Vegetable seeds vary in size, shape, and color, each carrying the genetic material of its parent plant. Once sown in the soil, seeds grow into seedlings, which grow into plants that produce delicious vegetables. There are numerous vegetable seeds readily available from seed catalogs, nurseries, and grocery stores.
Heirloom vegetables refer to plants that are open-pollinated, which means they will grow true to type from seed. Heirloom vegetables also include those that were grown at an earlier period in history and which are not used in modern, commercial agriculture. Hence, the growing of heirloom vegetables is restricted to local gardeners. This practice has become increasingly popular over the past decade or so.
Vegetable Seeds Overview
Whether you plan on growing common vegetables, such as carrots and beans, something a little more exotic, like leeks, or heirloom vegetables, you’ll need to learn a little about the different seeds available to you. Here is a list of some common vegetable seeds and their growing requirements.
Beans, bush take 50-55 days to mature. Seeds should be planted in spring in 5- to 6-inch round pots. Some heirloom varieties include Jade, Benchmark, and Roma. Bush beans are also referred to as “green beans.”
Beans, fava include such varieties as Sweet Lorane, Broad Windson, and Aquadulce. A typical plant grows to 30 inches, and they range in growing time from 68 to 90 days. Pod size and number of beans per pod vary, but each variety is extremely tolerant to cold, and seeds should be sown in the spring.
Beets mature in about 48 days. One of the most popular varieties is Early Wonder Tall Top, which is extremely sweet in flavor. Seeds can be grown in all seasons, which form 3- to 4-inch dark red beets. Seeds grow well in cool soils.
Broccoli is a cool-weather crop, and seeds can be planted in the spring or fall. It matures in 60 to 69 days, needs full sun, and prefers normal soils. Seeds or transplants should be spaced 18 inches apart. 20-inch plants produce medium to large heads.
Carrots are another cool-weather crop, and seeds can be planted in spring or late summer. Seedlings should be planted 3 inches apart. Carrots take 65 days to mature. Some popular varieties include Caroline, Kinko, Ithaca, and Nelson
Corn makes any garden complete–especially different varieties of sweet corn. Corn seeds should be planted in the spring. They take 75 to 100 days to mature. Corn cobs range from 5 to 8 inches in length to 2 to 3 inches in diameter.
Cucumbers (of the slicing variety) mature in 76 days. Crisp and sweet, they grow to 8 to 9 inches in length. Seeds can withstand both hot and cool temperatures. Seeds prefer normal to loamy soil.
Eggplant, such as the traditional variety of Nadia, is dark purple in color, taking 63 days to mature. Eggplant seeds can be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before transplanting outdoors 19 inches apart. Seeds prefer a moist, well-drained soil that is normal or loamy.
Lettuce is another popular choice, as there are so many varieties to choose from, including Buttercrunch, Green Ice, Mesclun, Red Sails, and Summertime. Some lettuce thrives in cold weather, and seeds can be planted in early spring. Plant seeds 18 inches apart. 65 days to maturity.
Melons, honeydew take 90 days to mature. Seeds can be directly sown in the soil when it is warm (after the last frost). Melons should reach 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Space seeds 8 inches apart, with 4 feet between rows.
Peas, of the English variety, reach 4 inches long, containing 8 peas per pod, in 60 days. Pea plants prefer full sun; plant seeds in normal to loamy soil 1 to 2 inches apart.
Pumpkins take 90 days to mature. Plant seeds 3 to 5 feet apart after the last spring frost. They prefer moist, well-drained normal soil. Pumpkin seeds are edible as well!
Spinach can mature in as early as 30 days. Leaf size grows to 8 to 10 inches. A cool-season crop, spinach can be planted in early spring for summer harvest, or late summer for fall harvest.
Tomatoes come in many forms, including cherry, early, grape, greenhouse, and slicing tomatoes. Days to maturity depend on variety, although the average is 70. Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost.
International Vegetable Seeds
If you like to indulge in international cuisine, or if you have spent time traveling, it is highly likely that you have had a chance to try non-American varieties of vegetables. With so many different kinds of seeds grown around the world, learning a little about popular vegetables in other places can be both educational and fun. You may have a hard time getting your hands on international seeds, but at least you’ll know what to do with them if you should be so lucky!
New Zealand’s Kumara
The kumara, a Maori word, is similar to what we think of like a sweet potato. Kumara comes in red, orange, and gold varieties, and each variety can be cooked in the same manner. The majority of kumara are grown on the north island of New Zealand outside the region of Kaipara.
Kumara seed stock is first planted in August and September, where it is allowed to form roots which are then transplanted to growing fields after plants have grown 20 to 30 centimeters high. The main growing season is from October to December.
A staple in New Zealanders’ diet, kumara can be cooked and added to main dishes or soups, or eaten raw. This vegetable is extremely nutritious and contains high levels of potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
Jicama is a legume, native to areas in tropical and subtropical Central America. The Jicama plant grows from seed, and its vine can reach up to 5 meters in length. Its root, which is the edible part, can weigh up to 50 pounds.
The flavor of jicama is sweet, and its texture resembles that of potato or watercress. The rest of the plant outside of the root is poisonous. Jicama seeds can grow year-round in climates that are free of frost.
Jicama is also called yam bean, Mexican potato, Mexican turnip, and singkamas. It is used in salads, soups, and stir-fry dishes. It is often eaten raw. In Mexico, jicama is marinated in lime juice and then topped with chile powder.
China’s Yu Choy
Also called Choy sum, which literally translates in Chinese as “inner stalks and tips,” Yu Chou is a leafy, green vegetable mainly grown for its leaves and stalks. It is a type of non-heading broccoli. Seeds can be sown in the spring or fall in temperate climates. Yu choy seeds grow fast and can mature in as few as 30 days, as long as they are not exposed to hot temperatures.
In Japan, this vegetable is called “saishin” and in Malaysia it is known as “sawi manis.”
The long green leaves and stems of this vegetable are most commonly used in Cantonese stir-frys. It has an intense, bitter flavor, similar to mustard. Yu Choy offers an excellent amount of vitamins A and C, and a good amount of calcium and iron.
Jaxatu is an annual African eggplant grown year-round. It contains berries, or fruits, which are round and ribbed, and range in color from light green to dark green, turning a reddish-orange when mature. These vegetable leaves are often consumed in the same manner as spinach.
Seeds can be sown indoors first, but tend to be directly sown in the ground. Jaxatu seeds grow into plants that are anywhere from 24 to 36 inches in height. Seeds should be spaced at least 18 inches apart, and take 40 to 60 days to mature.
Jaxatu is popular in many West African countries. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It is highly bitter in taste, which may be one of the reasons this vegetable/fruit has not gained popularity in the US.
Cleaning seeds: A few Methods and Tips
Use proper collection techniques
First, use proper collection techniques and you’ll spare yourself a lot of tiresome labor.
Collect the seed when they are mature or if you collect them on stalks, clusters, flowers, or pods, let the seed fully mature and dry so far as they can where they are.
A simple shake of the pod etc into a paper bag or bucket will loosen the seeds. There should be a minimum of extra material that will take up your time and attention.
Second, make the technique fit the seed
If you’re collecting flower seeds that mature in hard husks, hang the seed head out on a freezing night or two with a bucket below the head. The action of the cold causes the seeds to pop themselves free of the hard husk and drop into your container.
Wild moist fruits or heritage-type tomato seeds can be a problem. Puree the fruit cover with a paper towel and let the liquid ferment a day or three. Then strain out the seeds and dry them.
Some seeds mature on a flower, wait, then when they are ready, gently blow, pick, or tap them free. The key? Let nature and natural processes do your work when possible.
Third, utilize proper screens
Some collections have another collection besides seed, and they’re called screens. A screen of various gauges is available. Gauge represents the size of the holes in the screen mesh. Using properly sized screens to sift the material large debris may be separated from the minuscule seeds you are seeking.
Careful slow work with attention to detail is required. Now as to the final step sometimes required (as the Bible says, “separating the wheat from the chaff”) a small fan is your best bet. (A gale-force wind outside could quickly destroy your seed collection) Working carefully and from a good distance at first, slowly let the seed and chaff drift from one screen to another.
The lighter (a relative term) chaff will separate from the desired seeds. (Vibration plates can also do the trick, so you could choose to look into that kind of equipment when you’re ready to dedicate yourself to the preservation of wild, and domestic seed.) This is where real experience and patience pay off.
Fourth, don’t become too much of a perfectionist
A certain amount of chaff and debris is almost inevitable for the home collector. Know when the level of cleaning is sufficient and don’t drive yourself batty – or blind – trying for the elusive 100% standard. Hobbies and avocations are supposed to be enjoyable. Remember that.
First, choose a location for your vegetable garden.
The area should receive full sun, as most seeds grow best in direct sunlight. Also, choose a location that has well-drained soil. If you are sowing seeds directly in soil outdoors, note that they may become rotted if left in standing water. Likewise, mature plants do not produce vegetables in soil that is excessively soggy.
Next, sketch out a map of the vegetable garden
Take into consideration how many types of vegetables you will plant, and the quantity and mature size of each plant. Also take note of seed spacing requirements, which can usually be found on the back of seed packets. Many people make the mistake of sowing vegetable seeds too close together.
Finally, begin cultivating the plot of land
This is usually done in early spring, although it can also be done in the fall. Use a rototiller or a hand fork and spade. Then begin adding compost (about three weeks prior to planting seeds). You can also add mulch to help retain moisture and nutrients, limiting weed growth. Once completed, build a frame or fence around your vegetable garden to protect it.
Each vegetable type has its own requirements when it comes to planting seeds. Here are some common things to look for:
Indoor vs. outdoor seed sowing
Not all seeds can be sown outdoors directly. In fact, many seeds should first be planted indoors and then transplanted outdoors later. There are a number of reasons for this. Some seeds need the indoor warmth that chilly spring weather can’t provide. Others need a controlled climate where they are given proper amounts of moisture and light.
Depth of planting
Again, different types of seeds need to be planted at different depths. The range can vary from 3/8-inch to several inches, depending on the vegetable type.
Refers to the amount of space between seeds. Most vegetable seed packets include instructions as to how far apart seeds should be planted. Remember, as well, to allow adequate room between vegetable plant rows for harvesting.
Interplanting is based on the notion that some vegetables grow better next to one another than others. The typical example of this is the “three sisters,” which include corn, beans, and squash. Beans contribute nitrogen to the soil, while the corn stalks serve as poles for the beans, and the leaves of the squash provide ground cover, prohibiting weed growth.
Other combinations of vegetables that grow well side-by-side include beans and tomatoes, cabbage and beets, spinach and cauliflower, and carrots and peas. Plant seeds accordingly for success.
Companion planting is somewhat similar to interplanting. Companion plants are plants or flowers that aide in keeping harmful insects away from vegetable plants. For example, nasturtium is an edible flower that lures flies away from vegetables. Onions and garlic can be planted next to strawberries and carrots, as they keep away harmful insects and flies.
Maintaining your vegetable garden
As long as you water plants, add mulch or compost as needed, and keep vegetables free of pests, your garden will be a success! Try to keep your vegetables free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, as chemicals can affect the taste, nutritional value, and overall health of vegetables.
Seed collection FAQ
Why collect seeds?
Learning how to properly collect seeds offers you the chance to share interesting plants and species with other gardeners. Using the seeds you have gathered lets you experiment with varieties with different characteristics and perhaps most important, saving seeds can preserve certain rare plants that you may be tending or come across on a walk.
There’s no need to be a professional, amateurs (and their own gardens) can profit from the proper collection of seed, domestically and in the wild.
What’s the best time to collect seeds?
It depends. Different plants mature their seeds at different times of the year. Knowing how each plant produces its seeds and when exactly they are ready for a gathering can be a big help, but there’s another way to make an educated guess.
Most seeds are ripe for picking when they are dry. If you pinch a seed and a moist center germ is extruded – not time yet. Once dried and ready, most seeds are almost impossible to crush.
In many cases seeds are produced in clusters, fruits, or pods, in that instance, sometimes it’s possible to retrieve the entire bunch and, leaving them attached to the pod or cluster, let the seeds mature at their leisure. In the case of most fruits, the seeds need to be removed from all contact with moisture.
Should I place the collected seeds in plastic bags?
Simple answer – No. Plastic will contain any moisture and the seeds may rot. Use porous materials like paper sacks or fabric bags. The air circulation will aid in preservation and drying.
How do I dry the seeds I’ve collected?
Porous storage bags help. But beyond that, air circulation is essential. Don’t pile seeds or layer them for drying. Warm, dry, circulated air will help as well but be careful, anything approaching 100 degrees F will simply cook the seeds, and you’re not interested in dinner. Direct summer sun can also destroy any chance of germination in many cases.
After the seeds are dried they should be separated from any extra plant material by sifting or threshing. You just want to store the seed itself. Seeds can be stored in freezers but be sure they have sealed away from all moisture.
How do I store the seeds?
Collected seeds, thoroughly dried (6% moisture is ideal) should be kept in a cool dry, and dark environment. The lower the temperature (with a low limit of 32 degrees F), and the lower the humidity of the air (65% or lower) combine to give seeds a longer “shelf” life. Without expensive equipment, some seeds may be viable after 2 or three years, but conditions must be right and are maintained.
Is labeling a good idea?
Absolutely. Make sure to properly label the seed containers, whether they are envelopes or jars. It just makes good sense. You’ll know what you’re planting before it sprouts – and you’ll know when to plant it. Plus you wouldn’t want to surprise that friend you mailed the seeds to, would you?