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Saving seeds and saving seeds

March 31, 2009

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Numex Joe E. Parker, Anaheim pepper

There is a lot of interest lately in saving garden seeds.  In fact, there is a lot of interest in gardening, period.  And saving your own seed, is a continuum of our rabid obsession (speaking from personal experience here) for all things food.  People are realizing that a few large companies are controlling the bulk of seeds available to the home gardener, and to farmers, large and small.  The threat of GMO contamination is very real.  We are losing our diversity in seeds, and in food.  Western reductionist thinking has led us down this path, and some are straying – giving us at least some choices in the seeds we can purchase and grow in our gardens. 

But I see a huge simplification of the seed saving movement for home gardeners that is a victim of this same line of thought.  The enthusiastic gardener who is interested in having a go at seed saving will just get straightforward information on how to save the seed.  Meaning, how to let the plant express itself to the seed saving stage and then in meticulous detail how to process said seeds, and then store them.  But, what bothers me the most is, if we follow these simple instructions, we too are helping to doom the vegetable diversity we so crave.  Like all things in nature, it ain’t that simple… .  You can save seed from just one plant on some vegetables, others you may need as many as 50 plants.  One size does not fit all in seed saving.

Saving seeds is something I grew up around, as I watched the people around me practice it, and I am sure that is how they learned.  But you know how it is, you never ask all the questions you need to, now I have no one to ask, all my gardening mentors are long gone, leaving me with seeds that they carefully saved.  To learn more, I have studied the subject and read many books, and built on the knowledge I learned as a fledgling gardener.   As with everything else I have read and studied, I discovered there is not one single book that tells me everything I needed to know.  I don’t want a PhD in seed saving, I just want to know what is within my capabilities, taking into consideration my garden space, what we eat, and how much time I have to devote to the practice of saving seeds.  A tome on seed saving will bore me too quick and I will lose interest fast.  If you learn best that way, by all means get the tome, if not rely on books for home gardeners.

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Sweet Meat Winter Squash – original Gill Bros Seed

A friend asked me the other day about seed saving, and the discussion led to a Sweet Meat squash I had given her.  She wanted to know if she could save the seed, and I assured her, yes, she could save the seed.  Her next question was quite astute, (I could tell she had been studying the art of seed saving) she wanted to know if it was OK to save the seeds from just one squash.  This is where seed saving can get complicated – it is OK to save the seed from one squash, providing it has been grown with enough other squash of it’s type to ensure genetic diversity within that species.  Meaning I have to grow at least two dozen plants to ensure that I am in fact keeping the gene pool diverse enough to continue.  So even though the seed may come from only one or two squash that I deem to be the best, my seed saving endeavor for just this one variety started last spring, when I planned enough space to plant that many plants, and then I tended these plants, made sure I did not plant another squash variety that would cross with them, and then I harvested, cured, stored and have been eating these squash since last fall.  Every step of the way from seed to plate, I have been looking for criteria that meets what I want in this particular winter squash. 

  1. It must sprout vigorously, weaklings get thinned out, they will never perform to the variety’s full potential.
  2. It must grow well, and set fruit.
  3. The fruit must ripen in my maritime climate.
  4. It must store well, and taste good.

So it is simple, but complicated.  Seed saving takes time and energy, and sure you can save seed from one squash plant, but it won’t take long to end up with less than desirable results.  I’m not much of a gambler, and I don’t really gamble in the garden either.  Not to say, I don’t let volunteers come in, and enjoy the results, but I don’t depend on them.  I learn from them, but that is where I stop my expectations.

Sometimes we (collectively speaking here) as homesteaders think we must do everything, down to producing everything that we need and want.  I think we should cut ourselves some slack – while I want to keep a milk cow, the next person may not, choosing instead to grow cotton and make their own cloth.  My point is we should do what we want and feel capable of doing.  I have no desire to grow cotton, and my girlfriend who grows flax has no desire to get anywhere near the back end of cow.  But we share the same attitude  and passion about producing, and enjoying the fruits of our labors. 

So I say, save seeds of what you want, and maybe start out small, with the vegetables that self-pollinate.  That way you don’t have to worry about undesirable crosses, and mile long isolation distances.  Plants that fit this bill are: tomatoes, peas, beans, lettuce, and peppers among a few others.  I won’t go into the details of each because that is were the books come in handy.  As the season progresses, watch your plants and select specimens to save seed from that meet your criteria.  Maybe you want more production – look for the bean plant that has a heavier set of beans.  Or, you need earlier ripening for a dry bean – save seed from the plants that have the earliest maturing pods before inclement weather sets in.   Remember you are in charge of your own gardening trial here, when you think about it. You will know what attributes of a certain vegetable are important to you.  Taste is a biggie around here, both raw and cooked.

 

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Abenaki Calais Flint Corn 8 row

Now if you want to save seeds of out-crossing (pollen-exchanging) vegetables, you need to do a little more homework and have a little more space devoted to planting just for seed saving, since you need more than one or two plants to keep the seed line vigorous.  You need to know the life cycle of your plant.  Does it produce it’s seeds in one growing season, like corn, or is it a biennial that produces it’s seed in it’s second year?  Find out what does it cross with?  For instance, chard and beets are in the same family, I save seed on alternate years of these vegetables.  The seeds keep several years at least, and to keep the line strong I need a minimum of 6 plants, which will produce enough seed to choke a horse.  And if you know chard and beets as mild mannered garden guests, just wait until those suckers grow into seed bearing monsters!  They take up huge amounts of space, so be prepared.

Brassicas (cole family) can be tricky also, since there are several species, some cross, and some don’t.  You have to do your homework and make sure no other brassicas from the same species are blooming while you are waiting for pollination, and this goes for your neighbors garden too.  I have to pick alternate years to save rutabaga and Siberian kale seed, and again I need at least 12 rutabagas and maybe I could get by with only 6 kale plants.  The seeds keep several years at least, so alternate years are not a problem, since the plants will put on huge amounts of seed.  And the plants should be OP (open-pollinated) not hybrids.  If you aren’t sure, check the seed catalog, in the cultural information for the particular vegetable, or where the seed is listed, if it says hybrid or F1 next to the name, you won’t get consistent results from your efforts.  Not to say you can’t save the seed from those crosses, you never know, you may have the next great vegetable variety on your hands, but it will then need further grow out for a few more seasons to see if it comes “true” to itself.  For budding plant breeders, I say go for it.  For people who want to grow their own food, I say don’t reinvent the wheel, unless you plan on eating all your mistakes.  I have had such bad luck in the last few years from seeds purchased, it takes several years to get back on your feet.  It takes just as much effort, compost and time to grow a under-performing vegetable as a thriving one – I have come to the realization I need to save more of my own seeds, for the things I depend on for our food supply.

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Lutz Winterkeeper beet and Harris Model parsnip.  

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Joan rutabaga and Red Cored Chantenay carrot.

To save seed from biennials such as the beets, parsnips, rutabagas and carrots pictured above, your seed starting project starts the first year.  Watch as your plants grow and rogue out (remove) any that bolt and try to set seed the first growing season.  These plants need to go through a dormant period before starting to grow again and set seed.  First year bolters should not be allowed to continue growing.  I try to give the plants the same treatment, such as thinning and proper care throughout the growing season, that way I can see who excels and who falls short.  As I harvest these root crops this winter, I am looking mostly for uniformity.  I have placed the smaller specimens horizontally to the ones I am considering for replanting.  You can see some have remained smaller, and in this case I am looking for size.  Not the largest, but just good size.  Finding at least 50 carrots and 25 parsnips that look uniform has been an interesting project.

So the key points would be:

  1. Decide which vegetables you want to save seed from, and plant enough to give you a feel for how the vegetable performs in your garden.
  2. Choose Open Pollinated varieties.  You can help preserve vegetable diversity this way.  Seed saved from different micro-climates will become acclimated and perform better over time.
  3. Network with other gardeners, each person can grow something different for seed saving, and that way a community can build up its own acclimated vegetable varieties.
  4. Learn what weeds can cause a problem with your seed saving.  For instance, Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) will cross freely with carrot from plants up to 1/2 a mile or so.  If you see wild carrots, just cut them back to stop them from blooming.  Or wild mustards can cross freely with some of your cole crops.
  5. By letting some plants in your garden go to the flowering stage, you will be providing much needed food for our other livestock – the pollinators.  I imagine a well-maintained garden with some vegetables allowed to go to seed would seem like an oasis to a hungry insect who needs pollen to survive.  Most of our modern landscape has become so monoculture and poisonous in nature that we are losing the battle.  We help them, they help us in return.  The last time I checked a honeybee or syrphid fly does not need a book to tell them what to pollinate, when,  and I do.

Some books I have found helpful:

Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties, by Carol Deppe
(does a good job explaining how to select for the traits you want in a vegetable)

Gardening When It Counts, Growing Food in Hard Times, by Steve Solomon
(a no holds barred look at how to really feed yourself, with comprehensive information on gardening with less resource use, and a listing of vegetables in order of fertility requirements, and good information on seed saving for each of those varieties)

Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth 
(hoping the new editions contain more information on how many plants you need to have a successful outcome, but good information on the actual process of processing the seeds.)

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2009 1:15 am

    I admit, I have been trying to stick my toes into the idea of seed saving and have been horribly intimidated. As you said so well, it is both simple and complicated. I feel like it is something beyond my capacities, just as someone starting out – something that the more experienced only can do, with so much to consider.
    Do you have any tips for a baby-steps foray into trying to save seeds? If you had only a few words to pass along, or a few-point “try this” list, what would it be?

    • April 1, 2009 7:58 pm

      mangochild, beans and peas are super easy, they most likely won’t out-cross and you could start by just harvesting pods that get missed when you harvest. If you find pods that have mature seeds, leave them on the plant as long as you can to fully dry. A little rain or irrigation won’t hurt, but if a long rainy spell is predicted, pick the dry pods. Tomatoes too, are easy, but you should leave the fruit on the vine until it is beyond eating stage. I didn’t even get into bulbs and tubers, but garlic is a good one, and it can save you quite a bit of money. For garlic, in the fall, replant the largest cloves from healthy heads, and eat the rest. Hope that helps a little.

      I think one thing about seed saving, is that you should have a little gardening under your belt, so you know what is a good trait, and what is normal or abnormal in the way of growth or pest problems.

  2. Ali permalink
    April 1, 2009 2:57 am

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful and timely post. With all the buzz about seed saving right now, I’ve been feeling vaguely guilty for not doing more of it. This post helps me realize that I shouldn’t feel guilty, as I don’t have the necessary time or resources to really SAVE seed. I will have to be satisfied with growing as much of my own food as possible.

    I’d love to hear what your favorite sources of seed are, though, for the seeds that you do not save yourself.

    Thanks again,
    Ali in Maine

    • April 1, 2009 8:05 pm

      Ali, thanks, I almost thought I was going to discourage too many people. Don’t feel guilty – you are doing a great job with your garden! Growing a portion of ones food and increasing that task incrementally is a hard thing to do.

      Gee, as for seeds, I get my seeds from many places. Fedco used to be my favorite, but some seeds from them in the last two years have been quite crappy, to put it nicely. Either the wrong seed, or poor germination, or not true to type at all. The best seeds, customer service and info has always been Johnny’s, but they carry so many hybrids. I am not a purist, and I grow both hybrid and OP’s, and I am sure if Johnny’s could find adequate supplies of organic OP seeds, they would carry them. Territorial is good for some varieties, and Wild Garden Seeds is good too. I probably order seeds from 10 different catalogs, just to get the variety I want. I can’t just pick one! My seed stash looks like my fabric stash!!

  3. April 1, 2009 6:02 am

    Wow, you managed to make that topic very fascinating. Now I want to go out and find a book about it.

    I saved a couple of varieties of seeds last year. (Yes two.) The bell peppers.. well, I should have known better because I have read that they are notoriously hard to start from seeds, or something along those lines. Not exactly newbie material. But I also saved some green beans that produced like gangbusters last year. It will be time to plant them as soon as it is dry enough to get back in the garden. I can’t wait!

    • April 1, 2009 8:08 pm

      Cassandra, thanks, seed saving is fascinating and time consuming. That is funny about the beans, my neighbor grows Kentucky Wonder green beans, and after she has canned enough, she lets the others progress to shelly beans, and seeds. Now they are acclimated to her garden!

      I can’t wait to get back to gardening either!

  4. April 1, 2009 7:00 am

    Another excellent tutorial Nita. I’m like you, I want the information I need, quick and simply put 😉

  5. April 1, 2009 7:08 am

    You are so wise! Thank you for this timely post. We have raised seed corn for years, you are so right.

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

  6. April 1, 2009 9:13 am

    I would like to add:
    keep good notes (seed origin, garden conditions, date sown & harvested, flavor, pest & disease problems, storage qualities, number of plants grown & how many harvested seed is from, seed quantity harvested, germination) & take pictures.

    Pictures are a great garden tool, they are a big help in comparisons. For example- how soon did those seeds germinate, how well did they grow? A digital photo with a date makes a great comparison. Even if you don’t get fancy and use a ruler a pocket knife or something else laid down will easily show you size and can indicate quality.
    A picture of the plants you save seed from is also a great record. I try to include information in the picture (label or note), it makes sorting pictures later easier.

  7. April 1, 2009 11:58 am

    Thank you for writing this post! We have had such similar discussions at home. It is easier to pass the traits for diseases suceptibility than it is to pass the traits of disease resisitance. And it is not as easy as a step by step process to maintain not only the characterisitics of a food, but also the health and vigor. I still believe that seed saving is a vital skill that must be relearned by many small farmers or homesteaders, but it must be treated as a most precious skill. Seeds are our human inheritence.

    • April 1, 2009 8:27 pm

      Freija, so true, it takes so many plants and knowledge of your personal growing area to really make a good assessment on what makes the cut. Seed saving is a vital skill, but with so many nuances it takes time to learn. But it is definitely worth the effort.

  8. April 1, 2009 4:17 pm

    Thanks for the timely lesson. I have saved some seeds in the past but am hoping to do more in the future. I’ve got some heirloom corn this year, I’m waiting to see if the new neighbors will be planting corn or soybeans this year. If it’s soy I’m going to try to save some since otherwise I know it wouldn’t breed true.

    • April 1, 2009 8:30 pm

      Judy, fingers crossed for soy next door AND your new garden space! All may not be lost though if they do plant corn, you can time your’s to mature earlier or later so the pollen doesn’t cross – two weeks difference might be all you need. I have done that here with different maturity dates, and my seed has remained true.

  9. April 1, 2009 7:34 pm

    Thank you for this information, Nita. Very good post and timely as usual.

  10. April 2, 2009 7:13 am

    Very informative post, and I really like that pepper photo. I have much more to learn about this. Especially since I am a backyard gardener, I don’t plant enough of any particular species (except perhaps carrots and radishes) to satisfy gene pool issues related to saving seed. Guess I need a bigger garden! Just last night, I mentioned to my hubby that if we move (as he wants to do), I want a bigger family garden as well as some chickens (for my glorious eggs). He liked the garden idea and even offered to help concoct growing space for more potatoes (the man loves potatoes), but did not take the bait at all for the chickens (eyeroll!). Turns out a friend of his raises chickens, and was recently lamenting about them (double eyeroll). I need to find a responsible local farmer who will barter fresh eggs for something. Now I just need to figure out what I could barter in exchange! 🙂 Hmmm … Perhaps potatoes!

    • April 4, 2009 10:36 am

      Paula, chickens aren’t that bad, it is usually the humans that are the problem! First potatoes and then the eggs, baby steps… 😉

  11. April 2, 2009 9:45 am

    Oh, excellent post! The very same thing bothers me when people get all preachy about seed saving, but forget to add the extra bits needed to be successful at it. I loved this post and it really added that part that seems to get missed. Thanks!

    • April 4, 2009 10:40 am

      Gina, thanks, seed saving takes up a lot of space, I am beginning to see though that we are entering a different era than our forebears, in that they could save the easy seeds, and there wasn’t as much genetic material being lost, as the seed companies were smaller and more reputable. No one I knew who were growing huge gardens to feed themselves spent too much time and effort in seed saving beyond maybe 10 different things.

  12. April 2, 2009 4:45 pm

    I love your blog! Off subject a little, but I have to ask, have you ever eaten your NUMEX chile while its still green? I’m most curious how you use it, and how it tastes growing in your neck of the woods. We live in New Mexico, and chile is a staple here. We mostly eat it green, it ranges from mild to hot, depending on growing conditions, and we dry it when its red, most of the time. At harvest time, its common practice to buy it in sacks of about thirty pounds, it is then roasted over an open flame in large roasters just for this purpose. We take it home, peel it, and freeze it in usable portions. When its roasted properly, it has the texture of, for lack of a better comparison, a very thin raw steak. Not at all crunchy or firm. This doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it is wonderful. Generally it gets, chopped up and put in everything from burritos, and typical mexican food, to eggs in the morning, casseroles, stew, on our cheeseburgers, just about everything thats not sweet. Roasting it this way can be done on the BBQ, at first it won’t be quite so soft, but let it sit in a plastic bag for awhile, it will soften and the peel should come off easily. Please let me know how you prepare it.

  13. April 3, 2009 5:16 am

    Hey Throwback,
    I have a totally off-this-topic question for you-
    This is my first year as the proud owner of a Jersey cow, and I would like to ask your advice on drying her off. She is currently producing 3 gallons a day, at two milkings a day (very close to 12 hours apart), and I would like to have her dry by June 12th. Please give as detailed as advice as you have the energy for. Thanks! I am looking forward to your response!
    XOXO
    Joce

    • April 4, 2009 10:35 am

      Joce, cows are never off topic here 😉 OK, assuming she is showing no signs of mastitis, I would go to once a day milking before your grass starts coming in and ups her production. You want her to be winding down considerably before June. Just pick which milking is the easiest to do, and drop the other.
      Cut back on milk producing feed, (grain, alfalfa, etc.) and resist the temptation to milk if she looks uncomfortable. She shouldn’t be too tight with only 3 gallons a day. Dropping the one milking will signal her body to produce less. And when you want to dry her off just quit milking. If you skip days and then milk it will lengthen the time it takes to dry her off. When you do decide to stop, just monitor her bag for any unusual swelling, and warmth which would indicate an infection. She will feel tight, but it should start to subside within about 2-3 days. When you are checking her, just feel, don’t wash her or do anything to stimulate letdown. It should work! I’m guessing she is due in August?? Best of Luck, and milking should be easier when you have a calf to help!

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