Updated on 08.19.10

Garden Tips: Saving Seeds and Starting a Seed Exchange

Trent Hamm

Several readers have written to me requesting information on saving seeds from their garden, which is an awesome frugal practice.

Fall is just starting to tiptoe into the picture here in Iowa, and for us that means that the gardening season is starting to wind up. This year was actually a very uneven year for us because of our baby arriving in late April, which made plantings and other garden prep a bit more challenging than before, so we had some vegetables go in very early and others go in too late.

The end result? We have some items that aren’t producing yet and other items that are already going to seed in our garden. It’s those “going to seed” items that I’m going to be focusing on today.

First of all, what I’m going to describe below isn’t guaranteed to work for many plants started from seeds that you buy at the hardware store or the local nursery. That’s because many of those plants are hybridized, which means that they’re a cross between two different plant varieties. This has the benefit of gaining the positive traits of both varieties but with a big drawback: the seeds don’t necessarily produce plants that match the parent. You might have sterile seeds, you might have seeds that produce a very unusual plant, or you might have something that does match the parent. You simply can’t tell for sure.

So what should you do if you have plants that came from seeds or starts purchased at your local nursery? First, you should still collect the seeds and try planting them next spring – you might end up with some really interesting varieties (or you might end up with complete duds).

Second, and perhaps the best option, you should try ordering seeds from Seed Savers for next spring. This way, you can begin to grow non-hybridized plants in your garden, plants that produce seeds that can be collected and saved until next spring, thus providing you with an unending supply of plants (and thus food).

So, we’ll assume that you’ve got a garden, it’s nearing the end of the harvesting period, and you’ve got some plants starting to go to seed. What’s next?

First, start collecting the seeds. You can use old envelopes for this – unused return envelopes, well labeled and kept in a shoebox, work great for this. Just remove the seeds from a plant, let them dry (on a towel on the table), store them in an envelope, label that envelope, and keep them until spring.

How do you collect the seeds, though? There’s usually a different method for each kind of plant in your garden. The best way is to simply fire up Google and search for “how to collect PLANT seeds” where PLANT is the particular type you’re looking for. For example, here’s a writeup on how to collect tomato seeds – you pretty much just need a single tomato to get plenty of seeds!

Make sure, as you’re collecting and drying the seeds, to mark what they are and especially mark the envelopes you save them in. This way, you can easily retrieve what you have. You should include the year, the type of plant, the variety (if I know it), and any growing information or hints you might want to remember next year.

If you stop right here, you’ll find that you’re saving some cash on next year’s seeds. However, there’s a very easy way to expand the value of this seed-saving process: start a seed exchange with your neighbors.

Basically, a seed exchange simply means that you’re swapping seeds with other gardeners in your area (or even with others through the mail). Since you’ve already got a source for seeds – your own garden – your supply is essentially free – and every person you find to trade with becomes a source for new variety in your garden.

How do you get a seed exchange started? The first step is to simply find other gardeners. Who has a garden in their back yard? Do you have any friends or relatives who are active gardeners? Introduce them to the idea of saving their seeds – or, better yet, give them a few types of seeds to start with to show them that it can be done and that it’s fairly easy. Encourage them to get seeds from Seed Savers (or other such sources) in the future.

Once you have other gardeners who are doing this, talk together when deciding what to plant each year. While you may all want to grow tomatoes, for example, it’s worthwhile to plan to use different tomato varieties. Then, when you figure out later in the year which variety is the best, you can trade for seeds from that variety for the next year.

The most important part of this is to recognize that “trading” here isn’t about getting the best deal. Sometimes, you’ll have a “dud” set of tomatoes and will have to receive tomato seeds from someone with little in return for it; at other times, you’ll have some kind of monster zucchini that produces fifty pounds of the green stuff and you find yourself giving away a lot of seeds. Do not make seed trading into a one-for-one trading system and don’t worry about who got the “better end” of the deal, because it’s very hard to make a trade 100% equitable. Just look at it as giving away your excess seeds and picking up some of the excess seeds of others.

My suggestion is to always get plenty of seeds from any variety that does well. You’ll want them for yourself for next year and you’ll also want to share or swap them with other gardeners – even sometimes ones who don’t save seeds. Friends who share good seeds are good friends, indeed.

There’s another enormous value in seed sharing: friendships and incredibly low cost social activities. Seed exchanging builds friendships because of the common interest in gardening, and the actual need of exchanging seeds often bring social interaction right to the front. A January potluck where people bring their seeds to swap is a great way to have a wonderful evening for next to no cost.

Good luck!

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  1. Todd says:

    Just make sure Monsanto doesn’t find out you are saving your seeds, they will send men in black suits to your house to burn down your barn.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    SeedSavers is great & they have a huge range of seeds available. We have family that live in the area & visit the farm & store every time we go there!

    Unfortunately we don’t know enough people who garden with non-hybrids to be able to swap.

  3. Mary W says:

    When buying seeds with an eye toward saving seeds from the resulting plants, look for those labeled as “open pollination” “OP” or “heirloom”. Don’t buy those which are “F1” which means its a hybrid that won’t breed true.

    Another source for seeds is the 99 cent store. Mind had seed packets 9 for 99 cents last spring. Good if you just want basic varities.

  4. Deb says:

    If you buy seed packets and have some seeds leftover after planting, put the seed packet in a zip lock bag and stick it in the freezer. By doing this, you can plant the seeds again next year and won’t waste seeds. It will save money too! I have planted green bean seeds from the same packet for 3 years in a row and they come up beautifully–no problems with germination.

  5. bethh says:

    I bought an amazing heirloom tomato at a farmer’s market last year, researched how to save the seeds, and have successfully grown four ENORMOUS plants from the purchase of one tomato last summer.

  6. John says:

    I’ve never tried saving seeds. However, I will mention heirloom plants have advantages besides the ability to save the seeds: the produce usually tastes better, and there is no risk of Mad Scientist stuff like GMOs which might or might pose real health problems over the years. Not of much practical value, but fun, is the fact that heirloom plants and their produce are often more interesting than modern plants (interesting shapes, colors, etc). Plus, it’s a piece of history–one can feel connected to past generations by growing what Grandma always grew. For those who’ve never tried heirloom plants, try some next year…even if only a few plants “in addition to” your regular choices.

    One thought I’ve had with seeds that I should try is getting together with others to buy certain seeds to share. Some seeds will easily get used up, but others might not. For example, all I need is ONE zucchini seed–actually, 1/4 of plant is probably all I really need! While I guess seeds are cheap, the frugal side of me hates wasting anything. Waste not, want not..even with a cheap pack of seeds.

  7. Suzi says:

    What unusual cherry tomatoes you have in America! Here in the UK we call those red things on your plate “strawberries”.

  8. 8sml says:

    Another advantage with seeking out and saving seeds from heirloom plants is their suitability for your growing conditions. The seeds from the grocery stores and most garden centres here on the east coast are the same ones they sell in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, despite the vastly different growing conditions in those regions. But when I can find seeds from plant strains that have been selected for generations to grow in my province, they are more likely to thrive in the conditions here and require less watering and other care.

    I also love the idea that I’m connected through history to the food people ate here many years ago.

  9. littlepitcher says:

    Save seeds from more than one fruit, just in case something got cross-pollinated with another variety.

    Also try ordering open-pollinated varieties of exotic seeds. Some may work for you, others will not, but do it for the adventure. I found some amazing varieties of veggies through Oriental seedsmen on eBay.

  10. Kate in WV says:

    A tip passed down from my late grandmother, who always grew enormous gardens, and always saved seeds: Save seeds both from the plant that produces first, and the plant that produces the most vegetables or fruit. In that way, through the years you will find that your garden has produce a little earlier than others’ and produces more abundantly.

  11. Kate in WV says:

    Mr. Hamm:
    I should have added, in comment #8:

    “Save seeds both from the plant that produces first, and the plant that produces *the most good-quality* vegetables or fruit.”

  12. prodgod says:

    I’ve been very negligent in my gardening this year, but have been quite pleasantly surprised by the many “volunteer” plants that have popped-up as a result of fruit & vegetable seeds from previous compost piles. For instance, we have NEVER planted pumpkins, but have a huge patch growing this year, almost ready for harvest. I guess I was saving seeds and didn’t realize it!

  13. deRuiter says:

    If you don’t have them in your garden, you can buy a butternut or acorn squash, scrape out the seeds onto a paper towel, spread them out to dry, save for the spring to plant, AND COOK AND EAT THE SQUASH. If you find a tomato you like in the market, or a zucchini, same thing, buy, save the seeds, and eat the veggie. Ditto watermelons, sweet or hot peppers. You can also save an avocado pit, put toothpicks in it half way up, suspend bottom in water, and make an interesting house plant for free, same with sweet potato vines, and sprouting lemon, orange and grapefruti seeds into house plants. This can be a fun project for children.

  14. Thelma says:

    I have been able to grow and save my own seeds from my TickleMe Plants. If you want a growing experience you will never forget plant this easy to grow plant that moves like an animal when tickled. Even in winter, my students will run to class to tickle their plants and watch how the leaves close and the branches droop down. I always have my children bring a TickleMe Plant to school for extra credit. I just found a Buy one kit and get another FREE special, online at TickleMePlant.com To order go to the site and see the cool video as well. The special may just be for today…but you can save your own seeds for next year

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