CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the steamy summer winds down and the cool, crisp autumn nights approach, it's time to think about next year's garden. What? You think it is too early? Are you thinking that dealing with this year's garden is taxing enough?
I beg to differ. There's definitely one thing that you can do this time of year to prepare for next year's garden -- saving seeds.
As vegetables mature and flowers begin to wither, consider collecting seeds for planting next year. Once you know what to save and how to save it, saving seeds can be an easy and enjoyable activity. Plus, you have the satisfaction knowing you are harvesting the future and continuing a lineage of plants special to you and adapted to your garden.
In the world of vegetables, only seeds that are open-pollinated and "true to seed" are appropriate for saving. This means that there is no cross-pollination needed to get the desired result, unlike hybrid plants that require crossing of two specific parents to get consistent fruits. There's nothing wrong with hybrids; in fact they feed much of the world, but more and more gardeners want to save their own seeds.
Heirlooms are a special category of open-pollinated plant. Definitions differ; most people agree that heirlooms are OP plants that are at least 50 years old and have a "story." Some plants come from families or communities that have passed the same seeds down for generations, others are "old-timey" plants that began as commercial releases.
Certain flowers can be saved as well, but there typically isn't as much concern about saving specific varieties, mainly because those that are saved have a much shorter list of varieties in which to cross.
Plants that are self-pollinating are easiest to save, and result in the most consistent vegetables from year to year. This is why beans and tomatoes are the most popular seeds to save. Both beans and tomatoes are self-pollinating, meaning that different varieties can be closely spaced within the garden and not cross-pollinate. In fact, tomato and bean flowers are made to keep pollen from leaving or entering and are usually pollinated before fully open. Crossing can occur, but it is rare.