Seeds 101

Why save seeds

  • Nine out of every 10 bites of food start with food
  • We only grow about 10% of the food varieties that are actually available to us.
  • Local food starts with local seed that grows really well right where we live
  • You never have to buy seeds again, you can legally save seeds from open-pollinated plants that grow like their parents
  • Each seed produces more seeds that we can save and share. Squash and tomatoes can produce thousands of seeds while one lettuce seed can produce 30,000 more seeds! That’s pretty impressive!
  • Every seed has a story. People have been saving and sharing open-pollinated seeds for thousands of years. We need ensure that these stories and these seeds are available for everyone for all time
  • Three corporations control more than 80% of commercial seed. Their hybrid and patented seeds often require harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to grow.
  • You must buy hybrid seeds every time you grow them.
  • It’s illegal to save or share seeds from patented plants.
  • Commercial seeds that are packaged and sold in Canada are usually grown somewhere else in the world
  • 93% of heirloom or open-pollinated varieties are no longer available. We need to grow them again.
  • Growing diverse crops of a wide variety of open-pollinated plants offers the best hope for adaptation to changing world climate and is one of the best ways to help us avoid catastrophic crop failures associated with monocultures (growing large fields of just one kind plant)
  • Many heirloom varieties offer superior taste, nutritional value, and potential resistance to disease.
  • Sustainable crop diversity offers the best hope for adaptation to changing world climate.
  • Genetic diversity is nature’s insurance policy against catastrophic crop failures.
  • Heritage plant varieties belong to all people. When we help protect them, we are helping to pass a 12,000 year legacy down to the next generation.

How to I choose the best seeds for my garden?

  1. Choose a local seed company that grows the plants (that produce the seeds) in our region. This gives you seeds that are already adapted to your growing conditions. Here are some local seed companies: Bear Root Gardens, Edible Antiques, Kitchen Table Seed House, Mountain Grove Seed Company and Greta’s Organic Gardens.
  2.  Ensure they grow the seeds organically. Organic growing practices are best for the environment (of course) and produce seeds that perform better in natural conditions (pesticide-free gardens).
  3. Choose open-pollinated (OP), heirloom (most are OP) and hybrid (F1) seeds.
  4. Learn about pollination and how plants interact. It’s fun! And it’ll help you prevent unwanted cross-pollination of your OP crops so that your saved seeds will grow up to be like their parents.
  5. Learn about best seed saving practices. You may even want to contribute to a local seed library. And seed saving and starting is totally fun and addictive, in a botanical kind of way.

Collecting seeds

  • Mark your best plants while they are blooming and save those seeds. The best plants produce the best seeds.
  • Seeds must ripen fully on the plant before you harvest them. (Bean and pea pods, for example, turn brown and dry.)
  • Keep a few seeds back, in the spring-time, so you have a standard against which you can compare your fall seeds. Compare colour, size, and especially plumpness.
  • Look for insect damage – sometimes just pinpoint holes in the seed where critters have burrowed in – and discard affected seeds.
  • Choose seeds from many plants to maintain the natural diversity of their traits. For example, if your beans have a natural variation in colour, save some seeds of each colour to preserve the assortment.
  • If you want to breed a new strain, collect seeds from the plants you like best.

Cleaning seeds

Cleaning dry seeds

  • Some examples of dry seed: Beans, peas, lettuce, herbs, ornamental flowers.
  • Harvest the seeds when the pods are fully mature. The seeds should be dry and brown.
  • Store them in a dry area before separating them. If the pods crumble in your hand, they are dry enough to process.
  • Crumble pods or seed heads into a bowl.
  • Shake the bowl so the seeds fall to the bottom and the chaff (leaves, stems bits, flower parts) sits on top.
  • Separate the seeds from the chaff with a screen.

Cleaning wet seeds with no pulp

  • Wet seeds with no pulp are fruits and vegetables like peppers, melons, and pumpkins.
  • Harvest the fruit when it is fully ripe on the plant.
  • Long-keeping fruit (squash, pumpkins) should age another three weeks or so to allow the seeds to mature further. Short-keeping melons and peppers do not need this additional maturing period.
  • Cut the fruit open (across the ‘equator’) and scoop out the seeds. (Eat the rest!)
  • Rinse the seeds and put them on a plate or sheet of glass to dry. Avoid most papers, as seed sticks to it. Brown (kraft) paper works fine, but you will have to stir the seeds daily.
  • Stir the seeds from time to time to ensure they are all exposed to the air, and all dry out.
  • Seeds that are lumpy, mouldy, or discoloured should be tossed out (or used in soup).

Cleaning wet seeds surrounded by pulp

  • Seeds that are surrounded by a jelly-like pulp, like tomatoes and cucumbers, fall into this category.
  • Harvest the fruit when it’s fully ripe on the plant.
  • A cucumber should be large and yellowed. Tomatoes should be vine-ripened. Green tomatoes harvested at the end of the season will turn red, but these are not ‘ripe’ for seeds. Do not use these. Use tomatoes that ripened on the vines.
  • Cut fruit in half and squeeze or spoon the seeds into a jar. Cover the jar with cheesecloth, or put a loose lid on it.
  • Let the jar sit at room temperature for 3-4 days. It’s okay if mould grows on it, and the concoction gets smelly. Cheesecloth will help keep fruit flies out.
  • When the pulp is fully rotten, pour water into the jar. Stir. Let settle. The good, heavy, seeds will sink and the pulp and mould will rise. Carefully pour off the pulp only. Repeat until the seeds and the rinse water are clean (2-3 times, perhaps).
  • Strain the clear water and seeds through a sieve. Flip the seeds onto a plate or piece of glass, spread them out, and let them dry. Stir them around every day or so, so they don’t get stuck to the plate, or clump up.

Storing seeds

  • Store seeds in a dry, cold, dark place – safe from insects and rodents.
  • Different seeds can survive for different periods of time. The more carefully the humidity, temperature, and light are controlled in their environment, the longer they last. Humidity is more significant than temperature.
  • In a typical home, they may last as follows:
    • 1 year: onion, parsley, parsnip, salsify
    • 2 years: dandelion, sweet corn, leek, okra, pepper
    • 3 years: asparagus, beans, carrot, celeriac, celery, chervil, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, pea, spinach
    • 4 years: beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, eggplant, fennel, kale, mustard, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash, Swiss chard, tomato, turnip, watermelon
    • 5 years: cardoon, collards, endive, lettuce, muskmelon, radish, watercress
  • Under optimal conditions, seeds can last much longer. A bean, for instance, could last up to 20 years in a freezer, instead of three.
  • Seeds should be very dry before they’re stored. Bang a bean with a hammer. If it shatters, it’s dry. Or, bite the seed. If you leave tooth-marks, they’re not dry enough.
  • Once seeds are truly dry, they may be kept in envelopes or jars with airtight lids. Label with the name of the seed variety and the year harvested. You may also add notes about the growing season, or keep a diary for your garden.


  • Biennials produce seeds in their second year of growth.
  • Biennials are either hardy, or non-hardy.
  • Hardy biennials (e.g., parsnips, leeks, Swiss chard) can be kept in the ground over winter, provided they are deeply mulched after the first few frosts, to prevent them from freezing and thawing. Avoid exposure of the plants.
    • Dig up the roots in early spring. Select the best specimens, and replant them (eat the rest).
    • These plants will produce flowers in late spring. When the flowers turn brown, the seeds are ready to harvest. They may not ripen all at once.
  • Non-hardy biennials (e.g., carrots, celery, beets, cabbage family, salsify, turnips) have to be dug up before the first frost of the fall, with their roots intact.
    • Select the best ones. For example, with carrots, save the ones that are the correct colour, not forked, or split. If you don’t like hairy roots, use those carrots for food.
    • Trim off the tops, leaving about 5 cm (2 inches) of leaves.
    • Let them sit in the air for about a week so they dry slightly, and can resist mould.
    • Bury the roots up to their necks in moist leafmould, coir, or sand.
    • Over the winter, store the roots in a cold, humid place, or in a one meter deep hole under the garden.
    • After the risk of frost has passed in the spring, replant the roots as early as possible.
    • These plants will produce flowers in late spring. When the flowers turn brown, the seeds are ready to harvest. They may not ripen all at once.
The preceding text was excerpted using ‘Basic Seed Saving’, a booklet produced by Seeds of Diversity, as one of our guides.

NOTE: We recommend the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth for detailed information about saving seeds. It describes the techniques for each type of plant. ~$24.95.