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A Quickie About Seed Saving

May 18, 2015

Or at least how I approach it.

Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn

Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn

Seed saving is much more complicated than just the act of harvesting a dry seed from a plant.  The expectation when you save seeds from a plant is that you will have seeds that produce true-to-type like the parent.  Some plants like tomatoes, beans and peas are pretty easy to save seed from the parent plants due to flower type etc.  And of course there’s the whole hybrid, open-pollinated thing.  You can save seeds from a hybrid for sure, but the resulting seeds will produce plants that vary.  I grow hybrids, and I grow open-pollinated varieties too, there is room for both in my garden and on my table.

The other thing about seed saving is that it takes extra space because you have to let the plant(s) bolt, set seed, and then dry down. It’s unrealistic to think that you will be able to save seeds from everything you grow in your garden to eat.  So you pick and choose.  My space for seed saving is limited, and my criteria for what to plant for seed saving is limiting also.  Will it cross-pollinate?  How many parent plants do I need to insure the gene pool stays strong and true-to-type?  Is this seed important to me for heritage reasons?

corn 4
In the case of this flint corn, if I want to save the seed from this corn, I need to make sure it won’t cross-pollinate with the hybrid sweet corn we like to grow.  Now growing corn here is iffy anyway, not really iffy, I guess, it just takes a long time.  USDA gardening zone charts tell me I should be able to expect to grow sweet corn to maturity easily.  But, those zone maps are pretty much useless unless I want to find out if my plants will be hardy over winter.  What the zone chart won’t tell you is about heat units.  The maritime northwest has notoriously cool nights in the summer, which translates to a much longer time for heat loving crops to reach maturity.  I grow an early sweet corn, which should be ready in about 69 days…it takes at least 90 days from seed to table.  Now if I want to grow two types of corn and I want to save seed, I need to extend my season somehow.

A trick I learned from my CSA friends is to start the seed indoors and transplant it just like many other crops.  Corn is very sensitive to soil temperature, it will rot fast in our normal May conditions if I direct seed to get a jump on the season, so transplanting really makes a lot of sense.  Once the corn germinates it’s not so sensitive to the cool soil, and it’s like you get to skip that 10 day hand-wringing when you direct seed corn in the early garden.

corn 1
Before I can plant my corn though, I need to select my seed.  The timeline on that goes in this order.  First I buy seed of a variety that I want to grow, or get seedstock from another gardener that is a plant geek like me.  Then I grow it out and make observations throughout the growing season, and then more observations through the eating season.  First off, it must taste good, or be awful damn beautiful or special for me to continue on the journey.  I bought a tiny packet of seeds last year for this corn, Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn from the breeder, Carol Deppe. It was bred and raised in western Oregon, although a little further south, but still a similar climate.  This corn is also offspring from the Abenaki Calais corn I have grown before with success.

Abenaki Calais flint corn drying over the woodstove

Abenaki Calais flint corn drying over the woodstove

I did have to dry the Abenaki corn down over the cookstove, but I can’t hold that against it either since we had quite a bout of wet springs a few years back, and I couldn’t even plant garden until the end of June…sad days for sure.  I also hadn’t been brave or smart enough to think of transplanting corn.

The Abenaki corn is good, but the Cascade Ruby-Gold sounded a little better.  Gardeners like to experiment you know.  I started the Ruby-Gold in the greenhouse and attempted transplanting, and it really wasn’t at bad as I envisioned.  My biggest worry was hurting the extremely vigorous tap root, and expecting the corn to perform under dryland conditions.  I read up on the subject and advice ranged from don’t worry to worry and keep the corn flats above water so the tap root can live in the water like a cutting being rooted.  Well, that wasn’t going to happen so I proceeded with some caution.  I broke some tap roots, and discarded some seedlings, but I ended up with a good-sized block of transplanted seed corn.  So far so good, until the corn was about knee-high, and our last (RIP) remaining ewe decided to get out and eat the flint corn down to the nubbins.  Not all of it, but enough to tick me off big time.

corn 1
Despite all that though we brought in a decent harvest of flint corn.  It dried down beautifully on the stalk, and we were are able to harvest before any significant rains and get the bounty stored.  What I liked about it was besides tasting good, it yielded better for me than the Abenaki.  So far this corn has a lot going for it in my garden.  Now for this year, I need to select seed from cobs that meet my criteria.  Since growing, harvesting and taste have been satisfied, I want to look for production.  I didn’t keep the best notes when I harvested so I have no idea really what caused small cobs on some plants (sheep mowing perhaps) the small cobs appear in all colors so it’s not a color thing.  It not make any difference at all, but I selected my seed from my largest cobs of each color, and rejected any kernels that were smaller.  It may not make any difference in the next planting, but that’s how you proceed, one step at a time.  I like the mix of colors, red is supposed to be more tolerant of higher elevations, and cooler temperatures, so in the future I could only select for red or not.  That’s what makes it fun.  Saving seed can be like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re biting into.

corn 3


39 Comments leave one →
  1. SweetLand Farm permalink
    May 18, 2015 12:35 pm

    Hi! I liked the name of your blog so I thought I’d stop by. We have grown flint corn only once, and it really didn’t do well. I’ll share this with my husband and maybe we’ll try it again. Thanks for sharing about saving seed. It’s something we would like to do. And this post was great info. Thanks!

  2. Molly's Keeper permalink
    May 18, 2015 2:19 pm

    How many different cobs did you save seed from? I think I read in Carol’s book to save kernels from 100 different cobs to keep from inbreeding? That made me think twice about saving corn seed – it seemed a bit overwhelming.

    • May 18, 2015 5:19 pm

      Molly’s Keeper, I took that to mean you need at least a 100 plants to start with for good pollination, I may be wrong, and I’m sure someone will correct me if that is so. I planted 200 plants and made sure no other corn pollinated on my watch. I also have no close neighbors growing corn. A quick internet search yielded this:
      I set seed candidates aside and we ate a lot of the odd types. All yummy.

      • May 18, 2015 10:11 pm

        I use the saved seed to give me the bulk of the plants I grow and still get small amounts of new seeds from time to time for the genetic variation.

  3. May 18, 2015 2:22 pm

    Have you ever saved carrot seed? The one and only source I could find for an heirloom variety we especially like appears to be gone, and so it’s save seed myself, or go without. And here we sit, in the WV, an area thick with queen anne’s lace, and me without much seed saving experience. I’ve been mumbling curses to myself. I wonder if I could get Carol Deppe interested…

    • May 18, 2015 5:16 pm

      nm, I haven’t due to the wild carrot population along the road sides, but you could also build some screen boxes for your carrot seed bed to exclude insects…I haven’t gotten that into it yet. But Local Roots CSA in western Washington saved seed for their farm and have been successful.

      • May 18, 2015 10:09 pm

        I grow my carrots for seed in the greenhouse. We have all sorts of carrot family plants growing around us, so I choose a sheltered spot in the greenhouse around the middle, so less likely to be contaminated. It worked

  4. bunkie permalink
    May 18, 2015 3:46 pm

    Another awesome informative post! I too am trying my luck with Carol’s Cascade Ruby-Gold Corn this summer. We have great results here (eastern WA) with transplanting corn! I’ve even just filled flats with no sections with the corn seed, and then transplanted when a couple of inches high….course, that trick takes lots of delicate untangling of the roots…sometimes! :O)

  5. deb permalink
    May 18, 2015 5:12 pm

    Lovely -and timely-post! I finally have room to plant flint corn and was just today looking at the field wishing i could get it innthe ground. I had not considered transplanting it. Thanks for this idea.
    i am growing one of carole deppe’s squashes this year. It is in the seed flats almost ready to plant.

  6. Carrie permalink
    May 19, 2015 1:42 am

    Hi MoH,

    I’m pondering along seed saving lines re ‘my’ Sweet Meat. I have enough saved seed for several years – and this year’s seeding has produced 100% germination, so my seed from 2013 is ‘known good’ (at the moment). But… because I haven’t yet got the hang of growing it well in my conditions, it’s a seed bank from only two of those 2013 plants – last year’s crop failed.

    Also, except through your words and pics, I don’t know what a ‘good’ Sweet Meat looks like… Or for that matter, what it should taste like. Thus my thinking is that I should buy another packet of seed from Chiltern Seeds (UK) and next year grow both mine and theirs and compare; then save seed from what appears to be the best of both sorts. Meanwhile this year’s seed can also be saved as back-up – and hopefully I’ll remember to make notes about growing conditions (not my strong point!).

    Would that approach fit with your thoughts if faced with a similar situation? Do you think it’s worth the effort or will it be just as effective to go with what I have and select again from this year’s (hopefully good) crop? So that over time I end up with my own ‘sort’ of Sweet Meat?

    BTW, Chiltern Seeds say they sourced their seed from Oregon – I’ll ask whether they grow-on themselves or re-source each year as that would be useful info.

    • May 19, 2015 5:02 am

      Sounds like a good plan Carrie. What I do with my seed usually is divided them in half, plant a quarter and keep the others back just in case. After a while you end up with a lot of seeds and you have to get rid of the older ones as you replace with new. I think with the C. maxima squash Meat you need a couple of dozen plants to keep your genetics going. But there’s always the fact too that times got hard you would eat any offspring or off types anyway. So even if a person doesn’t have the perfect number of plants or space I think seed saving is a worthwhile pastime.

      • Carrie permalink
        May 19, 2015 7:27 am

        I’m unlikely ever to get a couple of dozen plants – not enough room. However, this year I am trying to get other plot holders to take a plant, and will encourage those who like me are regular seed savers to do just that. Given freshly introduced seed next year, between us we might have some genetic diversity. And as it’s a small allotment site we shall be able to inspect each others’ crop and discuss merits.

        “…that times got hard you would eat any offspring or off types anyway” – indeed I would, indeed I do! 🙂

  7. Bee permalink
    May 19, 2015 5:34 am

    Being the paranoid soul that I am, I like to operate on the principle that the day may come when I can’t get seed from seed companies (trucker’s strike, peak oil, Armageddon — little problems like that). And I don’t want to get in a situation where I’m totally dependent on them. So I hedge my bets — plant multiple varieties of stuff (such as four different tomatoes, all of which I can eat fresh or can), save as much seed from as many plants as I can, and buy a small packet or so of everything I’m planting each year, just in case I have a crop failure and to keep the genetics going. Like Nita, I always keep part of the seed for next year. I plant the oldest seeds first, seeding extra to make up for lower germination rates. Except for onions, though, most seed is good for several years if you store it properly. Eventually, I wind up with extra seed. I might give the excess away, let the grandkids have it to plant in their garden or feed it to the chickens.

    • May 19, 2015 9:04 am

      I like this — it makes me feel much better about my own tendency to have excess seed on hand. Just this year it proved handy, when there was no seed to be had for my favorite kale variety. I happened to have some old seed on hand, and was very happy about it. Germinated just fine, and yes, I kept some back. Just in case.

      • Bee permalink
        May 19, 2015 9:39 am

        The other thing is that sometimes only one company carries a particular seed, especially the older open-pollinated varieties (although it’s a little better now than it was 10 or 15 years ago, because of the seedsavers exchanges). If something happens to that company, you’re SOL.

        • May 19, 2015 4:35 pm

          Yep, that’s exactly what happened to my favorite carrot seeds. So frustrating.

  8. May 19, 2015 9:00 am

    Thanks for the suggestions. I like the seed box idea. Had also thought about the greenhouse, but don’t want to inadvertently breed a variety that will only grow in the greenhouse … I wondered about growing them outside, refrigerating them for the winter and then transplanting to the greenhouse to bloom, but that scenario seems awfully complicated. Maybe I’ll try growing some outside with an insect excluder, and some in the greenhouse, and see what happens.

    • May 19, 2015 9:04 am

      nm, that’s pretty much what you have to do anyway, because you need to select the best 200 carrots from your lot, refrigerate and plant the next season because they are biennials. What’s got us into a seed mess in the first place is that the plants are left to grow without rogueing and undesirable characteristics become part of the gene pool. I think growing them in a greenhouse is the least of your worries, you want uniformity, size, etc. In your seedstock you need to select for what you like about the variety in the first place.

      • May 19, 2015 4:34 pm

        The best 200 — oh my! That’s more carrots than I have ever grown. This is certainly going to be an adventure…

        • May 19, 2015 8:46 pm

          It is rather a lot and so I think I will stick with planting around 10 of the good ones, get quite a bit of seed and buy in new for genetic variation and save the best from those 😀

        • May 21, 2015 11:16 am

          I was wrong, it’s 50, I was thinking of cabbage!

        • May 21, 2015 8:44 pm

          That sounds more manageable for carrots but not for cabbages 😀

        • May 21, 2015 11:16 am

          I was wrong, your best 50 would be enough and like Joanna said even 10 is better than nothing.

  9. May 19, 2015 5:48 pm

    Great information about saving seed. I’ll be delving a little more deeply into it this season, so your information is helpful.

    I’ve had very good luck pre-sprouting corn seed indoors and transplanting. No more partial rows!

  10. May 21, 2015 11:40 am

    Phew. That sounds less intimidating! : )

    • May 21, 2015 11:47 am

      nm, do you have Gardening When it Counts, by Steve Solomon? Lots of good particulars in there about realistic seed saving for a smallholding.

      • May 21, 2015 7:46 pm

        Thanks! I do; but for some reason shelved it without fully reading it. Will go have a look.

  11. Carrie permalink
    May 21, 2015 1:14 pm

    Re the comment about Sweet Meat above, the UK/European source of seed, Chiltern Seeds.has replied to my email: “Our Squash ‘Sweet Meat’ seeds come from one of our growers in America and are not grown here in the UK.” Which I think is good news for Joanna and myself, and anyone else this side of the pond interested in growing these winter squash. From time to time we should be able reintroduce the original material we started with (well, more-or-less the original).

    Chiltern have also added Lutz Winter Keeper to the ‘customer requests’ list for consideration by their seed buyer when designing next year’s catalogue. (Joanna maybe you should email them with a similar request? 🙂 )

    (Nita apols for using your blog as a message board!)

    • May 21, 2015 1:38 pm

      Carrie, just doing what I can 😉

    • May 21, 2015 10:49 pm

      Is that a beetroot Carrie?

      • Carrie permalink
        May 22, 2015 6:12 am


        It surely is – one MoH favours. It would be interesting to see how it does in the UK… I guess in Latvia you’ve no chance of ‘keeping’ it in the ground unless grown in the greenhouse; I doubt I have either given the number of voles. Worth a try… with the fall-back of lift and store as usual.

        • May 23, 2015 10:11 am

          I was surprised after winter to dig up some carrots that had survived. It was a bit hit and miss though. I think with a good deep bed of straw, they would – if they survive the voles. Mind you, this winter wasn’t quite so cold as it has been in other winters

  12. Ali permalink
    May 22, 2015 1:02 pm

    Can anyone recommend a good book or website with detailed instruction on how to save seed (all kinds). The hubby and I would really love to learn this apparently lost and forgotten skill. We are new to all things farming (just bought a farm in february) and trying to research but there is a lot of conflicting information out there. For example when looking up about saving seed potatoes, I read that it is not possible and you must always buy your seed potatoes from certified seed stalk. I thought that sounded ridiculous, then MoH happened to post this week about saving her own seed potatoes so my thought was validated! Clearly the powers that be want us to think we are too inept to do anything ourselves. We can do anything if we just have the desire to learn how!

    • May 22, 2015 1:08 pm

      I would recommend, Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, and Breeding your Own Vegetable Varieties, The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. In that order, the first is for a home gardener wishing to secure their own food supply, the second is more serious with a lot more varieties than just home gardening would need but good for a big picture idea. The Deppe books are a little more specialized diet-wise but still good to have if you want to do more than dabble.

      • May 23, 2015 10:16 am

        Here is a website too It is an English company, but they believe in encouraging people to save their own seed and if you scroll down the left hand side there is more information too

        • May 25, 2015 9:46 am

          This is excellent, thank you!
          Also enjoying revisiting Growing Vegetables When It Counts, and Seed to Seed. Maybe between the lot of them, I’ll end up with a workable method … I did see, online somewhere, a suggestion for making individual cages for carrot umbels, out of net bags, with a suggestion not to try to cover every one on a plant (and, presumably, marking the stems of the chosen, so as not to lose track). This is intriguing, as our greenhouse is small.
          Am learning a lot of interesting lessons this year, having rented a small plot on someone else’s farm, for my largest garden yet. I’m sorry to say, they are things I should not have actually needed to learn, being generally familiar with the concepts, but apparently, some of us are slow. As, for example, why when the farmer says “I’ll do the tilling,” not to reply, “Great, thanks!” … because all the tractor accomplished was to leave a few inches of dust and a lot of long stems on top of ground that has now had the daylights compacted out of it. : (
          Oh broadfork, you are my friend … but sakes alive, it’s a lot of hard work, trying to re-dig that very hard ground.

        • May 25, 2015 8:08 pm

          One of the reasons we have a two-wheel tractor 🙂

    • Ali permalink
      May 23, 2015 6:21 pm

      Thank you! I will start with the first one you suggested and put the others in my wish list for later:)

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