Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reliable Seeds

Just dreaming of fresh beans.
I know it seems odd to talk about saving seed in the spring, but really this is when I want to be planning for next years seed if I want to make the most of my opportunities this summer. Also if I have left some plants in my garden over the winter they will surely be bolting and go to seed as soon as it warms up.
This was my biggest lettuce head last summer. It was gorgeous. I let it bolt and go to seed last fall so I could have seed that came from my very best head of lettuce.

I'll decide which ones I want to save
in each family, so there will be no cross pollinating. Brassicaceae is the family that cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi are in so I will pull up my over wintered Kohlrabi and put them into the compost or in the chicken pen. I will save the cabbage this time. I will let the cabbage seed develop in the garden while I plant new baby cabbages in the garden. The seed will be ready to dry and process when the seed structures begin to turn brown. I can continue to grow anything I want in the garden, I just don't want the plants in the same family to be blooming at the same time. Often I get a batch of seeds in the spring from the wintered over plants and then another batch in the fall. Some I could get all summer if I time it right.
Don't forget that weeds will cross pollinate with your garden plants too, namely carrots, which are in the same family as Queen Ann's Lace (Daucus carota).
Pea pods on the vine I didn't pick last fall to make viable seed to save.
Why do I love saving seed? There are so many reasons, but one is that I like knowing what I am going to get instead of wasting a whole summer and valuable garden space on seed that is not true and good. If it's a Frankenstein I would like to be the one responsible for it. At least then it's my weird experiment.
The last time I ordered Amish Pie squash seed from Seed Savers (this is not a slander against them, I order from them every year and still will), this is the assortment I got from the 4 seeds I planted:
Not so good. They were supposed to all be like the two small yellow ones in the middle. This is one of the unknowns of "Open Pollinated" varieties, which are the type you want to use if you are ever going to save it's seed yourself. Commercial farm fields have to end somewhere, and just across the ditch or fence is another crop. Ditches and fences don't keep bees out. The bees bring pollen to the blossom willy-nilly.

I have noticed this problem, when the seeds I purchase do not "come true", to be increasing over the last ten years. I think that it is getting very difficult to isolate commercial crops because of the shrinking farmland and the economic pressure for farmers to cut costs.

Pair that with the fact that a lot of seed is sold to people who don't plant it, plant it poorly and kill it or don't keep track to be able to tell if the seed did not come true. Really it does not ultimately pay off in most cases for seed producers to be squeaky clean. Who will hold them accountable?

Also, a point that came home to me the other day when I went to pick up some special seed for an (this is ironic) Earth Day function for our community garden, is that non organic seed producers are some of the best customers of DuPont. While we drove through the fields of this local, family run seed producers farm, it was very clear that the way they dealt with any cross pollination or weed issue was to spray and kill everything in sight. If they were changing a crop in a field, then they did a mass spray and kill. As my mother used to say, "the scorched earth policy" was being used.

 I usually buy my seed from small seed distributors. But, after this experience, I will try very hard to only buy Organic.

 I will buy the odd packet of seeds if it strikes my fancy, I don't expect much from them and if the seed does turn out to be really good I am careful to plant it (I rarely use an entire packet of seed in one year) in such a way the next year so as to allow me to save the seeds. It's still a crap shoot though, since a packet of seeds could contain the seeds of several different plants in a field.

One cannot get good results saving seed from hybrids though. Hybrids do not produce seed that will turn out like the parent.

Saving seed takes a little planning. For instance, I will plant only one summer squash variety or I will isolate a male and female bloom (before they open) with paper bags and then pollinate the "pure" female blossom with the "pure" male, myself (you just don't know where that bee has been!) after they open and close them back up in the bag until it turns into a fruit. I make sure to keep the resulting fruit clearly marked so I can find it at harvest time and save its seeds.
Cabbage seed pods
This year I am getting a little more ambitious. I have several types of plants that I need fresh seed from. Some of my tomato seeds (which I brought back from Italy) are nearly 13 years old! And yes, they are still germinating, but I do not want to hit the year that they don't germinate and then I am stuck without my precious (read with Italian accent) Pomodoro Cuor Di Bue.
Because I can only do so much isolating in my own garden, I am plotting something grand. It is a seed saving project in which I plan to enlist fellow gardeners, non gardeners and unsuspecting relatives alike.

The over view of the long range plan is this: I will get others to grow the seeds that I plant in well marked pots, in isolated spaces like an apartment patio, the yard of a non gardener or the back porch of a gardener that knows how to avoid cross pollination.

This is what I am trying for this year.
I have potted up two large pots of each lettuce type that I would like to get seed from this year. I will give one pot of each variety to each person to raise. They can harvest as much as they would like by using the "cut and come again" method. This is where you clip the lettuce with scissors or a knife 2" above the soil line and eat the clippings. Then whenever they want to let it go, or it starts to get bitter, they can just keep it watered and let it bolt and go to seed. When it finishes blooming and goes to seed they will call me and I will come collect it. Simple. Even a non gardener can let lettuce go to seed.
In case you are wondering, I have gotten as much as a half a pint jar of seeds from one lettuce plant. So there are plenty of seeds to share with several people.

At the end of the year I collect the seeds and process them. Gardeners who want seed will get the assortment from everyone who participated. Non Gardeners will get produce and zucchini bread and high praise for helping their local seed genome.

Lettuce seeds developing.
Lettuce seed about to fly out, each seed has a little parachute of fluff like a dandelion seed.


  1. That's amazing how many seeds you get from one lettuce plant. I had no idea! I've let a few plants go to seed in our garden just to see what they look like. I hope to try saving more seed in earnest this year.

    My favorite gardening author, Steve Solomon, started Territorial Seed Company many years ago. Several of his books describe the reliability and viability problems that you encounter when dealing with some seed suppliers as they attempt to cut corners and save money. His writing helped me understand the real differences between the "bargain" seeds you find at the big box stores and the slightly more expensive seeds you can buy from conscientious seed companies.

  2. Hi Lee, I'm glad you told me about Mr Solomon. I have heard his name and I have purchased Territorial seeds in the past but I have never read his books. I will put them on hold at the library.
    I will say that Territorial's seed catalog is an amazingly good source of real information on gardening.
    I whole heartedly encourage you to save seeds this summer. It is such a fun and gratifying process.
    And over the years you develop your very own varieties.vI have my own tomato and my own lettuce that people badger me for every year.

  3. Wow! I have so many questions for you about seed saving that I don't know where to begin! Do you have books or resources that you'd recommend? Or a list of do's and don'ts? I've received a lot of mixed information about seed saving over the years so I haven't been very diligent with saving my own. Is it okay to save seed from the save plant year after year, or should a gardener introduce different varieties? What about seeds that over-winter? Every year I have volunteer tomato plants that survive the winter & a few gardeners have told me to get rid of them. If you need a place to host a lettuce plant, we are willing! ; )

  4. Hi Holly!
    Well let's see. Have you read my previous posts "saving seeds" and "to save or not to save"? I give a couple good links and a lot of good info in those posts for seed saving.
    The thing about not letting volunteer tomatoes grow are complex.
    First and foremost tomatoes are space hogs. They take up a substantial piece of real estate and if you don't have all the room in the world it can be a big disapointment to find, at the end of the summer, that the 9 square feet you gave up for a volunteer tomato was completely wasted on a mystery tomato that does not perform well and doesn't taste so great. It's a crap shoot. There is a huge gene pool out there and it mixed up in your last years garden. Most of the time it is not as yummy or well behaved as the varieties you buy, seed or plant. If you save seed, open pollinated does NOT mean they just let the parent cross with whatever is around. It means that variety was crossed with the same variety by bee or person so you get the same traits each year, with slight variations.

    A tomato plant that is a "hybrid" is the offspring of two parents of very specific (but different from each other) varieties which then makes the hybrid "baby" that has a certain trait- but that hybrid baby WILL NOT have babies that are the same as itself. They usually throw back to one of the grandparent varieties. So that is why you don't want to save seed from hybrid plants. It is a one shot deal- end of the line on the gene pool.
    That's the deal with crossing plants-If by chance you get a good one- Hooray a new hybrid! If you are counting on making every inch in your garden count for food- let someone else waste the space and experiment for you. There are a lot of duds before you get a good one.
    Introducing new varieties is good for eating variety but unless you want to be a plant hybridizer (with the same space issues as above) you don't really want to cross your plants. You'll get random results- that does not help with the food bill, but can be fun.

    Saving seed from the same variety of plant year to year is the best way to fine tune your favorite plants, like I mentioned about my very best lettuce in my post. Every year I save the seed from my best performers so the next year it is even better. i.e. I have been saving that lettuce for over 10 years and now it is to the point where it is 10 times better than the original plant- it comes up earlier and is the latest to bolt in the summer of any lettuce seed I can buy. It is now fine tuned to my personal micro climate. I achieved that by choosing for those traits from the parent plant- I let my very best go to seed, and every year it gets better and better.
    Whew -- I hope that answers some of your questions.
    I might take you up on the lettuce hosting. I am still waiting for them to sprout- crazy weather! It was 31 degrees 4 nights ago and last night it was 50 degrees.


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