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Harvest Your Own Garden Seeds

By Amber Stephens

Photography by Vince DeWitt

Turn this year's garden into next year's crop of free plants by harvesting your own seeds.

Whether it's a top-performing tomato or a particularly fragrant flower, seed saving is an easy and fun way to share seeds, continue a planting tradition, or keep alive a favorite variety for years, says C.L. Fornari, an Osterville, Mass., garden speaker and consultant.

Before saving seeds, gardeners should first be aware that most pre-packaged seeds sold in stores are hybrids, Fornari says. "If the plant is a hybrid, we're not going to get the same plant if we save those seeds," she says.

Instead, the offspring will most likely resemble one of the parent plants. But not knowing what the future plants will be like is part of the fun, she says.

When a flower has fully wilted and the seeds have started to darken, it's time to start saving the seeds. This will typically be right before the pod will fall from the plant naturally, she says.

If you are not sure whether the seeds are dry enough, tie a small lightweight cloth over the seed head. When the pod falls naturally, the seeds will collect in the sack.

For vegetables with seeds inside the produce, such as peppers, wait until the vegetable is overripe. "You'd leave it on long past the time you'd pick it and eat it," Fornari says.

If seeds, such as tomatoes, are not already separated from the plant pulp, smash the vegetable on top of paper bags or paper towels and let the pulp dry. Then, separate the seeds from the plant matter.

"If they're dry, they're not going to stick to the paper towel," Fornari says. If you still aren't sure the seeds are dry, put them in an envelope and set it aside.

Once the seeds are dried, put them in a labeled envelope and place the envelope in a jar or plastic carton with a loose-fitting top. The container will keep the moisture level in the seeds constant without drying them out, she says.

Place the jar in a cool location to prevent seeds from molding or overdrying. Once the seeds are saved, they will be viable for 40 or more years, although a smaller percentage of seeds will germinate each year, she says.

Seeds from nearly all plants can be saved, but some are easier, such as heirloom tomatoes, ornamental peppers, beans, day lilies, nicotiana, and hostas, Fornari says.

"Save a seed and try to grow it," she says. "What have you got to lose?"