next week: Tips for the aspiring commercial
organic seed grower
resources on seed saving
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques
for the Vegetable Gardener, 2nd
edn, by Suzanne Ashworth
A complete seed-saving guide describing specific
techniques for 160 vegetables, including botanical
classifications, flower structure and pollination,
population size, isolation distances, and techniques
for caging, hand-pollination, harvesting, drying,
cleaning and storage.
Restoring Our Seed www.growseed.org
A coalition of farmers, researchers, and heirloom
seed enthusiasts, includes extensive information
about the why and how of seed saving, links to
seed savers projects around the world, and details
on upcoming conferences, workshops, and 'seed
Eastern Native Seed Conservancy
Based in Great Barrington, Mass., non-profit ENSC
offers native crop varieties for sale and exchange.
Their links page has an enormous collection of
resources for seed savers.
A non-profit seed conservation group based in
Tucson, Ariz., and concentrating on cultivars
indigenous to the American Southwest and northwestern
Mexico. At their website you can become a member
to support a range of biodiversity and cultural
projects and purchase seeds for your own use.
Seed Savers Exchange
A non-profit member organization devoted to preserving
heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits. For
a membership fee of $35.00, SSE members receive
a yearbook that offers access to 11,000 rare varieties.
Non-members can purchase Seed Savers seeds directly
through their catalog.
USDA Germplasm Repositories
Information about the USDA's national network
of seed banks, including how to request material
for your own use.
January 12, 2004: Every year, come winter, in a harbinger
of the season akin to the first robins of spring, seed catalogs
begin to fill the mailboxes of avid gardeners everywhere.
Starved for color, fragrance, and fresh juicy homegrown tomatoes,
we pore over the catalogs, planning the perfect garden. New
varieties appear, and old ones--sometimes old favorites--disappear.
Some gardeners, however, have begun to approach the gardening
season with a slightly different twist on the yearly seed
order. They save their own seeds, and swap with others who
also save seeds.
Why save your own seeds in the first place when seed companies
are so plentiful and seeds easily ordered by phone with a
credit card? At a seed savers conference titled “Restoring
Our Seed” and held in Brattleboro, Vt., on November
15-16, 2003, over 100 seed saving enthusiasts gathered to
learn more from the experts in the field. Conference attendees
ran the gamut from large-scale commercial growers to backyard
There are many reasons for saving seeds and many different levels
at which to undertake seed saving. In the past, there were no
commercial seed companies. All farmers saved their own seed,
as did gardeners. Over the years, we have grown to depend on
huge seed companies for all of our seed needs. Today, five companies
control over 75 percent of the world seed market. When these
large companies drop varieties from production, they often disappear
don't have to be a scientist to save seeds but it
can't hurt: Above, seed curator Will Bonsall
currently grows 3,000 varieties for the Seed Savers
Exchange. Below, Dr. Mark Hutton, a vegetable breeder
with the Maine Cooperative Extension.
The Seed Savers Exchange estimates that over 90 percent of the
fruit and vegetable varieties grown in the United States in
1900 have since been lost. Large seed companies are often concerned
with characteristics that matter to large-scale growers, such
as the ability to withstand cross-country shipping. They are
often not interested in growing varieties suited for small regions
of the country like New England. Seed saving helps preserve
older and regional varieties. It also grants us a level of independence
from the large seed companies that have swallowed up the seed
You can save favorite heirloom seeds for your own use in
your garden, breed and improve varieties, swap with friends,
join seed-saving organizations, or grow seed commercially
at many levels of scale--the possibilities are numerous. As
speaker Matt Rulevich observed, there are many niches in seed
saving and there’s a place for everyone. If you have
an interest in growing seed, there’s a niche for you.
In addition, saving seed develops a sense of community, noted
Dr. Mark Hutton. It’s going back to the past and “making
what is old new again,” he said.
You don't need a Ph.D.
It is of great importance to disabuse yourself of the notion
that seed saving is horribly complicated. You don’t
need a Ph.D. to do this, stressed Will Bonsall, curator of
over 3,000 varieties of seeds for the Seed Savers Exchange.
But “doing it is so very important,” he observed.
Workshop sessions at the conference were devoted to providing
the beginning backyard seed saver with the basic information
necessary to get started. Additional information is available
from a variety of sources (see the resources box accompanying
Probably the first thing that an aspiring seed saver should
be aware of is the difference between open-pollinated and
hybrid seeds. Open-pollinated seeds will produce plants that
resemble the parents a great deal, and their parents, and
so on. These are the types of seed you want to grow plants
from in order to save seed for future use.
Hybrid varieties, often denoted as “F1” in seed
catalogs, are specially bred from two distinct parent plants.
Seed saved from them will not produce plants resembling their
parents. They will not “breed true”.
Selfers vs. crossers
The next piece of information you need to understand is the
difference between self-pollinators, known as “selfers”,
and cross-pollinators, known as “crossers”. Selfers
are able to achieve pollination within one flower on an individual
plant. Selfers almost always self-pollinate, although on occasion
they can cross-pollinate. Crossers, on the other hand, require
insects or wind to carry pollen from the anther of one plant
to the stigma of another for pollination to occur.
The reason this information is so important is that it enables
you to determine if plants need to be isolated from each other
in order to prevent cross-pollination between varieties, causing
your seed-stock to no longer be that of a single variety.
Corn, for instance, is a cross-pollinator, so growing more
than one variety of corn in a small area will result in mixed
seeds. Beans, however, rarely cross-pollinate, so you can
safely grow several varieties in close proximity.
Tomatoes are somewhat curious, as they are generally thought
to be selfers, but some of the older heirloom potato-leaf
varieties tend to be crossers since they have longer styles.
These should be isolated in order to prevent cross-pollination.
Pay attention to those Latin names
A basic understanding of species names is also valuable.
Beets and Swiss chard are both Beta vulgaris, and thus can
cross with each other. Zucchini, acorn squash and pumpkins
are all Cucurbita pepo and will therefore readily cross. You
could, however, safely plant pumpkins, Hubbard squash, and
butternut squash in the same small garden plot and not risk
cross-pollination, as they are all of different species. A
seed catalog will provide species names and is a good resource
Another issue is that of the number of plants to save for
seed. The short answer is, it depends. Different varieties
sport different degrees of diversity. If you save seed from
only a few plants of a genetically diverse variety, much of
its diversity will be lost. Other varieties are not as genetically
diverse so you can get away with saving less seed. As a general
rule, selfers require fewer plants than crossers in terms
of saving seed.
One possible solution to this problem is to share seeds with
friends and neighbors and then pool the saved seeds of the
same variety. So for instance, as Bonsall pointed out, 200
leeks may be just right for eating, but way more seed than
a backyard gardener wants to deal with. To preserve their
genetic diversity, however, it is beneficial to save seed
from a large number of leeks. If several gardeners all grew
out the same variety and pooled their saved seed, they will
be more likely to preserve the leek variety's full range of
Biennials versus annuals
The next piece of critical information to know is the difference
between annuals and biennials. In a nutshell, annuals complete
their life-cycle in one season. Commonly grown annuals include
beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, melons and tomatoes. Biennials
take two growing seasons to complete their life cycle and
produce seed. Examples of biennials are beets, carrots, onions,
chard and cabbage.
For a beginning seed saver, a self-pollinated annual vegetable—such
as beans, peas, or many tomatoes--is the best place to start.
Biennials are more difficult, since they involve over-wintering
the plant, often in a basement, and replanting out early in
spring. Full instructions for this are available in seed-saving
Where to find open-pollinated seed
Where should you obtain your initial seed? Sources for open-pollinated
(OP) seed are many. You could obtain some from regional seed
catalogs, which specialize in open-pollinated seeds that will
produce well in your region. Other sources include neighbors,
relatives, and a whole host of seed-saving organizations such
as the Seed Savers Exchange.
The USDA and Ag Canada are also good resources for OP seeds,
with huge seed collections. The Eastern Native Seed Conservancy
in western Massachusetts will offer seeds to those who will
grow them and provide feedback. Bonsall noted that there is
a great trove of seeds available to those who wish to grow
them in order to save seeds. But the basic understanding is
that they will provide you with the seeds and then expect
you to take it from there, saving seed from that variety for
your future planting needs. This is, of course, the polar
opposite of commercial seed companies, which want you to come
back year after year.
All presenters stressed that the curators of OP seeds in
general are very open to seed savers at all levels and will
be helpful to them. Seed curators tend to be passionate about
seed-saving and will happily share their knowledge with others
who wish to participate.
Harvesting, cleaning, and storing seed
Basic information is available to seed savers which will
explain the process of harvesting and cleaning saved seeds.
In general, vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, peppers and
melons are harvested when fully ripe, and the seeds are scooped
out, washed and allowed to dry thoroughly before storing.
An added benefit to saving these kinds of seeds is that you
can often eat the vegetable but save the seed.
Others, such as peas and beans, are allowed to dry on the
plant and then harvested when dry. Tomatoes and cucumbers
require that the seed be allowed to ferment for 3-5 days in
a warm place. The scum layer and floating seed is then discarded,
the remaining seed rinsed with water, and the seed allowed
Seed should be stored in an environment the opposite of that
required for sprouting seed; basically you want it cool and
dry. All saved seed should be carefully marked on a label
as to the variety. In fact, several speakers stressed the
importance of labeling all of the rows of plants you grow
for seed in a manner in which there is little room for error.
Black permanent markers on stakes, flags, etc., work well.
Cleaning dry seed on a home garden scale is simple. The basic
idea is to separate the seed from the plant material without
damaging it. Fans, buckets, bags, etc., can all be utilized
in doing this, but essentially, at a small scale, it is a
So, try it out this year and see for yourself how rewarding
it can be. Pick a few varieties to start with, keep it simple,
and experience a link back in time to those who first grew
that same seed, in an unbroken chain through the years.