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How To Save Vegetable Seeds – Part 1

Magic Beans:  Runner beans and lima bean


Since those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are beginning to order our seeds and plan our gardens, here is a list of things you need to know about each of your crops if you’re planning to save seeds this year.


This is probably the most important bit of information you need to know when seed saving. Generally speaking, cross-pollination can occur between different plants from the same species.

What confused me in the past was that within a Family, there may be several species. For instance, in the Leguminosae (ie, Legume) Family, there are 12,000 different species. So I can simultaneously grow pigeon peas, runner beans, and lima beans, for example, and save seeds from each of them – they will not cross-pollinate because they are different species! As you can imagine, learning can considerably widen the breadth of what you can plant at the same time.

Pollination Method

  1. Insect-pollinated plants are generally plants that have male and female flowers on the same plant. Squash plants are easy illustrations of this: you have the female flowers that have a mini-squash (“ovary”) at their base, and male flowers that do not. Depending on the species, these crops can be pollinated by honeybees, bumblebees, other bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, flies, and/or hummingbirds.

  2. Self-pollinating plants have male and female flower parts within the same flower – these are called “perfect” flowers (ha, if only we were all so perfect!). Generally you only need one plant to create seeds from these plants. However, some of these are self-incompatible, which means they can only be pollenized by an insect or wind that carries pollen from another plant. And some of these, such as tomatoes and peppers, are greatly aided by wind- and insect-pollination.

  3. Wind-pollinated plants are plants that rely on wind for pollination, such as corn, spinach, and many grains.

All three of these have the potential for cross-pollination. This means if you want to save seeds from these plants, you must isolate them from other plants in the same species.


  1. Physical isolation. Isolation distance is the distance a plant needs to be away from another plant of the same species in order to keep from cross-pollinating. However, in many instances you can isolate plants artificially by putting one plant in a greenhouse or wire cage, or covering the flowers with plastic, cloth, or wire mesh. In this case you must hand-pollinate any wind- or insect-pollinating plants.

  2. Temporal isolation. If you want to grow more than one variety, plant the first one as early as you possibly can. When that plant starts to flower, you can sow seeds for the second variety. This works only if the second crop reaches its flowering stage after the first crop has already set its seeds and stopped shedding pollen.

Population Size

Always attempt to grow as many plants as you can in your garden, in order to preserve a wide range of genetic diversity within each crop. If you can only plant a few plants, you can hand-pollinate between your most vigorous plants in order to maintain maximum diversity within your crop. Make sure that when you are saving seeds, you save seeds from several different fruits.

Even if you are selecting for certain characteristics that you’d like to bring out within your next crop, a good rule of thumb is to focus on the plant, not the fruit.

Annual, Biennial, or Perennial

  1. Annuals produce seed within the same year that they are germinated. Once the seed is produced, the mother plant dies.

  2. Biennials produce seed the year after they are germinated. Once the seed is produced, the mother plant dies. These can be the most difficult seeds to save – particularly in the North, as the plants have to be overwintered. Mulch can protect them, but if your area is particularly cold you may have to bring your plant indoors, cover it in a cold frame, or dig, store, and then replant the roots in the spring.

  3. Perennials generally produce seed every year, and live several years before the mother plant dies.


Important Books

How do you learn all of these qualities of your seeds? Read. Read the packets of seeds, read nursery websites, read Master Gardener information, read blogs and forums, read your gardening books, and read seed saving books. It’s an incredible experience to save seeds and grow them the following year, but it’s only incredible if you do it with the knowledge you need!!

  • Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
  • Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe
  • Garden Seed Inventory by K. Whealy

Other Great Resources

Please, if you know of other resources, add them in the comments below!

Where To Buy Seeds

Lots of information here: Gardening 101: How & Where To Order Organic Vegetable Seeds.

Join The Challenge!

There are currently 53 people taking part in the new Growing Challenge: From Seed To Seed. Find out more about it here!

New! The Growing Challenge Advanced Edition – From Seed To Seed!

Do share any additional knowledge you have with your fellow seed savers, in the comments below!!

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14 comments to How To Save Vegetable Seeds – Part 1

  • I also recently found Victory Heirloom Seeds. They have lots of information on seed saving as well as links to other sites.

  • monica

    This year, I am going to save the seeds from some of the tomato plants that keep coming back on their own. They are obviously adapted to the environment here. I have not bought that type of tomato in 7 years, but they continue to come back–despite my efforts to get rid of them.

    Another note I would like to add is that for the peas and beans–save a few from plants that grew well and that the family likes the taste of. There is no sense in saving seeds from a plant that requires more attention than the others if they don’t taste as well. Water requirements and use of measures to eradicate bugs are what I refer to here.

    I can’t wait to get started! I bought a push plow from Earthway (6500 model). My garden is going to rock this year! The best part about not having a job is having extra time to pull weeds.

  • THANK-YOU! Great information and very concise. I intend to save lettuce seeds this year….for the first time…and I’m very excited about it. Now I’m actually looking forward to the plants going to seed!

  • Bill McDorman

    You can find free detailed seed saving instructions for 18 vegetables on the website of this 20 year-old non-profit:

  • Cynthia

    Someday, I’ll figure out how to get seeds for carrots and cabbage.
    (visiting from crunchy chicken’s blog)

  • Very concise introduction to the subject. Well done.

    @Cynthia, carrots and cabbages are both easy, but have minor problems.

    Carrots will cross with Queen Anne’s Lace, so you need to be sure there isn’t any flowering within about 1 km of your crop. And cabbages are also out-crossers, so you need to save from only one variety at a time. But it can be done!

    Seed to Seed is probably the best resource, if you want only one book.

  • Rob

    I just put up a post on sprouting. Gardening in your kitchen!

  • As you can see I’m a bit behind in answering comments – yikes!

    Judy & Bill, thanks for sharing the links.

    Monica, great point about saving seeds from plants that do well. I’ll make sure to include that in my future posts (How To Save Vegetable Seeds – Parts 2 & 3!).

    Maureen, glad I could help! It is exciting!

    Cynthia, welcome and thanks for leaving a comment! I’ll be writing about carrots specifically at a later time, as several people seem to have issues with them. So stay tuned!

    Jeremy, Thank you for the great info! I agree – Seed to Seed in invaluable.

    Rob, great post!

  • [...] to this. Once things get growing a bit in the Northern Hemisphere, I’ll also write more about seed saving. Anything else in particular you’d like to [...]

  • Ken

    Love the challenge! I run a Seed Library organization for home gardeners in the Northeast. Our blog includes seed saving tips and shows how we do on-farm seed saving for our climate. Weather or not you join the Seed Library, our instructions and resources are free. I also teach hands-on seed saving workshops August-October. Hope we can be another resource to help everyone in the challenge be successful seed savers.

  • hollie

    Im sorry if i have missed it, but im a beginer and just planted from seed a few months back and everything is growing really fast…..but onced i have harvested my veg, what then?
    do i have to start again from seed i buy in the shops?
    where do the people who sell the seeds get them from?
    im not sure where on my radish the seeds will come from and how i can keep growing the crop.

    im so confused..xx

  • Rob & Ben

    HELP! I absolutely LOVED your “How To Save Vegetable Seeds – Part 1″ but searched your site and cannot find “How To Save Vegetable Seeds – Part 2″.

    My spouse is a four star Chef so creative cooking is his passion, where organic home gardening is mine. I just LOVE being able to provide our family (we have four sons, two daughters-in-law, and three grandchildren) with fresh produce from our garden!

    You got me hooked on Part One, now I would love to read your Part Two!

    Thanks, and God Bless!

  • [...] finally write “How To Grow A Four-Season Garden Part 3.” Plus I’ll write “How To Save Vegetable Seeds Part 2,” for those who are more adventurous (it’s not [...]

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