Frugal Gardening: Free Seeds From Store-bought Foods – Does & Don’ts

While a pack of seeds is relatively inexpensive, buying packets of everything you want to grow, especially organic or heirloom seeds, can get pricey. Why not take advantage of free seeds where you can easily get them? We all have to eat and that generally means shopping for groceries. Many of the whole foods we buy have perfectly harvestable seeds we can use to grow our own gardens. There are, however, a few caveats and pitfalls for the unaware.

Here are the do’s and don’ts of saving seeds from the foods you buy.

#1 – Choose Domestically Grown

When you’re shopping at the store, a great deal of the fresh produce is grown overseas or shipped from foreign countries. When it’s imported, it’s generally irradiated to kill pathogens that might have come along for the trip. That makes seeds nonviable and they won’t germinate. It’s therefore important to check for information on the packaging or sticker to learn where the food was grown.

Foods grown domestically, i.e. in your country, are fairly safe bets since they don’t need to be irradiated to cross national borders. That said, I have successfully germinated butternut squash seeds from a squash imported from the Dominican Republic so it never hurts to try!

#2 – Go With Locally Grown

One of the best sources of seeds comes from locally grown foods. Why? They don’t have to be shipped as far so generally have less done to them to stay shelf stable before they reach you, unlike something grown 3000 miles away and transported to your store. It’s fresher and riper too and that means better seed quality.

Additionally, locally grown means the variety is suitable for growing regionally which means better success in your garden. A variety of tomato great for California climates may not grow as well in Maine, just as Maine kiwi varieties may not grow as well in California. They might still grow okay or they might not but you’ll get the best results with produce that’s adapted for your local climate and weather conditions.

Many stores sell locally or regionally grown food. Farmer’s markets are ideal for picking up foods for seed harvesting because they are proven varieties grown in your area. They will be pricier though but you’ll get a large number of quality seeds so the cost may be worth it, especially if you already shop your local farmer’s markets.

#3 – Go Organic

Organic foods have been grown under certified growing conditions that appeal to many organic or home gardeners. You won’t get any funky GMO’d seed varieties either. If that is important to you, shop for produce in the organic aisle for your garden.

#4 – Pick Ripe Food

Seeds have stages of maturity and are viable when the food is ripe. Just because the product is on the shelf doesn’t mean its seeds are mature and will germinate well. For instance, summer squashes like zucchini and yellow squash are picked young and tender so you may not get mature viable seeds, whereas you may have great luck with winter squashes like acorn, butternut, etc. which are harvested at later maturity. Tomatoes have decent germination rates despite being picked early.

Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule on what vegetables or fruits germinate best from store-bought produce. You have to just try it and see.

#5 – Do Viability Testing

There are easy ways to see if your salvaged seeds will germinate without planting them in your gardening and wasting time, soil, garden space, etc. if they fail to germinate.

One simple way is to harvest seeds and put them in a glass of water. Anything that floats probably isn’t viable while anything that sinks has a higher germination chance. Skim off the floaters and toss them. Save the sunken seeds for the garden.

Another great option before planting a ton of seeds is to run a short germination test indoors. Take 10 seeds and put them in a folded damp, saturated napkin inside a plastic baggie placed in a dark, warm spot between 60-70 degrees. Most any seed will germinate in this temperature range. Set them aside for at least 10 days, checking every few days to see if they’ve germinated. You’ll want to look online for germination times as some plants take up to 21 days to germinate.

Do this well before your planting season so that you can see how viable your saved seeds are and whether you need a better batch.

#6 – Mystery Varieties

Basically every type of food has a hundred varieties. In the grocery store we only see one or two of them. For instance, we might see only one type of zucchini or yellow squash while over in the tomato aisle we may see only three or four like cherry tomatoes, Romas, beefsteaks and your regular tomatoes. There’s just not a lot of variety at the store. This will limit your growing selection but variety may or may not be important to you.

Importantly, the varieties at the store are likely hybrid products, meaning they were developed by crossing different varieties to develop that particular product. This means that when you plant your store-harvested seeds, you may not get produce that’s identical to what you bought. Generally you’ll get something close but it depends. For example, if you buy a Roma tomato, you’ll always grow a tomato but two or more types of tomatoes might have been bred together over time to produce that Roma. Any of those earlier parent genes may show up in your garden and not produce the Roma you thought you were growing. Tomatoes though are safer than tree fruits like apples. If you plant honey crisp apple seeds, there’s no telling what type of apples they’ll actually produce due to all the crossing and grafting that goes into breeding honey crisp apples.

Depending on what you’re wanting to grow, this principle is important to keep in mind and to research. For a general garden, it’s not going to really matter all that much. Tomatoes will produce tomatoes. Peppers will produce peppers. Dried beans will be true to type in almost all cases. If, however, you’re dead set on growing a certain variety, it’s probably best to just buy the seed from a packet.

#7 – Seed Harvesting

In most cases harvesting seeds is as simple as scooping or picking out seeds, rinsing off the flesh or goop and drying them on a paper plate for a few days if you’re not interested in planting them right away or you want to save them for later. They should dry out completely so that they don’t mold and spoil. Generally that takes anywhere from 3 days to a week.

The scoop, clean and dry method works for many seeds like pumpkins, squashes, melons, peppers and others that don’t have seed coatings.

What do I mean by seed coatings? Anytime you slice a tomato you get a ton of seeds encased in gelatinous goop. You don’t want that gelatinous coating in your seed packet. A good way to remove it is to ferment the seeds a few days. Check out videos on how to do this since it’s easier to understand when you see it done than for me to explain here. It’s simple to do and will make your seed saving more successful.

#8 – Seed Storage

Many types of seeds are viable for several years or longer if properly stored. You want them kept dry and out of the light. You can store them in paper envelopes or plastic snack baggies tucked away in shoe boxes or other containers in a closet or cabinet. Storage doesn’t have to be airtight, though it helps, but it’s good to keep seeds away from moisture so that they don’t mold. Those silica packets that come in new shoes or in shipping boxes are excellent to put in the box alongside your saved seeds.

person holding a green plant
Photo by Akil Mazumder on

Seeds Seeds Seeds

If you’re interested in saving money on seed costs for your garden, definitely look into preserving seeds from the foods you’re already eating. Remember these tips and you’ll be well on your way to growing food without any surprises or setbacks. And who doesn’t love free?

Like this article? Please share it so that others can learn these secrets and start living their best lives now.

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  1. I have recently started an experiment with some mini peppers I bought from our local grocery store. I planted them in a small pot indoors, and they sprouted!! I can’t wait until I can get them transferred outside! 🙂 Great tips, especially for beginners like myself.


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