Seed saving

Whoever came up with the phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch” wasn’t a vegetable gardener, because you very definitely can get a free lunch in the garden. I’m not talking about the obvious free lunch you get when you eat some of the food you have grown, but rather the free seeds your garden produces for you.

The fact that the garden actually produces its own seed is an amazing demonstration of how living things are so very different from inanimate objects (and of the abundance of life). You don’t even have to do anything to make this happen, you just have to let nature take its course. One seed can create hundreds, or even thousands more and often produces food at the same time. Start saving your own seed and you will finish every growing season with a lot more seeds than you started with.

Seed saving sounds fairly esoteric and is a useful way to one-up other gardeners in discussions at dinner parties, but in reality it is so simple that any mystique is totally unjustified. Plants are programmed to make reproduction their highest priority (just as we are) and all you have to do is give them the opportunity by allowing them to flower. Of course we don’t usually allow this to happen because we harvest the plant at some point in its life cycle.

The fact that home saved seed is free can be significant if you don’t have much money (in fact you can even make money selling it). It can also enable you to swap seed with other gardeners and indulge in your seed passion without it costing you an arm and a leg.

The most important aspect of saving seed is maintaining the purity of each variety. To do this you need to know whether a plant is self-pollinated, or cross-pollinated by another plant. The seed from self-pollinated plants will be the same variety as their parents, whereas that from cross-pollinated plants will be a mix of both parents and so a completely new variety. To maintain the purity of a cross-pollinated variety you need to ensure it is pollinated by another plant of the same variety.

The most accommodating plants for the beginning seed saver are the self-pollinating fruit producers (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers), as all you have to do is scoop out the seeds before you eat them. Beans and peas and lettuce (one of my favorites) are also mostly self-pollinating and so good for beginners.

The cross-pollinated crops include the cabbage family, squash, cucumbers, melons and corn. Saving seed from these is trickier because they need to receive pollen from another plant and if this is from a different variety then it will lose the special characteristics of the variety. The easiest way to prevent cross-pollination is to have only one species and variety flowering at one time (you could also try hand-pollinating, but it is more involved).

I have been routinely collecting seed for so many years that it has become just another part of vegetable gardening. Whenever seed is ripe, I go out with my paper grocery bags and collect it. As a result I now have boxes stuffed with envelopes full of seed, which brings up the problem of what to do with it all (seed has a limited lifespan). I give some away and use some of it to grow seed sprouts.

If you have learned how to keep your varieties pure you can start to trade seed with other gardeners and this opens up a whole new avenue of gardening. There is a mind boggling array of varieties out there, just waiting for you to discover them and this is a great way to start. It also allows you to participate in preserving the genetic diversity of our food crops, a very important mission.

Saving seed was once an integral part of growing your own food. If you wanted to plant seed, then you had to save seed. Only relatively recently has it become the norm for gardeners and farmers to purchase seed annually. Consumerism has trained us to think of seeds as something we must buy if we want to have a garden, so many gardeners don’t even think about the possibility of saving their own seeds.

Some garden writers seem to have a curious prejudice against saving seed from the garden. Why this should be I can’t imagine, as it doesn’t even take much time or effort. I have heard some fairly feeble explanations as to why you shouldn’t bother saving seed. For example hybrid seed doesn’t come true, so you shouldn’t bother saving any seed. How did they reach that conclusion? Maybe such writers think seed saving is an anachronism, when there are all those new and improved varieties coming out every year.

If someone tries to tell you it’s too difficult for the layperson to save seed, remember that uneducated pre-industrial subsistence farmers bred all of our major crops. By faithfully and lovingly saving the best seed from their crops to replant the following years they transformed a few wild plants into the crops that made civilization possible. Besides their achievements, the work of todays scientific breeders pales into insignificance.

Reasons for saving your own seed

•      Saving seed is a basic part of the craft of gardening, as natural as raising your own seedlings, making compost, or harvesting. If you can grow high quality crops, you can save seed that is as good as, or better than, any you can buy.

•      Saving seed is an important component of ecologically sound agriculture. By selecting seed from the best plants in your garden you can develop strains that are ideally suited to your growing conditions. If a lot of people start doing this we could eventually have locally adapted strains of crops for every region, just as we used to.

•      In many cases saving your own seed is so easy, there is no reason not to. All you have to do is gather it before it gets dispersed. I often collect seed automatically and then decide what to do with it later.

•      There is also a serious reason to save your own seeds. In recent years many seed companies have been bought up by multi-national corporations and many of the old varieties of vegetables have disappeared from their catalogs. Except for a few small companies, the varieties of seed available over the counter already has an alarming uniformity. In Europe the disappearance of old varieties has been hastened by seed patenting laws, that have in effect made it illegal to sell many rare seed varieties.

Some seed varieties are hard to find, so if you really like something it is good to save  your own seed (I have seen a number of varieties become unavailable). Even if a variety is available from several sources there can be a problem in that a name is just a name. The same variety from two different sources may not be the same (and can sometimes be quite different).

When you sow commercially produced seed, you are simply relying on the work of others. When you save and sow your own seed, you get involved with your plants on a deeper level.

•      Though it is no longer possible to buy the seeds of many excellent varieties, you can still get hold of them. There are networks of home gardeners, dedicated to growing and exchanging the seed of old varieties and these have saved many old varieties from extinction. The Seed Savers Exchange is the best known of these in this country. Saving seed enables you to trade seed in organizations such as this, and gives you access to an enormous number of seed varieties.

•      Seed saving makes you more self-sufficient by reducing inputs and making your seed source more secure. Of course you can still buy as many seeds as you want (experimenting with them is fun), but if they are open pollinated you will only have to buy them once.

•      Seed saving is one of the more satisfying aspects of gardening, You get to see your crops complete their life cycle, rather than always stopping them half way. Putting fresh seed back into the packets you emptied in spring completes the cycle and is a good way to end the gardening year.

•      It also saves you money and over time this can add up to a significant amount. For me this advantage is often more theoretical than real though, because I find it impossible to read through a seed catalog without being tempted to buy a whole range of new varieties. I still buy lots of seed, but now I think of each purchase as a one-time deal, because if I like it I will save my own. If you want to do this it is important to avoid hybrids because their seed doesn’t usually come true, so there is no point in saving it.

•      It also enables you to experiment with landrace gardening, whereby you develop crops specifically suited to your own location (see below for more on this).

Problems of seed saving

There are a few reasons why you may not want to save seed.

•      Growing seed crops takes longer than growing vegetable crops, so it can interfere with planting new crops. This can reduce productivity.

•      Saving seed makes the garden messier, as there are small numbers of seeding plants scattered around taking up bed space. You can sometimes solve this problem by moving the plants to a special seed bed (especially biennials).

•      Seed bearing plants are often still in the ground while you are planting the next years crop. This could help pests and diseases to survive from one year to the next. Fortunately you don’t have to save seed from every crop every year. Most seed can be stored for several years.

•      If you aren’t careful some seed varieties can cross-pollinate with others and their unique characteristics will be lost. They used to say that the seed had ‘run out’, but this isn’t a very appropriate term. If you want to trade seed you must take care to ensure that it remains pure and true to type. This isn’t usually difficult, but takes a little extra work (See below).

•      Some virus diseases may be transmitted through infected seeds. These include lettuce  or tobacco mosaic viruses and celery leaf spot. If you don’t know what to look for, you can perpetuate these problems and perhaps spread them to other gardens. If plants show any hint of virus disease don’t save seed from them.

Getting started in seed saving

Basically saving seed consists of allowing plants to do what nature intended, which is to produce seed. Sometimes you have to assist them, and sometimes they do it whether you like it or not. You gather the seed when it is ripe, dry it thoroughly and store it. I don’t have room to go into detail about saving seed of individual crops, so I will merely give you some general ideas about what this entails.

The easiest plants for the beginning seed saver are those that are self-pollinating and are grown for their ripe fruit (tomato, eggplant, melon, pepper). It’s merely a matter of collecting the fruit and separating out the seed (the actual cleaning is the hardest part). Other easily saved, self-pollinating, crops include bean, lettuce, pea and spinach  (these are known as inbreeders). Tomato and pea can both cross-pollinate to some degree (not with each other), so are best isolated if possible.

Cross-pollinated crops include corn, beet, Brassicas, carrot  and onion. The latter three can also self-pollinate if necessary, but seed produced in this way is usually inferior.

Make sure the quality of a variety doesn’t deteriorate over succeeding generations. Select the best and most typical plants for collecting seed and mark them prominently so no one harvests them accidentally. Avoid poor looking plants and off types (seed growers remove these to prevent their becoming pollinators). Good cultivation practices increase the size of the crop and of individual seeds (which makes for better seed), but doesn’t affect the size of following generations.

Don’t collect seed from the first plants to flower (or the first year in the case of biennials), as you don’t want to develop an early bolting variety.

Keep good records. This is especially important if you will be trading seed with other gardeners.

If you need the space in a bed, you can transplant long term seed plants (beet, carrot, cabbage, leek, onion) to a special seed plant area. Do this while they are dormant.

Wait until seed is fully ripe before gathering, don’t get impatient and gather early. The only exception to this is if wet weather threatens to ruin the seeds (one of the commonest causes of seed crop loss). In this case harvest the whole plants and finish drying them under cover

You can also save seed of soil improving crops, to provide another level of self-sufficiency. Most species are fairly easy to save from (especially buckwheat, Brassicas, Legumes and sunflowers).

If you only have a small quantity of a particularly precious seed variety, don’t plant it all at once. If an unforeseen disaster strikes you could lose it all.

If I see an interesting heirloom tomato for sale at the store, I will often buy one just so I can save seed from it (I still eat it, but scoop out the seed first.)

Seed has only a limited lifespan. If you are trying to preserve unique old varieties, you will have to grow out the seeds every few years, to get fresh seed.

Maintaining genetic purity

If you are just saving seed for your own use next year, then it isn’t absolutely necessary that your variety be 100% pure. However if you are attempting to preserve a variety for posterity, or want to trade seed with others, then you need to be sure it is what you say it is. Depending upon the crop this may mean isolating it from all other potential pollinators.

The easiest way to isolate is with time. If only one variety is flowering at any one time, it can’t cross-pollinate with anything else. This isn’t always as clear cut as you might think, because some crops can cross with closely related wild plants. Also you don’t necessarily know what is growing in neighboring gardens.

Another way to isolate the plants is with distance, though this varies considerably according to crop. It may be as little as 20 yards, or as much as a mile.

The other way to isolate plants is to cage them using row covers, so no pollinating insects can get in to pollinate them. You then have to hand pollinate, or introduce insects to do it for you.

The alternative to isolation is hand pollination. This isn’t as difficult as you might imagine and can be quite simple with some of the bigger flowers.

I often save seed for my own use without worrying too much about this. I don’t care if my lettuce seed is 100% pure, I’m just going to eat it anyway. This varies with crop though, for example carrots can deteriorate quickly if not saved carefully.

Maintaining genetic variability

When we save seed we tend to take it from the best plants in the garden, those with the biggest fruits, highest yield, best flavor and more, but this isn’t always the best policy. In selecting for highest yield you may be losing important traits such as disease resistance, or drought tolerance.

Traditionally gardeners selected seed from a wide variety of plants and mixed them together to maintain genetic diversity. Native Americans bred their corn  for diversity rather than purity, because they wanted plants that would be adaptable to any possible adverse conditions. They tried to ensure that their seed corn was pollinated by as many different individuals as possible. In its native land they even left a closely related wild corn  in the fields to help pollinate the crop (See Landrace gardening below for a modern version of this).

Many common vegetable seeds are very inbred, and to maintain a reasonable degree of genetic variability you will need to gather seed from more than one plant. The actual number of plants varies considerably with the crop, it may be as little as 5 plants or as much as 100. You don’t need to worry about this with self-pollinating crops.

Gathering and cleaning seed

I gather most of my seed into paper grocery bags, by bending the heads over the bags and gently loosening the seed. I clean it of husks and debris with a series of different mesh sieves, along with some careful winnowing. I then put it in a paper grocery bag to dry. It is important that the seed is completely dry if you intend to store it for any length of time.

To get seed from a soft fruit like a tomato or a cucumber, simply squeeze it from the ripe fruit (eat the rest), stir in a little water and let it ferment in a warm place for a few days. Then pour off the clear liquid and seeds, and rinse several times to remove bits of flesh. Strain the cleaned seed and dry it in a warm dry place.

If you have a lot of seed, you may want to separate out the inferior smaller seeds (these don’t tend to grow as well) and just keep the larger ones. You can separate them with a sieve – the small seed will go right through, while the bigger ones don’t.

See Seeds for information on storing your cleaned seeds.

Saving vegetative material

Saving tubers and bulbs is quite simple in most cases. The hardier types can even be left in the ground for the winter. If you have to dig them and store them inside, make sure you cure and store them properly (see Harvesting). You also have to be aware of the possibility of transmitting viral disease from one generation to another.

Saving F1 hybrid seed

It is often said that you shouldn’t save seed from F1 hybrid plants because it doesn’t come true to type. The offspring (the F2 generation) won’t resemble the parents, but will show the segregation of it’s grandparents. It is sometimes said that such seed isn’t viable, though this isn’t usually true.

Though F1 seed doesn’t generally breed true, in some varieties you can still get a fairly good (if very variable) crop straight away, so it may be worth experimenting with it. Hybrids can be converted into open pollinated varieties, by planting the F2 seed and in subsequent years selecting seed from the plants with the most desirable characteristics. In some cases common varieties labeled as hybrids may actually come close to breeding true.

Breeding your own varieties

Seed savers are most often concerned with maintaining the purity of established varieties and maintaining them for posterity, but this isn’t all there is to seed saving. If you are adventurous, the next step (and a logical one) is to start breeding your own new varieties and altering old ones to make them more suitable for your needs and local growing conditions. Plant breeding opens up a whole new vista for the ambitious gardener and isn’t very difficult. It is how out ancestors produced all of our common crops and their many varieties. You could even create entirely new kinds of crops, as very little breeding work has been done on most potential food plants. Professional plant breeders mostly work for large companies, breeding varieties useful to large

scale farmers. Breeding garden seeds has pretty much been left to the small seed companies and amateur breeders.

Landrace gardening

One of the advantages of saving your own seeds is that you can develop seeds that are better adapted to growing in your garden. Landrace gardening is a process of gradually improving crops for growing in your locale, by gathering seed from the most successful and useful plants every year (you decide the criteria for successful and useful). Rather than concentrating on individual varieties, the aim is to produce seed with a wider gene pool. Seed that is not only locally adapted to your garden, climate and bioregion, but also contains enough diversity to be able to tolerate adverse changes from year to year, such as new pests, extreme weather or disease. This is how traditional gardeners and farmers around the world grew most of their crops until relatively recently.

Landrace gardening isn’t something to concern the casual grower, but I wanted to mention it because I think it will be important in the future, when growing your own food is something that everyone does. It may interest the more experienced grower or seed saver, who might want to start producing locally adapted landraces for each crop they grow. I imagine that eventually there will be a network of thousands of growers right across the country, each producing seed for their own local area. This would enable anyone to obtain locally adapted seed, rather than having to buy from a national source, which may not be well suited to local conditions, This could help to make home vegetable growing easier for everyone.

Creating a landrace is most straightforward with crops that cross-pollinate readily, such as corn, beet, Brassicas, carrot, cucumber, melon, onion, squash and tomatillo. You start by planting as many varieties of a crop as you can find (anywhere from 5– 50), emphasizing those that do well in your area (especially those you have saved the seed from yourself). You want a wide variety to increase genetic diversity, but it’s best to avoid most hybrids, as they may contain a male sterility gene which could be passed on.

Obviously to get seed you must allow the plants to complete their life cycle, right through to flowering and producing seed. You should remove any plants that are obviously inferior in any way (such as slow growth, premature bolting or poor flavor), so they don’t pass inferior genes on to the others. You then save seed from a wide variety of plants (maybe 50 in total), but concentrate especially on those that grow particularly well and have superior qualities, such as taste, productivity, early maturation, cold tolerance, or late bolting. The next year (and in following years) you plant your selected seed and repeat the process. This is actually a continuing process, as you can add new varieties to the mix at any time. You can also select out seed of a particularly good type and save it separately as a new variety.

You can also create a landrace with self-pollinating crops (tomato, eggplant, melon, pepper, bean, lettuce, pea, wheat and spinach) using the same procedure, but it won’t get as diverse as quickly. You still grow as great a diversity of varieties and you still select for the best ones, which over the years will translate into the best adapted (they will produce more seed). Even self-pollinators tend to have some crossing, so you will get some mixing.

If you want to learn more about landrace gardening, I suggest you go online and check out the blog written by the guy who inspired me to learn about it: Joseph Lofthouse at Mother Earth News – Landrace Gardening. If Joseph didn’t actually coin the term, he has done more to popularize it than anyone else that I know of.