By Contributing Editor Kristina Strain

When frost has fallen on the garden, and your bean vines are hanging like last year’s tattered birthday streamers from their supports, it’s time to think about seed saving. Gathering matured garden seed at the end of the growing season is a terrific way to save money, experiment, and be self-reliant.

Once upon a time, saving seed was the only option for farmers and gardeners. Part of the harvest was carefully collecting and labeling homegrown garden seed, keeping it safe and dry through the winter to become next year’s bounty. Today, seed companies make it unnecessary to rely on self-saved seed; still, there are many benefits to be had.

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Preservation. Extinct, endangered, and threatened are typically words you hear associated with wilderness, rainforest, and charismatic mega-fauna. But cultivated seed varieties go extinct, too. Every year we lose many, many, many. The unique traits of a diverse seed population, from disease resistance to unmatched flavor, is a legacy of carefully practiced agriculture we can’t afford to lose. Picking a lesser-known, heirloom vegetable, and saving its seeds for future years preserves its genes and increases its vigor.

Experimentation. As any high school Biology graduate knows, evolution gives rise to diversity. Each row of plants contains a wealth of genetic information and variation, and the desirable traits can be preserved by saving seed. By repeating the process year after year, those traits will multiply, improving the variety for your particular garden. It’s customization: you can choose those plants best-suited to your climate, soil, and growing style, and select for your own particular preferences.

Self-reliance. Seed saving is independence from corporate garden seed. It’s wonderfully thrifty and empowering, and it keeps your money out of the pockets of companies like Monsanto. Farmers and home gardeners are under constant pressure from biotechnology and genetic engineering, widely used techniques whose long-term effects are unknown. Each year, more traditional and heirloom varieties are squeezed out in favor of genetically modified crops; each year, carefully selected traits are lost forever. Seed saving can be a political statement against genetic modification, if that’s your particular penchant, or it can just be a fun and empowering way to save money.

Seed Saving Basics

Beware the Hybrids. Hybrid seed varieties, often denoted in seed catalogs by an F1 or F2 marking, are not good choices for seed saving. Because hybrids were developed by crossing two varieties of disparate origin, they won’t “breed true.” Their progeny will be stunted, sterile, or otherwise wacky. If you’ve ever tried to grow seeds from a grocery store cucumber, you probably have firsthand experience with this. Any seed variety labeled “heirloom” is guaranteed to be safe, so stick to those.

Self-Pollinators, a seed-saver’s dream. Most plants rely on wind or insects to accomplish the act of pollination, but not self-pollinators. They don’t leave anything up to chance, achieving their own pollination in some cases before the flowers even open. Plants like this have no chance of cross-breeding, so the seed saver doesn’t run any risk of contamination.

Five Easy ones to Try

Beans. This is one of the self-pollinators I mentioned above. Left to hang on the vine for a couple of months (see picture), they’ll eventually brown and dry out. After first frost, plants can be hung, pods and all, in a dry place until they’re fully browned and somewhat rattly. It’s a simple job, after that, to split the pods open and roll out the beans.

Tomatoes. Tomatoes are probably the most commonly saved seeds. Why? Because a superlative tomato that produces like mad and tastes great is something everyone wants in their garden. Fortunately, tomatoes self-pollinate, too. There is a slight risk of insect interference; if you’re growing a lovely old heirloom plant with the intention of saving its seeds, keep it 25 feet away from other varieties to ensure genetic purity. Tomato seeds can be squeezed out onto several layers of newspaper, labeled, and stored that way until spring. Simply scrape the dried seeds off the paper as they’re needed.

Lettuce. Once the heat of high summer sets in, lettuces “bolt,” sending up hoary, vigorous seed stalks that look unmistakably like the dandelion-family weeds to which they are related. Though one plant can easily produce up to 30,000 seeds, it’s best to save seed from at least five different plants, to ensure a little variation. Wait until the little yellow flowers turn to fluff, then carefully pull out the attached seeds and store.

Peppers. Though peppers normally self-pollinate, they are susceptible to insect interference, so separate varieties by at least 50 feet. Wait for the peppers to turn red, then scrape out the seeds, dry them for a week on newspapers, and store.

Sunflowers. By simply tying some netting over your ripening sunflower heads, you can keep the birds off and ensure a good seed crop. Harvest the seeds by rubbing the dried head over a hardware-cloth screen, dry for a week, and store. Sunflowers will cross with wild relatives, producing all sorts of interesting varieties. It’s fun to experiment and see what grows.

Begin in the fall. Start thinking about next year’s garden right now. Were there any particularly excellent producers in this year’s garden? Were they non-hybrid, or heirloom varieties? If they fit this description, and match the list above, waste no time getting out to the garden to save some seeds. Next year, the plants will perform even better. You’ll feel empowered, fulfilled, and a little like Gregor Mendel in the meantime, and certainly save some money, as well.

For an added eco-benefit, start your seeds in simple, quick, homemade newspaper pots!