Is your garden going to seed? Good!

If you want nearly-free fruits and vegetables next summer, now's the time to save your seeds. Want more varieties? Start a seed-swap with your neighbors.

Derek Fell/Skyscrapergarden/AP/File
A Skyscraper Garden features climbing vegetables, from left to right: Trombone zucchini, Early Cascade tomatoes, and Orient Express climbing cucumbers. It's easier than you think to grow your own food, and it starts with saving (or finding) the seeds.

Several readers have written to me requesting information on saving seeds from their garden, which is an awesome frugal practice.

Fall is just starting to tiptoe into the picture here in Iowa, and for us that means that the gardening season is starting to wind up. This year was actually a very uneven year for us because of our baby arriving in late April, which made plantings and other garden prep a bit more challenging than before, so we had some vegetables go in very early and others go in too late.

The end result? We have some items that aren’t producing yet and other items that are already going to seed in our garden. It’s those “going to seed” items that I’m going to be focusing on today.

First of all, what I’m going to describe below isn’t guaranteed to work for many plants started from seeds that you buy at the hardware store or the local nursery. That’s because many of those plants are hybridized, which means that they’re a cross between two different plant varieties. This has the benefit of gaining the positive traits of both varieties but with a big drawback: the seeds don’t necessarily produce plants that match the parent. You might have sterile seeds, you might have seeds that produce a very unusual plant, or you might have something that does match the parent. You simply can’t tell for sure.

So what should you do if you have plants that came from seeds or starts purchased at your local nursery? First, you should still collect the seeds and try planting them next spring – you might end up with some really interesting varieties (or you might end up with complete duds).

Second, and perhaps the best option, you should try ordering seeds from Seed Savers for next spring. This way, you can begin to grow non-hybridized plants in your garden, plants that produce seeds that can be collected and saved until next spring, thus providing you with an unending supply of plants (and thus food).

So, we’ll assume that you’ve got a garden, it’s nearing the end of the harvesting period, and you’ve got some plants starting to go to seed. What’s next?

First, start collecting the seeds. You can use old envelopes for this – unused return envelopes, well labeled and kept in a shoebox, work great for this. Just remove the seeds from a plant, let them dry (on a towel on the table), store them in an envelope, label that envelope, and keep them until spring.

How do you collect the seeds, though? There’s usually a different method for each kind of plant in your garden. The best way is to simply fire up Google and search for “how to collect PLANT seeds” where PLANT is the particular type you’re looking for. For example, here’s a writeup on how to collect tomato seeds – you pretty much just need a single tomato to get plenty of seeds!

Make sure, as you’re collecting and drying the seeds, to mark what they are and especially mark the envelopes you save them in. This way, you can easily retrieve what you have. You should include the year, the type of plant, the variety (if I know it), and any growing information or hints you might want to remember next year.

If you stop right here, you’ll find that you’re saving some cash on next year’s seeds. However, there’s a very easy way to expand the value of this seed-saving process: start a seed exchange with your neighbors.

Basically, a seed exchange simply means that you’re swapping seeds with other gardeners in your area (or even with others through the mail). Since you’ve already got a source for seeds – your own garden – your supply is essentially free – and every person you find to trade with becomes a source for new variety in your garden.

How do you get a seed exchange started? The first step is to simply find other gardeners. Who has a garden in their back yard? Do you have any friends or relatives who are active gardeners? Introduce them to the idea of saving their seeds – or, better yet, give them a few types of seeds to start with to show them that it can be done and that it’s fairly easy. Encourage them to get seeds from Seed Savers (or other such sources) in the future.

Once you have other gardeners who are doing this, talk together when deciding what to plant each year. While you may all want to grow tomatoes, for example, it’s worthwhile to plan to use different tomato varieties. Then, when you figure out later in the year which variety is the best, you can trade for seeds from that variety for the next year.

The most important part of this is to recognize that “trading” here isn’t about getting the best deal. Sometimes, you’ll have a “dud” set of tomatoes and will have to receive tomato seeds from someone with little in return for it; at other times, you’ll have some kind of monster zucchini that produces fifty pounds of the green stuff and you find yourself giving away a lot of seeds. Do not make seed trading into a one-for-one trading system and don’t worry about who got the “better end” of the deal, because it’s very hard to make a trade 100% equitable. Just look at it as giving away your excess seeds and picking up some of the excess seeds of others.

My suggestion is to always get plenty of seeds from any variety that does well. You’ll want them for yourself for next year and you’ll also want to share or swap them with other gardeners – even sometimes ones who don’t save seeds. Friends who share good seeds are good friends, indeed.

There’s another enormous value in seed sharing: friendships and incredibly low cost social activities. Seed exchanging builds friendships because of the common interest in gardening, and the actual need of exchanging seeds often bring social interaction right to the front. A January potluck where people bring their seeds to swap is a great way to have a wonderful evening for next to no cost.

Good luck!

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