DEAR JESSICA: When preparing to plant seeds in small pots in the spring that will result in an outdoor garden, which seeds are better to use -- self-harvested seeds or store-bought, prepackaged seeds? -- Carmine Gervase, Malverne
DEAR CARMINE: The natural life cycle of plants dictates that they produce and drop seeds, which germinate in the soil and beget more plants. When our ancestors noticed this, they began saving seeds from year to year, protecting them from winter's wrath and planting them the following spring. This worked very nicely for them, and it can work just as well for you, as long as you understand a few basic tenets that, no doubt, our ancestors learned by trial and error.
There are two methods of harvesting seeds: wet and dry. To harvest seeds wet, allow fruit, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, to ripen completely on the plant. Then pick, slice open and scoop out its seeds. Rinse seeds thoroughly. A quick soak in a solution of one part bleach, five parts water can help save future plants from disease. If this is done, they should be rinsed again. Spread seeds in a single layer on paper towels until dry.
To harvest seeds using the dry method, allow them to dry inside their pods while still on the plant. This works well for most flowering plants, such as daylilies and cleome, and some edibles. Timing is crucial, however: Harvest too soon, and the seeds won't be dry enough. Wait too long, and the pods will burst open, spewing seeds to the ground where they may be lost, eaten by birds or carried away by wind. The pods of some plants -- or fruits such as squash -- will not burst open, but rather should be broken or cut open when dry.
I'm sure you've heard the proverbial phrase "separating the wheat from the chaff." This next step is what it references. The chaff is the husk surrounding the seed, and it should be removed from the important part -- the seed itself. Dried pod crumbs and stem parts also are considered chaff and, obviously, should be removed, as well.
Regardless of your harvesting method, dried seeds should be stored in a cool, dry, dark spot until planting time.
Some plants, such as parsley and Brussels sprouts, are biennial, which means they produce seeds only in their second year.
Seeds from hybridized plants will not grow plants that produce the same crop. A hybrid is created by joining two different varieties to produce a third with superior qualities, such as disease resistance, improved taste or size. The offspring of a hybrid will likely resemble one of its parents, so you really have no way of knowing what you'll end up with. Heirloom plants grow true to their parents. Keep this in mind when saving seeds from garden-grown plants or fruits and vegetables from the grocery store.
To answer your question, Carmine: You can opt to skip all this and purchase new seeds every year, and that's perfectly acceptable, too.