I’m new to seed saving. I have known the basics for years. That you need to save seed from open pollinated plants, not hybrids, if you want the seed to come true. That the technique for saving the seed differs depending on the plant. I’ve even saved seed from a few things – a high elevation variety of flour corn, a short season southwestern chile pepper, a runner bean.
But I have always gardened in relatively small spaces. And I’m a big believer in biointensive gardening, so I tend to pack a lot of vegetables into the allotted space, even when I have room. I also often plant more than one variety of any given vegetable. Heck, I’m planning on planting 18 varieties of tomatoes and tomatillos this year!
Because of this, I never really tried to save seeds. I was under the impression that to save seeds, you needed acres and acres of land so that you could keep each variety separate to avoid cross pollination. And then I read Carol Deppe’s book “The Resilient Gardener”. And I was very inspired. Carol has a PhD in Biology and has been breeding her own vegetable varieties since 1979. The book is a long read, and not all of it applied to my life or my growing conditions, but it did make me want to start saving seed, like, NOW. More importantly, it made me realize that depending on the variety of plant, some seed saving is down right easy.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and what I will be saving seeds from this year, for sure.
Remember from high school biology that whole kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species thing? We remembered the list for tests by the mnemonic “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti”. Well, plants of the same species can pollinate each other. And some vegetable varieties that we think of as different species actually aren’t. They are different cultivars of the same species. For instance, the species Brassica oleracea includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale and kohlrabi, to name a few. Remember this. This will be important later.
Plants can be categorized as out-crossers or self-crossers. Out-crossers tend to cross pollinate with their neighbors. Self-crossers tend to pollinate themselves most of the time. It is much easier to save seed that is “true to type” from self-crossers.
Self-crossers include vegetables in the legume family (beans and peas), the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and potatoes) and, weirdly, lettuce. Lettuce is in the composite family (think sunflowers and dandelions) and composites tend to be wind pollinated. I never think of them as self-fertile, but evidently, lettuce often is.
Out-crossers include the cucurbits (summer and winter squash, melons, cucumbers, gourds), brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radish, arugula, kale, turnips and anyone else in the mustard family), and the amaranth family (spinach, beets, and chard). Also included as out-crossers are members of the parsley family (carrots, parsnips, parsley, celery etc.), corn and onions.
So, if you want to save seed from that great tomato you grew, well, than go ahead! Even if it was growing next to another tomato of a different variety, chances are, most of the seed self-crossed and if you plant it next year, you’ll get the same type of tomato (as long as it wasn’t a hybrid). The same is true for your peppers, eggplant, peas, beans and lettuce. Yes, you might get a few outliers (which could be fun in and of itself) but most of your seed should come true.
If you want to save seed from your cucurbits, things get a little trickier. There are six different common species of cucurbits grown. They are Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita moschata, Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita mixta, Cucumis sativus, Cucumis melo and Citrullus lanatus. Here’s an incomplete breakdown of varieties you might be familiar with, and what species they are under. Check your seed catalog for varieties not listed, to see where they fit.
- Most summer squash
- Many ornamental gourds
- Winter Squash
- Many Pumpkins including Cinderella, Big Tom, Jack O-Lantern, Jackpot, Small Sugar, Sugar Pie and Connecticut Field.
- Winter Squash
- Butternut squash
- Pumpkins including:
- Dickinson Field
- Golden Cushaw
- Kentucky Field
- Winter squash
- Pumpkins including:
- Big Max
- King of the Mammoths
- Mammoth Chile
- Mammoth Prize
- Atlantic Giant
- Ornamental squash
- Turk’s Turban
- Green-Striped Cushaw
- Japanese Pie
- Tennessee Sweet Potato
- White Cushaw
- Mixta Gold
- All slicing and pickling Cucumbers (except Armenian)
- Armenian Cucumbers (Snake cucumber or Serpent melon)
- All muskmelons (i.e. cantaloupe)
- All watermelons
- All citrons
Here’s the cool thing. Even though cucurbit family plants are out-crossers, they also have huge flowers. And the flowers come separately; male and female. So, it is easy to tape or clothespin the female flower closed just before it is about to open, give it one more day, then manually pollinate that flower with one of the male flowers from the same plant or another from the same variety and close the flower back up so no bees can get in. And you only need to do this on a few of the fruits formed (write on a piece of tape and stick it to the stalk/fruit to remember which ones you self pollinated), and then let THAT fruit fully mature. Save the seeds from that fruit and you are done.
You can also plant ONLY one variety from each species on the list, and let the bees do the work. Because varieties within the species will cross pollinate, but varieties between species will not. Of course, you also need to take into consideration any neighbors with vegetable gardens, and how close they are, and what varieties they are growing.
Now I can’t live with only one C. pepo. I can’t choose between summer squash and delicata (well, I could, and delicata would win hands down, but I don’t want to). And I grow gourds for sale in the fall. So if I wanted to save seeds from C. pepo I would follow the method above.
But I CAN live with planting only one variety of watermelon (C. lanatus). And if it weren’t for wanting to extend the sale season, I could pick only one variety of other melon (C. melo) and one variety of cucumber (C. sativus). I could live with just butternut (C. moschata) and kabocha (C. maxima).
Of course, there is a lot more to this. Plant genetics tend to get weak and inbred over time unless you start with and continue to plant large sample sizes. And if you are wanting to save seed from the brassicas, onions, parsley and especially corn, it takes more work and in some cases, isolation distances to keep things pure. Chard and beets will cross pollinate (they are the same species) and both are biennials, so it takes a lot more work to save seed from them anyway.
But what is everyone’s favorite garden vegetable? Tomatoes. And what is one of the easiest garden vegetables to save seeds from? Tomatoes. How cool is that? So, make sure your chosen variety of tomato (or lettuce or pea or bean or pepper) is open pollinated, and give seed saving a try this summer. Or get adventurous and try your hand at squash, melon or cucumber seed saving.
Want to learn more? Here are some recommended books/links to get you started.
A short brochure on seed saving from the South Dakota Cooperative Extension can be found here. It has helpful diagrams of how the biology of pollen and flowers works.
Carol Deppe’s books, either “Resilient Gardener” or “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties” are great for inspiring you to get started and teaching you more than you ever wanted to know about how corn biology works (there is a lot of redundant information between the two books – either one is great but you probably don’t need both).
“Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy is considered by many to be the “bible” on seed saving.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2013, where this year we will be planting some seed saved last year from lettuce, cantaloupe and watermelon. We’ll definitely be saving tomato and pepper seeds this year! How about you?