How to dry and save seeds

Posted by Erin Colborn on

Today I wanted to talk about how we save our seeds around here and how you can too at home.  It involves very little equipment output on your part by simply using everyday household tools. This post was probably inspired by the fact that we have finally gotten around to getting the majority of our seeds dried, cleaned and stored for the season, believe me did I have the biggest sigh of relief because this task is a huge undertaking for us! Of course for the homegrower saving seeds is very doable and relatively simple! I should note first, this is discussing saving seeds from dry fruited plants, not extracting seeds from fleshy fruited plants (think tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes etc as that has a few different steps). We are looking at those plants that "dry out" and go to seed, which is likely a huge part of your garden (examples include brassicas, beans, peas, alliums, flowers etc). 

A large, brown dried allium head fills the picture with seeds ready to harvest.

The first step is to harvest at the appropriate time. For these plants changing physical characteristics can tell you when the seeds are mature. Look for signs such as the plant drying, changing colour to browns, the seeds will start to feel firm. They have stopped producing flowers and are "done". Something to be aware of as plants go to seed some can "shatter" and spread the seeds and some also become enticing food for animals, my sunflowers always attract the chickadees who can easily eat a whole head! For some protection you may want to employ netting or organza bags until ready to harvest. 

A field of sunflower heads, drooping down and brown

To harvest, get some clean and dry containers and buckets and simply cut heads, branches or pull the whole plant into the bucket. Keep one bucket per variety to help you keep track for labelling later! Once collected lay out to dry on a sheet, tarp, screens or hang dry for upto three weeks. Actually the drier and more brittle the plant becomes it will be easier to extract seeds!

The next step is threshing, this is separating the seeds from the plant. It's very simple, find a clean, dry container and rub, shuck, shake whatever works to encourage the seeds to fall from the head or branches of the plant into the bucket. Compost the plant material and what is left on your container will be seed lot. It isn't quite ready yet as debris and chaff are still mixed in with it but you are getting there!

A girl in a yellow striped sweater, holds a drying ear of corn still attached to the plant.

Screening is the next (and optionally) final process. It involves sifting your seed lot in a container such as a colander or sieve (or you can buy a special screen for seed sorting) wherein either the chaff and debris fall through the screen into a container and you are left with your clean seeds on top which is called bottom screening or vice versa which is top screening. Any way you do it will work to produce a relatively clean lot of seeds. You may do this again, place your seeds in storage (my preferred is mason or amber jars) and labelled or you may move onto a further step called winnowing. 

Now winnowing has some intricate mechanics involved hence why it may not be a suitable option for the home seed saver. Essentially winnowing is the process of throwing your seed lot in the air and having airflow or wind blow the lighter chaff and debris away whilst in theory your heavier seeds fall down. To do this process at home you can set up a fan and container system. Set up a fan in front of a container and toss your seed lot in front of the air current generated by the fan. Your debris and chaff should be blown away and your seeds should fall into the container below. However, there is a lot of practice to getting the right amount of airflow and you may have to experiment a few times and spend some time gathering and picking your blown about seeds on the floor! Larger seed producers can purchase machines specalised in this task but this is definitely unecessary for the home purchaser! All in all, you do not have to winnow to store your seeds, screening can be enough. Ensure when it comes to storing all jars are clean and dry and labelled. Then, enjoy your seeds in the springtime and feel wonderfully accomplished when they grow into plants again!