Gardening is truly a wonderful thing. It offers so many facets of gratification whether as a source of meditation, exercise, or food security. But growing food can also be a very serious and pragmatic endeavor. There have been times in the past where war and famine have resulted in food shortages, and gardening culture was encouraged- even rewarded- on the national level.
Why Seed-Saving Matters
One of the most critical aspects of food security is having the seeds you need in order to grow food to feed your livestock, family, and community. While seeds are readily available from several brands and at many local retailers, the truth is that they all come from a very small list of commercial suppliers and that there are very real threats to the sustainability of those options. Drought, economic collapse, and even interstellar events like a solar flare can interrupt a commercial seed hybridization operation and render the supplies obsolete.
Many seeds sold by the big commercial suppliers are hybridized seeds, meaning that they’ve been selectively cross-pollinated and only promise to be what their label claims they are for a single generation. If you were to collect and grow seeds from a hybridized plant, you would not be able to guarantee you’d get the same traits, as the new plant would likely only express the characteristics of one of it’s two parent plants. This could seriously hamper your food security by limiting your harvest or producing vegetables that do not reflect your desired outcome. It would take years of selective seed-saving to re-establish viable true-to-type seeds from hybridized commercial seed packs. Additionally, commercial seeds have not been harvested in your climate, thus immediately reducing the value of the seeds for growing in your own garden. Saving seeds from your own garden gives you an advantage in future years as your seeds become naturally adapted to your own gardening practices and environment.
Becoming a seed-saver has it’s learning curve, and can be a bit intimidating, but with a few basic rules you can begin to explore and understand how to produce true-to-type seeds that you can save and grow the following year, or share or trade with friends.
Understanding Plant Genetics
Just as there are several different kinds of vegetables, there are several varieties of each kind. You can grow a black beauty zucchini, or you can grow a golden yellow zucchini. When you grow these two squash varieties close to each other, pollinators will likely bounce around from flower to flower, pollinating your golden zucchini flowers with pollen from your black beauty flowers. This is cross-pollination, or, natural hybridization. Hybridization can produce favorable results such as the high yield of one variety combined with the sweetness or tenderness of another.
Hybrid seeds normally perform really well in their first year (there is a term for this called “hybrid vigor”). The problem with hybrid seeds is that the plants they grow carry distinctive traits from multiple parent plants that will not necessarily all be passed on to their seeds. The seeds you save from a golden/black beauty cross will revert to one or the other and you don’t get to choose whether you get sweet zucchini or prolific zucchini plants. This can result in a smaller yield than you planned for or can mean you end up with a product completely different in taste or appearance than the parent plants you grew last year. Being able to know which traits exist within your seeds enables you to more effectively plan your garden and gives you peace of mind that the seeds you possess will become the plants you expect the following year.
When you make a conscious effort to maintain the genetic integrity of your vegetables, you can begin to accumulate a bank of viable seeds for future generations that you can confidently plant and share with your community.
The Basics of Seed-Saving
The easiest way to begin your seed-saving adventure is by only growing one variety of each vegetable in your garden. Choose an heirloom variety that suits your preferences and only grow that variety. For example, choose a single type of squash to grow in your garden and plant several of those seeds but no other squash types. As the plants mature, they’ll have stored information unique to your climate and gardening methods. If you conserve water, the seeds will remember that they are to grow under limited water supply. As you continue to grow the lineation over several seasons, your seed supply will develop traits unique to your garden and will become more and more valuable in your local climate. Select the most perfect vegetables to save seeds from. As the saying goes, “save the best; eat the rest.”
There are several vegetable varieties that are easy to grow without cross-pollinating. Tomatoes and peppers of the easiest, as they are self-pollinating. Others in the relatively easy category are peas and beans, melons, squash, and cucumbers. Remember that if you have more than one variety in your garden, you run the risk of cross-pollination.
It is entirely possible to grow multiple varieties of heirloom vegetables in your garden and still maintain the genetic integrity of each variety. It just takes a little extra precautionary measures to preserve those seeds.
Some vegetable plants are self-pollinating, meaning that the flowers pollinate themselves or other flowers on the same plant. These are easiest to save seeds from as the chances of being cross-pollinated are greatly reduced by their independence of other plants to pollinate.
Pollination can occur naturally via bees and other pollinating bugs, or can be done manually using a paintbrush or other medium to deliberately deposit pollen from one flower to another. If you want to grow a spaghetti squash as well as zucchini, that’s when precautions come into play to prevent cross-pollination. Grow different varieties several meters apart from each other and try to separate them with plant varieties that attract pollinators, like Bee Balm or Cupid’s Dart. This will discourage pollinators from travelling directly from one squash variety to the other, and reduce the odds of cross-pollinating your squashes. So, with these rules in mind, you can start researching specific vegetables and their likelihood of cross-pollinating to ensure you are spacing your different varieties out at appropriate distances from one another.
An extra measure of prevention can be tenting your different varieties in a sheer fabric that still allows sunlight to reach them, and hand-pollinating them. It is important to note that you should always grow several plants of a variety together and allow them to open-pollinate to ensure that the seeds produced are not limited to the genetics of too few plants to prevent genetic depression over time from too few plants of a variety exchanging pollen. Open-pollination is simply the process of exchanging genetic information with other plants of the same species to ensure the strongest traits are preserved among them.
Where to Start
- Begin by choosing one type each of a few different heirloom vegetables to grow. Heirloom seeds will grow plants that produce true-to-type seeds for the following year, provided they are not cross-pollinated with other varieties. Starting off with one variety per vegetable will give you time to get into the swing of seed-saving without being overwhelming.
- Grow your vegetables in clusters of at least six or eight of each type to encourage open-pollination between them for the best positive gene expression.
- When choosing which seeds to save, select the best fruits from the strongest plants. You want to end up with seeds from multiple plants so that when you grow them next to each other the following year, they are sharing those positive genetic qualities via pollination. This will improve your seeds adaptability and optimize them for your personal climate.
Check out How To Save Vegetable Seeds for more info on saving seeds from specific vegetables!