WHAT IF YOU could bank a bit of summer? Practice some simple backyard selection by collecting seed from the best and the brightest from this year’s vegetable garden. You’ll be one step closer to next year’s bounty, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Note: You might not have given much thought to “crossing” and “hybrids” since fourth-grade biology, but only nonhybrid plants produce identical offspring, or seed that is “true.” Check plant labels and seed packets before saving seed to avoid disappointing surprises.

Many vegetables “bolt” — that is, flower and set seed, late in the season. It’s only a matter of timing to harvest the fully ripened seed before it spills to the ground. Collect seed on a dry day after the morning dew evaporates. If rain is forecast, you might want to wrap the ripening seed head with a scrap of cheesecloth — something that will catch the fine seed but still allow air to circulate and finish the drying process.

When collecting, gently tap the dried pods so seed falls into a plastic storage container, like a clean yogurt cup. Immediately label the contents; you might think you’ll be able to tell the arugula from the mustard, but they’re all just tiny black specks next spring.

Sort dry seed into little paper envelopes, label with the date and variety of seed, then store in a cool location. I keep all my seeds in our basement.

Annuals, plants that grow, flower and set seed in a single year (such as lettuce, kale, broccoli, spinach and many herbs, like cilantro, dill and chervil), respond well to this “dry-and-collect” method. You also can collect seed from flowers, like calendula, love in a mist, bachelor’s buttons and larkspur, too.


Sometimes I cut a few sorting and labeling corners and take a more passive approach by simply harvesting seed and sprinkling it directly into another part of the garden where the soil has been prepped. This works particularly well for cold hardy greens that germinate in early spring, like arugula, red mustard and mache. These flavorful greens fetch top dollar at the grocer but sprout in my backyard for free.

Peas and beans are some of the easiest seeds to save, although without proper storage, they also are the most vulnerable to pest damage, whether from hungry rodents or insects that feed on overwintering seed. Simply leave pea and bean seed to dry directly on the vine by allowing a few pods to ripen until brown and crispy. Harvest dry pods, and place them in a moisture-free place to allow the seeds to completely dry. Label, label, label. A short stint in the freezer in a tightly sealed glass jar will kill any harbored pests in dry seed.

“Homegrown” seed packets make unique and welcome gifts. Save and share your favorite crops, and encourage others to do the same. Then plan a late-winter seed swap, and before you know it, you’ll have a bountiful garden full of delicious tried and true vegetables, and all for free. It’s simple, sustainable and delicious.