Being able to grow this year’s garden crops from last year’s harvest is awesome. This will definitely rank high among frugal gardeners, self-sustainers, and off-griders, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. There’s tedious work involved with some vegetables, and seed saving from biennial plants might prove impossible based on your physical location. And if you’re going to rely on what you grow for most, or all, of what you eat – don’t count on never having to buy garden seed again.
1… KNOW THY PLANTS
We won’t go into depth on hybrid vs. open-pollinated, but if you’re saving seed you should already be aware that producing exact duplicates from hybrid seed is rare. Always by heirlooms, but make sure they’re open-pollinated.
Annuals are the easy ones to collect seed from no matter what climate you live in, though you can only get viable seed from dead ripe fruits, or fully matured seed that is left on the plant until it reaches this stage. Biennials won’t give you seed until the second year, which means you have to keep them growing for 2 seasons. A simple accomplishment where it never freezes; like California’s coast and the Deep South states. It might be possible to hold the crop over winter in a viable state under a row cover in cooler regions, but never in the North. I’ve read that you can dig and store them like tender flowering bulbs, but that’s always a gamble. Some have great luck at that with tender tubers for things like Dahlias and Cannas, and other’s none at all – which aren’t edible, but winter storage is much the same. Of course, having a properly designed root cellar might help! Do you have one? It’s on my wish list in the Need A Miracle category.
And then there are the perennials that give us food, the artichokes, strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus. New crops of these are best grown from root divisions or rooted cuttings. With strawberries – the largest fruits come from rooted runners produced the summer before, though the mother plant will continue to bear fruit for years.
2… POLLINATION IS A MUST
Some plants in the veggie patch are self-pollinating, while others need insect or wind assistance. If no pollination takes place your saved seed will be what is known as ‘non-viable’ – it won’t sprout. Experienced seed savers who depend on their garden as the main food source will test their seed to make sure germination is good. And if it’s not? Its time to order some, or do without, so make sure you test seed in the dead of winter when replacement stock is most likely available.
Self-pollinating plants are the easy ones, and the ones that need less fuss to keep true to the parent. These are super popular garden crops: beans, peanuts, peas, lettuces, peppers, tomatoes,okra, and eggplants. Yes, there are exceptions – so check the variety details before proceeding with cultivating your own seed. Yes, the genetics can also get blurred up due to pollinator traffic causing cross-pollination, but only in the same kind of plant. That is to say… tomatoes won’t cross with eggplants, though both are nightshades, but cross breeding between tomatoes is very possible.
Other families of plants we grow in our gardens either require a lot more work on your part, or must be grown in total isolation. Some veggies can cross with weeds, like carrots and Queen Anne’s Lace. Others all started with the same parent, which makes for a weird harvest next year if you grew two or more of their relatives in the same garden. Admittedly, some of the most awesome tomatoes come from their uninhibited ways.
There are also some types of vegetable crops that are best pollinated by hand if your going to keep the seed true to the parent. Insects are great assistants, but they’re not always very selective! This might require knowing what a female and a male flower looks like, depending on the crop.
3… MAINTAINING PURITY
There are ways to protect against cross-pollination in the average backyard garden space with some of them, but others call for a separation distance between varieties of a mile or more to maintain genetic purity. Obviously, this could be a group activity among friends scattered around town, or time to just order the your kissing cousin favorites. These are the brassicas: kale, kohlrabi, collard greens, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. – and so closely related that cross-breeding is a given, because they all share the same parent originally. Many other garden staples also readily cross – corn, squashes and cukes, chard and beets, and root vegetables such as radishes, turnips, and rutabaga.
Sweet corn and field corn cross-pollination can actually ruin this years crop. When planted too close together it might make some horses and cows really happy, but you won’t be delighted at all with tough, flavorless corn on the cob. There are other crops this can happen to – cucurbits come to mind.
Sometimes you separate these prone to cross crops by alternating rows, or putting them on opposite sides of the garden. This works with plants that pollination is made possible only by bees and insects. Those that develop viable seed through wind pollination are the ones that need a lot more distance than the confines of your garden. Sometimes you can protect the seed from corruption by wrapping a tomato cage or other open frame with cheese cloth, or by bagging select blossoms, but it’s far less reliable than growing it a mile or more away… which is how commercial seed house seed is kept true to variety. Which one is best, depends on the crop, and how readily it will cross.
4… GOOD TRAITS
If you’re going to take a serious approach to seed saving, you’ll want to pick the best plant in the bunch, and reserve it’s fruit for this purpose. The best way to insure a vigorous crop next year is to grow it from see produced from the healthiest, biggest, and most fruitful plant you have. Kind of like picking a race horse, or a show dog. You might not need all the seed it will generate though, so narrow it down to the largest, most beautiful fruits and leave those to harvest for seed. The rest you can eat, unless you want to get into selling seed, because a single tomato plant can give you literally thousands and thousands of seeds.
This is what plant breeders call ‘desirable traits’ – they look for improved disease or pest resistance, faster growing than the pack, the best colored foliage, drought tolerance, larger than average fruits… and well, you get the picture. You want the cream of the crop for seed, and the rest of the harvest for eating. Don’t wait until its almost time to start harvesting to pick the champion. If you’re growing for seed, selection begins early in the season. It means closely observing how vigorous every plant is at a young age. You might want to choose 2-3 finalists, and finally the winner, who exhibits the best traits of all as harvest time approaches. It will mean that you might have to take super special care of more plants, but you’re after Grade A plants and produce. Then there is the possibility that some event could cause the demise of the one you’ve got next year’s food assigned too. Having a replacement on hand might be wise.
5… KEEPING SEED VIABLE
The last thing you need after going through all of the selection, genetic protection, pollination, collection, and cleaning – is for your saved seed to go bad. First, and most important is the seed must be dry as a bone before putting it into a storage container. Any moisture left in the seed can cause mold and rotting when there’s no air flow. Secondly, once you get it to the zero moisture state, you don’t need it sucking up new moisture out of the air. Use only air-tight containers for seed storage, either glass jars with a sealing screw-on lid, or a top quality freezer storage box – like Tupperware, or Rubbermaid. Thirdly, you want to keep all saved seeds in a cool, dark place. Both sunlight, and heat can ruin even perfectly preserved seed.
Inline images: Papa’s Garden (cage), We Do It The Hard Way (bagging)