When you already have a garden, one of the best ways to benefit from it long-term is to save and store the seeds that your garden produces. Instead of buying seeds every year to plant, why not just save a few from each plant and use them again next year?
Of course, some plant seeds stay and store better than others. Also, letting certain plants get to the point where they are producing seeds can mean that they are not all that useful for consumption. But you can always plant an extra one or two and allow them to go to seed. Most plants produce more than enough seeds for you to have a viable garden the following year.
Aquatic plants and large-seeded plants (such as oak, avocado, etc) are very hard to store. Larger seeds tend to need a fair amount of moisture to remain viable, and the amount of moisture required will lead to fungal growth and rot in a short period of time. If you have oaks around, harvest the acorns and make nut butter right away. Let the squirrels bury the seeds for you, and you’ll have some new trees in a few years.
These seeds, unfortunately, really need to be planted right away in order for them to germinate. However, there are a wide variety of seeds that you can save all winter long, and maybe even for more than just a single winter.
Small seeded plants, like most garden vegetables, are relatively easy to save. These seeds are what’s called desiccant-tolerant. This means that they are able to survive and remain viable even when dried out.
Peas, carrots, beans, and herb seeds are all very hardy seeds that can handle being dried and stored for long periods of time before they lose their viability. However, you do have to be careful how you handle, dry, and store the seeds. You can’t just grab the seeds off of the plant, throw them in a baggie and then plant them next spring. Well, you could, but there are ways to improve the chance that those seeds produce healthy plants for your garden.
Seeds, like any other organic matter, are subject to rot if not handled properly. The reason an individual plant produces so many more seeds than is necessary is due to evolution. This adaption takes into account that a large portion of any seeds produced will either be eaten, rot, or not survive until adulthood.
By properly drying and storing those same seeds, however, you can greatly increase the amount of usable seeds you have. One individual plant will produce more seeds than you could possible use before the seeds are no longer any good.
The first and most important step in preserving seeds is drying them. In nature, most seeds spend the winter months frozen in the ground, where the ice crystals actually make the ground very dry. The seeds should be spread out in a shady, cool, dry place. Also, don’t make a pile of seeds, spread them out thinly on paper towels or something similar.
Properly dried seeds will show basically no flexibility. Beans and peas will be rock hard, and larger seeds will not bend. Obviously, larger seeds need more time to dry than smaller seeds.
If you live in an area with high humidity, then you will probably want to use a desiccant. Those little packages of silica gel that you get for free with a new pair of shoes are there for a reason: They make it so that your new shoes are not all moldy. They do the same thing for seeds, though you probably want to buy some silica gel instead of using the packages from your shoes.
Once the seeds are dry, place them in an air-tight container like a glass jar or baggie. Store them slightly below freezing, and they should be good for a very long time. Just try to think what a seed goes through before it germinates, and you can have an idea of what needs to be done to save them.
Saving and storing seeds is a long-running activity for those of us who garden and want to be self-sufficient. By properly drying and storing seeds from your garden, you can almost guarantee that you will never have to buy seeds again.