Heirloom vegetables give us a sweet connection to the past, and many people believe that these vegetables have the closest flavor to our childhood memories of true vegetable taste. Heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations. They get their start when a gardener hand-selects for a special trait.
Open Pollinated, Self Pollinated
Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed will produce a plant that resembles the plant from which it came and remain true-to-type year after year.
If you decide that you want to save seed from heirloom plants, you need to understand whether the variety is self-pollinated or will cross-pollinate. Cross-pollination may mean that you end up with plants that don’t resemble the plant from which you saved seed and may not even be edible. This is particularly true with cucumbers, squash and melons.
The “opposite” of an open-pollinated plant is a hybrid which is created by human intervention. Designated as an F1 hybrid, seeds are produced by seed companies by carefully controlling cross-pollination of two varieties with specific traits. It’s important to note that they often don’t “come true” from saved seed. In other words, the seeds you collect from a hybrid may produce plants that are like either parent that was used in the cross or some combination of traits. Some hybrids produce sterile seeds.
Save Seeds Now
Start making plans to save seeds now while the garden is still in full production. Peas, green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers are all self-pollinating and fairly easy to save.
For soft fruits, such as tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers (yes, they are botanically fruits), let the fruit ripen to almost overripe but not to the point of being rotten.
For tomatoes, scrape out the seedy pulp and discard the rest of the fruit (make bruschetta!). Put seeds and pulp in a covered jar with some water and let it sit a few days to ferment. Fermentation lets bacteria kill any seed borne diseases. Shake the jar a couple of times a day.
After a couple of days, the good seeds will have sunk to the bottom and the bad seeds and pulp will be floating. Pour off the water and pulp carefully, trying not to disturb the seeds on the bottom. Then dump the seeds into a fine strainer and rinse them well. Spread the damp seeds on a tray or screen to dry. If you dry on paper towels or newspaper, they will be hard to remove without damage.
Peppers and Eggplants
For peppers and eggplant, simply remove the seeds from the pulp and wash the seeds thoroughly. Spread the seeds to dry.
Beans and Peas
Beans and peas are most easily left on the vine to dry. When dry, break or split the pods to release the seeds. Spread them on a screen or tray to dry completely.
Once your seeds are dry, store in an airtight container to prevent reabsorbing moisture from the air. Label immediately. Keep seeds dry and cool and between 32° and 41°F. Canning jars or plastic containers make great storage containers, and you can add a silica-gel desiccant to keep them completely dry.