Restoring Our Seed Conference, Brattleboro, VT, Nov. 15-16

Why and how to save seeds
Come on. It’s not that complicated. A primer on seed saving for small-scale growers and home gardeners, gleaned from a recent workshop in Vermont.

By Anita Kelman

Coming next week: Tips for the aspiring commercial organic seed grower

Additional 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
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 schools'.

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.

Native Seeds/SEARCH
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.

Posted 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 gardeners.

You 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.
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 forever.

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 market.

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 this article).

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 to consult.

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 variation.

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 guides.

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 to dry.

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 simple process.

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.