Seed saving improves quality, saves money and preserves genetic diversity
>> Margaret Hantiuk
Why save seeds?
- Improve your plants and yields— develop new varieties
- Preserve heritage strains and maintain genetic diversity
- Create strains that do best in your garden considering the climate and soil
Which plants to save seeds from:
- Select for certain characteristics: yield, colour, fragrance, disease resistance, size
- Select for whole plant health too: vigour, hardiness, healthy foliage, stems and roots
- Ensure that the plant is not better simply because it is in a better spot
- If choosing root veggies you should check the root by digging it up then replant
The veggies that are easiest to save seeds from are peas, lettuce, tomatoes and beans. They don’t cross-pollinate; they self-pollinate. Only one of your best plants is needed to collect these seeds. You can save seed from other veggies if you pay attention to the families—learn their Latin names—since many within the same family can cross-pollinate. To make matters more confusing, they can also cross-pollinate with wild species that are related (e.g. carrots and wild Queen Ann’s Lace). To save seeds from plants that cross-pollinate there must be a certain distance between the potential crosses in order to prevent this happening. With open-pollinated plants it is best to collect from a few of your best plants to maintain genetic diversity. Cross-pollinating plants can be hand-pollinated which means taping the female flower shut as it ripens and then pollinating with the male flower by hand to prevent random pollinating. Always mark the flower you have hand-pollinated.
F1 are hybrids, or scientifically-bred plants, that are more expensive and may not be genetically stable—may not breed true—or even be very fertile. Many hybrids are great varieties of flowers or veggies to grow but not good candidates for seed saving. To successfully save seeds that will be like the parent, choose ‘open-pollinated’ plants (pollinated naturally by bees, wind, by hand or self-pollinating). Or find hybrids that have been ‘bred out’—stabilized genetically.
When to save seeds:
Observe closely and do research. Is it annual or biannual? The seed must be as mature as possible. Check for upcoming weather—dry and windless is best. Don’t let the seed shatter or drop unless you have a paper bag or an old sheet around or under it. If the plant is almost ready to disperse its seed the whole plant may be cut down and brought inside to catch the seed. Always identify the plant or seed when drying and store with the name and date. Seeds in fruits such as squash, which is the marked flower that has now fruited, should be left to mature as late as possible without rotting.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is seed and which is chaff. Seeds are usually heavier and can be winnowed with sieves or trampling and shaking. They must be kept dry and warm with good air circulation and when finally dried can be kept in a cool, dark and dry place. A germination test might be a good idea in following years.
Thanks to Mary Alice Johnson for all she has taught me. She is an organic farmer, seed saver, educator and mentor. Mary Alice bought a farm in Sooke in 1986 and began growing organic veggies and saving seeds. She mentored a new generation of young farmers there. She sells organic veggies at Moss Street Market (which she helped start), Sooke Farmers Market and to select local restaurants. More info is available at almfarms.org, fullcircleseeds.com and soilapprenticeships.org.