There is nothing that we do here that you can’t do yourself at home, but there are a couple of rules if you want a quality product that will store and germinate well. This may sound obvious but folks get impatient or greedy and stuff it up all the time!
Select your best fruit from your best plants to save seeds from.
Every crop has some plants that handle stress or perform better than others. They are your keepers, so mark or tag everything that is performing better than the average. If you see exceptional looking fruit mark them to be saved for seeds too. Don’t bloody eat them!
If you eat the good and save all the crap for seeds then your are breeding yourself a variety of plants that consistently perform poorly in your conditions. If you keep doing it then every generation they will just get worse and worse. If you save the best of the best every time, then every generation they will get better and this is how granny down the street used to win the competitions at the local show.
The biggest pumpkin and the best tasting tomato was not bred from a line of rejects. It was A1 quality show winner x A1 quality show winner, generation after generation getting better and better, being more and more suited to that particular grower’s local conditions.
You probably don’t want to win a ribbon at the local show, I know I don’t, but I mean…
Everyone wants the prettiest flower, most productive garden, or best tasting fruit and vegetables, and selection for the best is how you get them.
The second most important rule is only harvest seeds that are fully mature and ripe.
Types of plants
Beans, legumes and explosive podded plants.
With many large beans that is not when the pods are dry and the plant has died off. It’s a couple of weeks later when a decent percentage of those bean pods have actually split open and either dropped or shot the seeds out. Your instinct not to waste any is noble but wrong, and if you harvest too early you will probably lose the lot later when they rot from fungal attack or failing that they just don’t germinate well. If you only harvest splitting pods and do it daily first thing in the morning while they are still moist from the night air, then you won’t lose any, and you won’t pick any immature ones by mistake.
Prolific seeding herbs and flowers.
These are the grains like black rice, herbs like basil, chia, shiso, and all the things with beehive-shaped pods like toothache plant, heal all, Aztec sweet herb etc. Basically things with a very large seed set and/or many individual segments on each flower stem or branch. These guys should only be picked when greater than 10% has already dropped and been lost. They should be cut with long stems and placed upside down in a bowl, tub or bucket to ensure that their last trickle of goodness travels down into the drying seeds. Later on, you can grab the lot by the stems and bash them about to dislodge the seeds. There is a large amount of missed seeds with this method, but every seed that is collected is A1 quality. To me, that is way more important.
Many folks strip the seeds from the plant with combs or their fingers which works great, but my way ensures a much better quality product and higher germination rate later on.
Annual fruit veggies and vines.
This includes things like pumpkins, melons, naranjilla, cucumbers, tomatoes, tomatillos, and tree fruit like citrus. While immature seeds will often grow fine, they don’t store well and are much more prone to fungal attack and damping-off issues later on as their energy stores are lower. The key with these guys is to be patient and wait until the plant has actually rejected that fruit. That isn’t when they are in their prime for eating, it’s weeks or months later when they have actually fallen off the plant and are now looking pretty ugly. Failing that it’s when the stems that attach them are completely bone dry, shrivelled and brown or tan colour. They will have no green, no sap flow at all, and they will come off easily with little to no resistance. If you are “picking” them, then they are not ready yet.
Fluffy windblown seeds.
Dandelion, lettuce, milk thistle, Porophyllum species, things like that that normally have a little parachute or umbrella attached to the seeds. They are designed to go everywhere and be dispersed gradually over a long time. That makes harvesting them a bit tricky.
With some of them, we use large fine meshed bags that are commonly used to filter honey or homebrew. These are placed whole over the whole bunches of drying pods. The disadvantage with using theses bigger mesh bags is that many of these species stagger their flower maturity and seed set meaning you always miss some, and you also inevitably prevent good pollination of the youngest newest flowers. To get around this issue with some species we use bucketfuls of tiny organza or party favour bags carefully placed over individual flowers and tied in place. That can be pretty tedious and unproductive, but it also ensures maximum pollination of remaining flowers and the best quality of the small number of seeds that are successfully harvested.
These days the most common way I deal with them is by getting up first thing in the morning when it’s still really dark, and just wandering around with half a dozen buckets and an led headlight torch. The majority of the mature dry pod that will split and disperse their seeds that day have already started to open up. The obvious ones are picked always leaving as long a stem as is possible and placed into a bucket to dry. I then go let the chooks out and wander back the hill and by now there is a bit of light peaking through on a sideways angle as the sun begins to rise. Because of this, I can see even more of the soon to be opened pods still attached to plants, and now they are drying and expanding due to evaporation of the morning dew. There is still just enough moisture to stop the seeds floating away yet though. On the way past I do the second harvest and then head inside for a coffee and to I print out the night’s orders.
Once that’s done I head outside again to do a third harvest and final harvest of those fluffy fellas. By the time that’s done it’s around 7-8 am, and the ones I missed in the earlier passes have already lost a majority of their seeds so I just come inside and start working on the emails and Facebook messages.
I give up on the rest and leave them for the critters as it just isn’t an economical use of my time to be stuffing around with them.
By picking really early in the morning I can get about a third of them and they are all at peak maximum ripeness and maturity which makes sorting a breeze.
Every method that would provide a bigger harvest would also lower the quality or increase the sorting time needed later so at the end of the day it doesn’t add up.
How I clean our seeds
Now you selected your best fruit from your best plants and you have harvested them at absolute peak maturity. I will jump ahead a bit now and explain winnowing so that the rest of this makes better sense.
Winnowing is just a fancy word for using wind and gravity to sort the seeds for you. Light things catch the air and fall slowly. Flat shaped things flutter side to side, or in a spiral instead of dropping straight down. Round things fall fast and straight as they don’t catch the wind as much. Heavy things fall faster than light things.
Take a dartboard and put it on the ground. Then take a whole heap of different shaped and sized objects and hold them in the air above the dartboard target. Now drop them. All the round and/or heaviest stuff will fall straight down near the bullseye some dropping very fast. If there is a sideways breeze then the light, flat and fluffy things will fall and land further away from the bullseye.
Replace the “different shaped and sized objects” with a bucket of unsorted seeds. Replace the “dartboard” with a bucket. Now you know how “winnowing” works!
It’s just pouring and catching stuff in a breeze or in front of a fan to allow all the crap to blow away and the clean heavy seeds to be left behind. People have been cleaning seeds for replanting and using this method of food preparation in every habitat on the planet since the dawn of time.
With the big heavy or rounded stuff like beans, it’s just a matter of crushing the pods with your hands or even just shaking them in a bucket so they pop open. The next step is to sieve and winnow, easy as.
I have collected hundreds of different sieves in all shapes and sizes over the years, and one to fit every species perfectly. Every charity store, op shop, kitchen, garden, fishing, camping, or mining supply store I see I immediately stop and look for new sieves, colanders, grading screens, or anything with a mesh that I can bodgy up and use to sort seeds with. Drives the Mrs nuts but when you get the right mesh size it really makes sorting seeds easier.
Speaking of which if you or anyone you know happens to have an old bright orange “Frescoware” fine-meshed sieve with intact unbroken meshes laying around I would LOVE to buy it from you! Happy to pay top dollar as they were really well made and are perfect for my smaller seeded species…
With the fruits, you have to remove the flesh and this is easiest to do if it is overripe/rotten and has already started to break down. It must not be mouldy, furry, or turning black green white or blue though. All of that is fungi, and fungal spores proliferate like crazy. They can also wreck your seeds ability to germinate.
Don’t waste your time with them if you can avoid it.
If it’s an emergency and you need to use them then clean and dry as fast as you possibly can, and as soon as they are properly dried replant them. They should ever be stored as they can not be trusted long term.
This next bit will ruffle a few feathers. What folks do and what works for them is different everywhere. Everyone has an opinion, and some folks like to spout them to new growers as if they were proven facts when at very best they are one-off observations.
When I started out I don’t know anything so I naively took every bit of “expert” advice from anyone older, more experienced or even just mouthier than me as gospel truth. Now I don’t believe anything that I haven’t seen with my own eyes, and I know enough to see that even my own untested theories and beliefs could be just biased rubbish too.
“Tomatoes must be fermented” is a great example.
You always doing it and having great success may be a fact. But that is not proof of it being needed, let alone being the best method available. While it’s true that there was a study done decades ago that showed one variety, in one location, in one season, in one batch, performed far better when fermented before cleaning than another group that was not fermented before cleaning, that is literally all it showed.
The reason was assumed to be the lactobacillus culture that was in suspension with the decomposing fruit and based on this belief lactobacillus fermentation was implemented by several large seed suppliers.
It didn’t discount any of the other possibilities though. Maybe the seeds were all a little immature, and the acidic soak leached out and broke down more of the germination inhibiting chemicals the way Halopriming using salt does.
Maybe they were just physically cleaned better because of the action of fermentation, and maybe this remaining fruit on the non-fermented batch killed them.
Maybe fungal spores or bacterial contamination in the unfermented batch was the cause of failure and the rest was co-incidence.
Maybe it was super effective but only on that variety. It was a one-off, decades ago, in the USA, not Australia, yet folks point to that as proof of superior effectiveness in all cases, something I dispute based on my own experiences.
Fermentation will clean a tomato seed very well, and folks do it all the time with a very acceptable success rate. But there are also more failed batches vs unfermented. It can also provide the ideal environment for a whole host of plant pathogens, especially here in hot and humid Australia. Unless you are inoculating each batch with a known starter culture and keeping it in a controlled environment then it’s hit and mix which doesn’t matter much with a home gardener who has plenty of backups.
I want to do the very best I can though, not just what some “expert ” tells me, and fact is way more important than random opinions or untested individual experiences. With that in mind, I ran a huge side-by-side trial in the middle of Summer and another in the middle of Winters. Just basic cleaning by washing and rubbing fully ripe and mature fruit on a sieve worked better than fermentation then cleaning. It produced more seedlings across a very wide range of tomato varieties compared to what fermentation did. It was only a maximum of 15% difference, but to me it proved that assertion fermentation is needed or even best, to just be straight-up false…
The second myth that I see all the time is “good seeds sink, duds float”.
This is NOT always true, and several pumpkin varieties I grow are the complete opposite. The empty unfertilized or cracked seeds fill with water and sink, but the fat well-sealed mature fertile ones have a pocket of air trapped inside them.
With some species no trapped air = no floating = no germination. This is the same with some smaller seeded natives and a few types of bean I grow too.
To maximise your seed saving successes I recommend you do the following
Make sure your fruit is ripe, clean the seeds contained within it very well, then wrap them in a very clean and dry cotton tea towel. Rub them to trap any missed fruit particles to the cloth and start the drying process. Then dry them thoroughly for a couple of weeks. During this time regularly break up any clumps that form. Once they are separated and mostly dry winnow them a couple of times to blow away any lighter flatter-shaped duds. Once you think for sure they are dry enough wait an extra two weeks and pack them only on a very hot, dry, low humidity day, to lower the risk of damping-off or fungal attack.
Fluffy windblown seeds are the easiest of all. Dislodge them from their stems if needed, and drop them into a sieve that allows the seeds to drop but the fluffy umbrellas to be left behind. Rub what falls through with your hands and carefully blow on it. All the light dust blows away and all that is left is the seeds and a few fragments of leaf matter. A couple more passes through a sieve and final winnow and they are all good to pack.
How do I pack the seeds and guarantee folks actually get what they paid for?
Just like the ever-expanding sieve collection, I also have a continually expanding seed scoop collection.
The scoops are all different shapes and sizes, most custom made.
They are all suited to measuring a different amount of seeds, and they all have identifying names that are recorded with the various variety of seeds.
“Pen Cap” was made from a pen cap a timber screw and half a bamboo chopstick.
“Battery scoop” was made from the battery cover of an old dolphin torch battery.
“Dash scoop” had dash written on it when I bought it.
You get the idea…
I work out what I believe to be a reasonable amount of seeds based on the price of production, labour input, time expenditure, germination expectation, difficulty, rarity, eventual yield, and the amount needed to ensure a self-sustaining crop. It’s what I reckon is reasonable and at a price that I reckon is reasonable too.
In the picture, I was using Heal All and I decided that 200 seeds were a reasonable amount per packet.
I then counted out 200 seeds and found the scoop that when filled with 200 seeds is not quite full. That was “Dash scoop”. It looks super stingy, and I would never pack that small amount into a scoop that size.
The way I guarantee everyone gets more than they paid for is now super easy. Underfilled Dash scoop is ~200 seeds, so a level Dash scoop is way more than 200 so I can say “200+ seeds” without ever having to worry.
Just to be sure I also always overfill each and every scoop, so full that it can’t possibly hold any more! Now I know for sure that what you receive is way more than you paid me for, and to my eye, it’s kind of impossible to have unhappy customers feeling ripped off.
You get more than expected, and I don’t have to count the seeds after that first packet from each batch. It’s important to count each batch as some seeds actual size varies a lot between seasons and crops.
I’m pretty obsessive about all this stuff and I try super hard to do everything right, every step of the way, always.
Because of this obsessive attention to detail, I can sleep easy knowing you guys always get the best seeds, from the best plants, and always more of them than you paid me for.
Every step of our process just makes sense when you think about it. Attention to detail today, means way less emails, dramas, and work tomorrow.
Being the lazy sort of dude I am it always works out better to just do things right the first time.