If you've been growing your own vegetables year after year, you've probably had some favorites. Particular plants flourished -- the vegetables were high-quality -- and you tried to duplicate your results in subsequent years.
Buying commercially produced seeds is not an ultra-expensive proposition, but there is no guarantee of being able to successfully replicate the crop or even finding the correct seed. If you decide to cultivate your own seeds each year, you will not only save some money, but you will be able to reproduce your favorite picks, and you will be using seeds that have already begun to adapt to your unique growing conditions.
Many of the vegetables you regularly grow will produce seeds you can save and plant for the next year. Choose non-hybrid plants for the best results; seeds from hybrid plants may not carry the pure genetics you want. Pick the heartiest of your crop, don't choose the very first buds or last stragglers: If you select the most robust specimens for seeds, you will be choosing from plants that are adapted to your soil. Grow pure varieties and don't allow for cross-pollination when planting for the best selection of seeds; grow only one kind of each vegetable variety in a small garden.
Let fleshy fruits and vegetables (e.g., squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons) ripen before picking them, and then scoop out the seeds, spreading them out to dry on a plate or sheet of wax paper in a well-ventilated area. Plants like beans and peapods need to dry on the vine until the casings are easy to crack open. Corn needs to dry on the vine until the kernels dent. Some vegetables, such as lettuce, need to grow to be flowers so the seeds can be collected from them. Root vegetables are biennial, flowering after the second year and harvesting in the fall. Replant them in the spring for to produce flowers. Discard seeds from any diseased crops.
To store the seeds: Clean them by separating them from their coverings, pods and chaffs; small seeds can be rubbed between your hands while larger seeds may need more rigorous methods, like friction against screens and straining. It is important not to combine seeds from other varieties or plants, and it's a good idea to label them throughout the process with names, varieties and dates of collection. It is also important to keep the seeds dry and exposed to air while preparing them for winter storage. Dry the seeds at room temperature or slightly below. Test larger seeds by trying to bend them, and if they snap, they're ready.
Paper envelopes and airtight glass jars are best for storing seeds. Use the envelopes for small or flat seeds (remember to label them with names, varieties and dates of collection), and then store the envelopes in a dry glass jar with a desiccant. You can use baby food jars or other small jars to store large seeds like legumes. Commercial desiccants (silica) are available, or you can use a small amount of dry powdered milk twisted into a paper towel. Store the jars in a cool area between 32 and 41 F (0 and 5 C).
Properly stored seeds will keep between two to six years, depending on the fruit or vegetable. Peas and beans last two years, tomatoes three, squash four, cucumbers five and pumpkins six. You can test germination rate by dampening a cotton ball, placing it in a small dish, sprinkling 10 seeds onto the cotton, and setting it aside for a few days. If seven to eight or more of the seeds sprout, the germination rate is adequate for planting.
Put seeds you're planting in the freezer for three hours. When you remove them, the warm air will wake them from dormancy. Place them between damp paper towels for a day and then plant. Veteran gardeners recommend holding back about 10 percent of your seeds for the following year to ensure a continuous crop in case something happens to next season's harvest.