Saving Seeds

by Irwin Richman

This sidebar originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXIX, Number 2 - Spring 2012

Read the full article: "Saving Seeds, Sowing for the Future"

Techniques of harvesting seeds vary from variety to variety. It's basically a simple process requiring patience, vigilance, and minimal equipment.

For beans, peas, corn, lettuce, and ornamentals, it's a matter of patience. Allow the fruit to remain on the plant until the pod has dried (in the case of beans and peas) or until the dried seeds are ready to fall off or blow away. The ideal time to harvest the seeds of beans and peas is when seeds can fall easily from the plant. Lighter seed heads that depend on the wind to distribute them require only a little more patience. In the case of lettuce or salsify, check the plants daily - twice a day is even better - and pluck the seeds along with the white fuzz before it blows away.

For melons the process is easier but much messier. The seeds extract sugar from the fruit while imbedded inside. Seeds will be most viable if, after harvesting ripe fruit, it is allowed to begin softening on the outside. Open up the fruit and scoop out the seeds, rinse them, and spread them on a paper towel until dry.

Cucumber and tomatoes are the most complicated because they must go through a fermentation process before their seeds can be stored. Tomatoes can be harvested as they ripen, but cucumbers should be left on the vine until they are overripe. Begin by scooping the seeds encased in their gel sacs (the membrane that surrounds the seeds) into a glass jar. After removing the seeds from the tomatoes, put a little water in the jar, stir, label the jar with the name and the date the fruit was seeded, and place the jar in a cool, dry place. Cover the jar lightly with a paper towel and secure with a rubber band as fermentation does become odoriferous! Do not cover tightly with a lid and do not fill the jars more than three-quarters full to allow for escaping gas. After about three days of fermenting, (which varies with the air temperature), sludge will form on top of the mixture. This consists of mold, useless seeds, and bits of pulp. Good seeds sink to the bottom and useless seeds float to the top. Stir the mixture each day to help release any good seeds caught in the sludge. The purpose of fermenting the seeds is to destroy mold and fungi spores which could harm the seed and decrease germination rates. Allowing the seeds to ferment too long encourages the protective gel sac surrounding each seed to break down, causing the seeds to sprout.

Once the sludge layer has formed, it is generally safe to wash the seeds. Scoop off the worst of the sludge and begin draining the remaining liquid. As the liquid is pouring off, so too are the useless seeds which have floated to the top during fermentation. When reaching the seeds at the bottom of the jar, stop pouring, and fill the jar with clean, cold water. Allow the seeds to settle again, and pour off the liquid. Repeat until the seeds are washed and clean and the water remains clear.

The next step in the saving of seeds is crucial.

Once seeds have been harvested and processed (by either fermentation or shelling), they should be allowed to dry. Place the seeds on a paper towel on a flat dish or pan out of direct light in a climate-controlled place where they will have little chance of being disturbed by curious children, pets, or (worse) mice. Be sure to label the paper towels. Gently move the seeds around each day to prevent them from sticking together.

Within a few days the seeds should be dry enough to store for the winter. Store seeds in an airtight container and in a cool, dry, and dark space, such as a refrigerator. Word of caution: if seeds have been stored in a refrigerator or freezer, allow them to warm to room temperature before opening the container. Do not mix seeds from different years; genetic crossings don't immediately appear, and seed savers need a way of tracing and confining a problem should one arise.


Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Lancaster, PA
Step into the largest museum of early Pennsylvania German life in the country.

For Further Reading

pennsylvania-heritage-spring-2012_compac Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Spring 2012

landis-valley-toh.gif Landis Valley Museum: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide
by Elizabeth Johnson

Stackpole Books and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Saving Seeds