An Easy Peasy Start to Seed Saving
By TJ King – When I started gardening years ago, I did a terrible job harvesting shelling peas (Pisum sativum). Each season, I missed peas on every vine. When I finally found them, I tossed those old, starchy peas to my backyard hens. While they loved the treat, I eventually realized the peas were a gift to be saved. They were my first foray into the addictive world of seed saving.
Why Save Seeds?
Long ago, everyone saved their own seeds. Now that seeds can be ordered online or through catalogs, the global nature of the industry means you won’t always find seeds suited to your climate. Saving your own seeds encourages varieties that thrive in your particular environment. For example, in my area (central Maryland), even early summer can be blistering hot and swelteringly humid; by saving seeds that resist powdery mildew and continue to produce once the heat settles in, I am selecting those characteristics that help peas flourish locally. Additionally, seed companies or the local garden supply store might not always have your family’s favorite in stock because their inventory is based on what sells best to a broad customer base. Saving seeds protects your family’s food from the fluctuations of supply and demand.
Peas are a great way to start saving your own seeds. If you’re like me, you’re bound to miss a few pods anyway. There are often a few left on the plant when you need to pull them up once they have run their course (or you have a succession crop to plant). Pea plants are mostly self-pollinating, which means that each flower will fertilize itself without the assistance of wind or insects, two primary means of pollination. However, if you are growing different varieties of peas and want to guarantee the varieties stay separate, the plants should be grown at least 25 feet apart because bees and other pollinators may visit the flowers too. (Although crossing varieties intentionally is another fun part of seed saving!) Once you get the hang of collecting and storing seeds, you can be more deliberate about choosing which plants and which pods to save for future crops.
How to Save Peas
There are two strategies for saving peas. The easiest is to identify several vigorous specimens on each healthy plant. Another option is to designate an entire plant (or several plants) to save the seeds from. I personally prefer the first approach, because if you save an entire plant’s worth of peas, you won’t have the opportunity to sample them for flavor; you only evaluate based on the external characteristics of the plant. Which are important too, but that’s not the part you eat!
If you have a garden helper, consider marking the peas being saved with string or flagging tape. That way they don’t accidentally pick them. (I learned this lesson the hard way!) It’s also a good idea to trellis the peas – even if the variety doesn’t require it — to keep the peas off the ground. This reduces the chance of mold or disease damaging your seed crop.
If possible, leave the peas on the plant, still in the ground, to dry naturally. This may look ugly, but this is the easiest way to make sure they dry thoroughly. Check regularly to see if the pods may be splitting open or if birds are stealing any. If you must pull the plants before the pods finish drying, tie the plants in a bundle and hang them upside down to continue drying on the stalk. Hang the stalks somewhere with good air circulation, preferably with a roof. Rain can cause the pods to mold or seeds to start germinating, and either option will ruin your seed-saving efforts. In my area, afternoon popup thunderstorms occur frequently in the summer, so it’s always dicey leaving the plants outside!
The pea seeds are dry enough when the pods have papery thin shells that rattle hollowly when tapped. If you must collect the seeds before the pods are dry — torrential rainstorm forecasted, or going out of town, for example — shell the peas and bring them inside to keep them safe. They are more difficult to shell at this stage, but if you squeeze the end furthest from the stem, this usually pops them open without using fingernails which might damage the seed coat. Pull the halves of the shell apart. Spread the peas out so they do not touch to complete the drying process. Any remaining moisture trapped between crowded peas can cause mold.
Even with the best harvesting technique and timing, not all pea seeds will be worth saving for future crops. Keeping only the largest blemish-free specimens. Discard any seeds that are moldy, undersized, discolored, or have a split seed coat, as these won’t germinate well (or at all!). If any seeds already started germinating (for instance if they got wet while still in the pods) these can be grown as pea shoots.
Let the seeds dry completely before placing them in clear jars. They are less likely to mold this way, although you should still periodically inspect them. Consider including a desiccant in the jar to reduce humidity. Remember to label your containers! Not just with the variety, but the year as well. Pea seeds remain viable for up to four years in ideal storage conditions (cool, dark, and dry), so knowing the seeds’ age can be helpful — if they stop germinating as effectively, for instance.
Warning! If you love sugar snap peas, you might try savings seeds from them. However, you must research your seed source first. Most commercial varieties of sugar snap peas are actually hybrids between snow peas and shelling peas. Once I ended up with monstrous snow-pea-like flat pods with grotesquely huge seeds — the opposite features of a sugar snap pea! Luckily my kids loved these novelties. Look for sugar snap pea varieties marked “heirloom” or “open-pollinated” to increase the likelihood that future generations will breed true to the originals.
Too Many Seeds?
Maybe you collected more seeds than you need. Congratulations! Remember, you don’t know how the next crop will fare — perhaps none of the plants will survive long enough to produce peas if the weather is uncooperative, or birds and insects especially hungry. So save your extras. You can also share with family, friends and neighbors. And maybe you will inspire them to start saving their own seeds as well!
Originally published in Countryside in September/October 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.