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Seed Saving

How to Save Seeds of Your Favorite Vegetable Crops 

Why Save Seed?  

West Virginia is in the central Appalachian Mountains, and seed saving has a long history in the state. Saving seed is investing in the future, while preserving the past. Saving seed preserves genetic diversity of plants that have been grown in the region for generations and, in some cases, hundreds of years. Rather than buying seed from seed companies, seeds of many vegetables can be saved year to year in West Virginia. By saving seed, a gardener or commercial produce grower can select varieties with superior qualities, such as being adapted to the environment of the Appalachian region.  As the climate changes and becomes more erratic, adapted varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers are extremely important for future food production. Heirloom vegetables, which are often old (>50 years) varieties that are open pollinated and not hybrids, are very popular in Appalachia. Saving seed from heirloom varieties ensures that they are available for future generations. Three common vegetables you can easily save seed from include tomatoes, beans, and squash or melons. 

Saving Tomato Seed

When saving tomato seed, it's very important to maintain purity of the variety from which you wish to save seed. Tomatoes produce an abundance of flowers throughout the growing season, and the pollen is sticky, but it can be carried by bees and other pollinators to flowers from different varieties of tomato plants. The offspring from this cross would not be true to type if there were different varieties. Thus, it is important to isolate tomatoes by 25 to 50 feet from other varieties. Planting dates between varieties can be changed to avoid flowering during the same period, but since tomatoes are day neutral plants, they will often flower continuously if the temperature is suitable. Tomato flowers are perfect flowers, meaning they contain male and female organs. Simple vibration of the flower will often result in self-pollination. A cage made of insect netting can be placed over individual plants to prevent cross pollination as well.

There are many heirloom tomato varieties in West Virginia. Some popular heirloom tomato varieties include Mortgage Lifter, a red or pinkish-red beefsteak tomato; Hillbilly, a yellow/red bicolor slicing tomato; and Kelloggs Breafast, a yellow to orange beefsteak tomato. There also are many "family heirloom" tomato varieties that have been saved within a family for generations in West Virginia.

When saving tomato seed, select vine-ripe fruit from healthy and vigorous plants with desirable characteristics in the field or garden. There are two methods of saving seed from tomatoes: dry seed and fermentation. 

The fermentation or wet method of seed saving is preferred by many seed savers since it removes any germination inhibitors that may be in the gel surrounding the seeds. With this process, the tomato fruit is cut in half or quartered and the pulp with seed and juice is extruded into a clean jar or container. No water is added to the juice initially. The container is placed at room temperature for three to five days. Once a day, the mixture is stirred to loosen seeds from the pulp. Some seeds sink to the bottom of the jar, but even viable seeds are suspended in the fermenting gel, which collects at the top of the jar. 

After five to seven days, water is added to the jar and the surface pulp removed. The remaining mixture is strained through a sieve or colander and washed with water two to three times. The seeds are then blotted dry on a paper plate and allowed to air dry at room temperature for approximately two weeks. 

After drying, the tomato seeds can be placed in coin envelopes and then sealed in a plastic bag. Storing in a cool, dry place is recommended. If storing seed for extended periods of time, freezing the seed is recommended. Properly stored, tomato seeds can be viable for at least five years. 

Saving Bean Seeds

Beans are an incredibly diverse crop with differences in shape, color and flavor. Saving bean seed is fairly easy since beans are highly self-fertile. In the garden, different bean varieties should be separated by approximately 15 feet. 

Many heirloom beans produce long runners or vines and require trellising. Preserving beans for future generations is very important. Heirloom beans are open-pollinated and thus, the seed can be saved for planting the following season. 

One method for saving beans from heirloom varieties is harvesting some of the beans for fresh or preserved consumption and allowing the remainder of the crop to mature and dry on the vine as a seed crop. Seeds should be allowed to dry in the pod, but if weather is rainy, they can be harvested mature with some seed moisture and dried inside. Mechanical shellers are available, but small numbers of pods can be hand-shelled. The beans can be placed in paper envelopes or plastic bags and labeled with the variety and the date. The bean seeds can be stored in a refrigerator or freezer until needed for planting for five to 10 years. 

Saving Squash and Melon Seeds

Melons and squash are cucurbit vegetables and are a popular fruiting vegetable for seed saving. Melons and squash (summer and winter) have separate male and female flowers and are cross-pollinated by insects. There are two methods of saving seeds from these two crops. Since isolation ensures varietal purity, choose one watermelon, cantaloupe or winter squash variety for seed saving. There are numerous heirloom melon and squash varieties, but popular heirloom melons in West Virginia include the Banana melon, Charentais cantaloupe and Blacktail Mountain watermelon. Winter squash is a very popular Appalachian food crop. Permelon, or the Candy Roaster squash, is an excellent winter squash as well as the Hubbard squash. 

Another method of saving seeds from squash and melons involves hand pollinating the pistillate or female flowers as soon as they open from the same variety and tagging the flowers with the date of pollination. Once the flower is pollinated, the fruit begins to develop. The fruit can be harvested as soon as it reaches maturity. 

For cantaloupes, the fruit will often slip from the vine at maturity. Charentais variety cantaloupes do not slip but will develop a golden-brown color when vine ripe. Watermelons are ripe when the ground spot changes color from white to yellow and the tendril closest to the fruit is dry or desiccated. Winter squash is mature when the shell of the fruit is hard to puncture with your thumbnail. Some winter squashes, such as kabocha squashes, develop a corky stem when mature. Winter squash should be cured in a dry warm environment for one month to increase sugar content. 

When harvesting seeds from melons and squashes, the seeds from mature fruit are washed through a sieve and blotted dry on a paper towel. The seed is allowed to air dry for four weeks. The seed is dried sufficiently when it snaps in two. The seed can be placed in envelopes and sealed bags or another airtight container and placed in the refrigerator or a cool, dry place until use. Melon and squash seed can be stored for five years.