A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Family Heirlooms - Saving Your Own Seed

Llyn, with a variety of bean seeds
In the Sharing Gardens we probably save about 80 - 90% of our own seeds. It really isn't that difficult to do and it is very gratifying to experience this deeper level of "local food self-reliance". If you have a garden plot that is separated from other gardens by at least 500 feet (to prevent unwanted cross-pollination) you can save your own seed. Even if there are other gardens nearby, there are many crops you can grow that will not cross (tomatoes, beans and onions, for example) so don't let that stop you.

There are many good reasons to save your own seed:
  • It will be more adapted to your local growing-conditions
  • You can "select" for certain qualities/characteristics (early ripening, sweetness, cold-tolerance etc)
  • The flowering plants provide food for pollinators
  • You have better control over the quality of your seed
  • You are not as dependent on supplies being available from outside sources
  • It's fun!
Chris, winnowing lettuce-seed.
Some plants easily cross-pollinate with their related neighbors. For example, either of its parents. It is difficult to control the outcome of these crosses and, you won't know the results until you grow out the seed the following year. Many gardeners have had the experience of having a squash seed germinate in their compost pile, grow to gigantic proportions and discover at harvest time that their "zucchini" is funny shaped, or has a woody skin. These variations are due to cross-pollination. Peppers also cross easily so, if you grow hot- and sweet-peppers close to each other, the seed you save may either "cool" your hot peppers, or "heat" up the sweet. If you wish to save seed from the plants listed below you either need to learn which varieties cross and keep them far away from each other when they're  going to seed, or grow them on alternate years.
beets can cross with chard, and kale with broccoli. Within the squash and melon 'families' you can get crosses between different kinds of squash, and many melons will cross with each other. Sometimes these crosses are beneficial, creating a variety that is an improvement over either of its "parents" but these crosses are rare. Often (unless you know what you're doing) you'll end up with something that isn't quite as good as

Squash-blossom with bees.
Examples of cross-pollinators:
  • Squash - with other squashes
  • Cucumbers - with other varieties of cukes
  • Melons - with other varieties of melons
  • Peppers - with other peppers
  • Lettuce - with other lettuce
  • Broccoli/Cabbage/Kale/Cauliflower - with each other
  • Chard/Beets - with each other
Some plants won't easily cross, even with other plants in the same family. Tomatoes are a good example: you can grow two, five or ten varieties in close proximity with each other and the seed you save with have the same characteristics as the plant you picked it from (note: though we haven't experienced this ourselves, on some sites we've read that potato-leaf varieties such as Stupice or Brandywine can cross with other potato-leaf varieties.)

Brandywine Heirloom tomatoes
Examples of plants that won't easily cross-pollinate:
  • Tomatoes
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Onion family (includes garlic, shallots, leeks)
Always start with Heirloom (or "open-pollinated") seed. "Hybrid" seed is developed in a carefully controlled environment that crosses unique qualities between parent-plants to yield consistent, specific results (like early-ripening "Early Girl" tomatoes). If you save seed from a hybrid plant, it is likely that it will revert back to one, or the other's parent-qualities and not give you the desired outcome. Many seed-companies will label their packets, or inform you in their catalog descriptions so you know what you are starting with;  or you can do an on-line search and have your "shopping list" handy next time you pick out seeds, or starts. Of course, once you start saving your own, you always know you've got "heirloom" seed.

Can my garden seed cross with "weed' seed? Yes! There are wild relatives of domestic vegetables that, if flowering at the same time, can 'cross' making your seed produce fruit that is woody, or bitter or has other undesirable characteristics. Learn to identify your local weeds (especially if there are big, open fields of them nearby). Consult expert sources to learn of techniques to avoid this problem (i.e. hand pollinating, bagging the flowers, timing your bloom to avoid the wild varieties' blooming. etc). Examples: Wild lettuce can cross with domestic lettuce; Queen Anne's Lace is a wild variety of carrot.

Dustin saving sunflower seed
Can I "save seed" from produce I buy from the store? Sometimes, but not always. Tomatoes are often hybridized (and being "organic" does not mean they grew it from heirloom-seed). Melons are often from hybrid seed, and they may have been grown in a field next to other melons that they could have crossed with (true with squash as well). On the other hand, we have gotten excellent bean seeds at the bulk-food section of the grocery, and grown fantastic sunflowers from bulk-seed (raw and unsalted, and still in the shell -- of course.) See the article below, if you want to grow potatoes from grocery-store "seed".

This post just covers some of the most basic aspects of seed-saving. For more detailed info, read our posts below and/or consult other sources through books or the internet.

Please leave us comments about your own experiences of saving seed. It's great when we can all learn from each other!

Here are several posts we've written that include information on saving seed: (click on the bolded text.)

Tomato Seeds: Tomatoes are a good plant to start with if you're learning to save seed. As long as you know that the plant you're saving from is not hybrid (see above) you are bound to be successful!

Lettuce: Just be sure you save seed from only one variety of lettuce at a time (it crosses easily if plants are closer than 50-feet apart). With one plant you can save enough seed to keep you, and your whole neighborhood (!) supplied with seed for several seasons to come.

Peas: are easy (if you can restrain yourself from picking every last ripe pea-pod <smile>). Be sure to follow the instructions in the post and, once the seed is fully ripened and dry, freeze the seed to prevent pea-weevil larvae from ruining your batch.

Scarlet Runners: Beautiful red blossoms, big seeds (easy to harvest and dry) and the most delicious bean we know of...what's not to like!

Potatoes: If you're already growing potatoes, saving seed is as simple as sorting out the smaller egg-sized ones and storing them till next season. You can also find seed-potatoes in the organic section of your grocer's in the spring.

Saving your own seed is only one of the many benefits of a sharing-type garden (one big garden, instead of many separate plots). To read about how a sharing garden works, and many of its other benefits, CLICK HERE).

Ismael trimming dill seed-heads; lettuce going to seed in lower-left corner.