Home vegetable gardening is surging, leading to a shortage of vegetable plants and seeds in nurseries and garden centers. 

Consider saving seeds.

Planting a garden, enjoying the harvest and then collecting the seeds to grow again for next season is the most complete and perfect form of gardening.

The easiest plants from which to harvest your own seeds are annuals, which flower, set seed and then die in one year’s time.

Choose open-pollinated varieties over hybrids because they will be true to plant type. Some open-pollinated varieties are “heirloom,” meaning they may be passed down through the generations (some are recent selections). Hybrids are a cross between two different varieties. Plants grown from hybrid seed are not identical to the hybrid parents. They will be a new combination of all the traits (good and bad) of the initial plant cross, making fruit quality hard to predict. Some examples of hybrid tomatoes are Beefmaster, Big Boy and Early Girl.

Easy-to-save seeds are beans, lettuce, greens, herbs, okra, peas, peppers and heirloom tomatoes, which all produce seed in the same season they are planted. All are all self-pollinating, and with just a couple of fruits, you can reliably harvest seeds.

Dry fruit are the easiest to collect seeds from because you can harvest a few mature seedpods, dry them, clean and store. All done.

Wet fruit crops, such as squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants, must be picked when their seeds are mature and must be processed according to the fruit type.

An added concern is that seeds are not always mature when the fruit is ready to eat. For example, eggplant, cucumber and summer squash are eaten when the fruits are immature, before the seeds are actually mature. To get these seeds, leave a couple of fruits in the garden to fully mature so you can harvest the seeds.

Seeds need to be dried appropriately. Do not dry seeds on paper towels or plates or anything they will stick to and become damaged. Surfaces such as mesh that allow air flow are the best. As seeds are drying, turn them a couple of times each day and avoid direct sunlight. You can use a fan to increase air circulation.

Easiest seeds to save

Peppers are a cinch. When the vegetable is ready to eat, the seeds are mature. Cut the central stem of the pepper with the seeds, brush the seeds onto a screen or metal mesh (plastic, ceramic or glass plates are OK) and let them dry out.

Squash, zucchini, pumpkins and all other plants in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae are done similarly to peppers. Scrape out and wash the seeds, and as the water goes over them, rub the seeds with your fingers to remove debris. Put them on a plate to dry.

For any type of melon, remove seeds and rinse in water, rubbing to remove that slimy feeling. Put the seeds into a container filled with water. Good melon seeds will sink, so remove any that floats. Rinse the seeds again and then lay them out to dry. Cucumbers seeds can also be harvested this way, but wait until the cucumber is beyond ripe, changes color and becomes soft.

Peas, beans and okra all have pods that are easy to gather and save. Wait until the pods mature on the plant — usually after they turn brown — remove them, then remove seeds from the pods. Put seeds in a container and stir them often to help them dry. Peas or beans take about six weeks to air dry.

Greens such as lettuce, collards, mustard greens, kale and herbs such as fennel, dill and basil are rather simple. Let the plants flower and set seed at the end of the harvest season. Seeds can dry in the pods on the plant, and then “bag the heads” by placing a paper bag over them and pulling off the seeds.

Tomato seeds are a wet fruit and are covered in gel-like substance that must be removed before they dry. It’s a bit of a fermenting process. Remove seeds and place them in a container such as a glass jar or plastic bowl with equal parts water to seed mass. Stir the seed mixture once a day for a few days.

After a couple days, viable seeds will sink. After five days, throw away anything that floats. Separate and wash the seeds and dry them by placing them on a screen or wire mesh (plastic and glass plates work too) in a single layer in a warm area. Keep them away from sunlight throughout the entire process and dry as quickly as possible.

Store seeds in an airtight container or dry paper bag placed in a cool, dark and dry area. Seeds can be viable for many years, more if you freeze them. Don’t forget to label your seeds.

Email questions to gardennews@agcenter.lsu.edu.