With a growing interest in seed saving over the past few years, it’s not uncommon to stumble across local seed swaps or read articles touting the benefits of saving your own seed. Not only can you select for plants adapted to your local microclimate but saving your own seed can help maintain a genetic library of heirloom or non-GMO varieties in your own backyard. Additionally, in an era of corporate agricultural giants, saving seed can also be a political act in which seed savers challenge the patenting of life and strive to keep cultural traditions and knowledge alive. This all sounds pretty noble, right? Well, now that you’re inspired to embark upon your own seed saving journey, let me share some of the hiccups you might encounter along the way.
Grow seed. Save seed. Right?
While the general idea of seed saving does involve growing a plant and then saving the seed, the actual process is much more nuanced. As such, let’s work through four main considerations you’ll need to address to ensure a successful seed saving venture
It All Starts With the Seed!
Before you begin growing, it’s important to know what kind of seed you have: an open-pollinated variety, an heirloom variety, or a hybrid variety. Seed Savers Exchange provides great descriptions for what each of these terms mean (Seed Savers Exchange, 2012).
- Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.
Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.
- An heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture.
An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), other companies identify heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.
- Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention.
Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybridized seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to breed a desired trait. The first generation of a hybridized plant cross also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor’. However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Not only will the plants not be true-to-type, but they will be considerably less vigorous. Gardeners who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seed every year. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many year.
Give them some space!
Another important factor in seed saving is the distance necessary between plant varieties/species to keep them from cross pollinating. This spacing is known as the Isolation distance.
Here’s where a little botany knowledge can come in handy. Peas and beans can produce asexually and do not need large distances to keep them from breeding true. Corn, on the other hand, relies on gravity and wind to pollinate. As such, several miles are needed to isolate one variety of corn from another.
In cases where space limited, it is also possible to isolate plants through time staggering. This means planting one variety several weeks earlier or later than another to ensure that they are not flowering at the same time.
Mix it up!
While isolation distance is important to keeping plants from cross pollinating, it is equally important to have a large enough population of plants to ensure you get plenty of genetic diversity. There are plenty of tables and charts online which can provide you with the ideal population size for any type of plant.
If space is an issue, fear not! There are other ways to increase the genetic diversity of your seed stock. You can plant saved seed with purchased seed. You can also swap seeds with other local growers. In either case, plant a few of your seeds with the other seeds so that their genetics can mingle.
You’ve grown it, now what?
Once you’ve grown your plants out, you’ll need to collect your seed. To start out, you can collect any ripened fruit or pods. However, as you build your seed saving skills, you may wish to only save seed from early ripening or disease resistant plants.
While collecting the seeds may seem easy enough, some plants require special processes to make sure they are viable for planting later. Tomatoes, for instance, need to go through a fermentation process to collect viable seed.
If you’re unsure how to save a particular type of seed, fear not! Details for each type of plant can be found in books and online. Remember to start simple! Work on saving seed from easier plants like lettuce or kale before getting to the trickier plants. There’s no rush.