gloves while extracting them, and break as much of the plant off before you delve in to get the seeds first so that you are less likely to be harmed.
Create a Cool, Dry Spot and Label All Seeds
One of the biggest enemies of harvested seeds is moisture as even a little dampness encourages the growth of mold, which eats away at the parts of the seeds needed to germinate in the spring. While it's unlikely to be an issue for many who are preserving through the winter months, excess heat can also be a problem.
The next pitfall comes from us gardeners ourselves, and that's saving seeds without labeling them. You may have multiple varieties of a specific plant such as lettuce and you may save seeds from them all, so make sure you bag them and label them carefully and include the year that you saved them on your label. The chances of you misplacing, forgetting, or mixing up something as small as some seed bags over a period of years are much higher than you might think.
Many people like to keep seeds in brown paper envelopes, since the paper keeps the seeds safe from dust or damage but still breathes and allows moisture to pass out over time.
You'll want to start with some of the easiest seeds - lettuce, beans, peas, and tomatoes are all thought to be easy varieties. As you get more advanced, you can also let herbs like basil go to seed, as well as flowers that you enjoy in your garden. By reading up on the local flora and fauna of your area, you can also save seeds from wild plants and cultivate them in your yard. Just make sure you know what the plant is and whether or not it is poisonous!
Once you grow confident, harvesting seeds and packaging them for storage till spring can become a hobby that produces some wonderful gifts. Others will benefit from your careful efforts and from the knowledge you've gained!