6. Seed Saving
I became interested in saving seeds as a child, when I noticed that my favorite varieties were disappearing from the pages of my seed catalogs. I educated myself about the difference between heirlooms and hybrids, and joined the Seed Savers Exchange in 1996. Since then, I've traded seeds with other collectors across America. Seed saving became an obsessive hobby for me that eventually turned into the business that I now run.
One of the best reasons to grow heirlooms is so you can save the seeds and grow the crop again in the future. Though not many people practice seed saving these days, it used to be a necessity for human survival. For thousands of years, gardeners, farmers, and other folks, in every corner of the globe, had no choice but to save seeds to ensure a reliable food supply.
These days, seeds aren't required for survival, because most everything is available at the grocery store. But raising your own produce from saved seeds is certainly a cost-efficient way to feed your family, since you don't need to pay for seeds or buy produce at the supermarket.
Saving seeds also connects you to our food heritage and helps maintain crop diversity in our food supply. The old varieties that our ancestors cultivated are vanishing these days. It's not because they don't taste great – it's because major seed companies are more interested in selling hybrids and genetically modified varieties, which often won't grow true if you save their seeds and plant them the following year.
Heirlooms that are "pure" should always grow true to type, just like their parents, generation after generation. Hybrids, by contrast, typically differ from their parents in appearance and other traits.
When you save seeds from your tastiest, most productive plants year after year, you are essentially creating your own unique strain of a vegetable that has been adapted specifically to your climate and gardening style.
The simplest crops for beginning seed savers are the ones whose flowers pollinate themselves, sometimes even before they open. These crops seldom cross with other members of the same species, so they require little to no isolation to yield pure seeds – seeds which will produce plants just like their parents, year in and year out.
Six Easy Crops for Seed Savers
Crops in this group will breed true with no crossing, as long as they are separated by fifty feet from other varieties within the same species. In some cases, no crossing can occur even when different varieties are growing right next to each other. This makes them ideal for saving seeds, even in highly populated areas, where you may not know what is growing in nearby gardens.
Other crops are more challenging to save pure seed from, especially for gardeners in more populated areas. This is because although the plants are easy to collect seed from, their pollination requirements mean that more distance is necessary to ensure pure seeds. Bees spread their pollen around and can fly for surprisingly long distances. For these crops, five hundred feet to a half mile may be required for absolutely pure seed, though barriers such as solid fences, hills, or buildings do help. Where space is tight, these crops can be protected by a practice known as caging. This process is more involved.
Even within this more challenging group, decent results can be obtained if only one variety of each crop species is grown in your garden. It's certainly well worth a try! With less than the recommended isolation, some crossing may occur when saving seed from these crops; but it often doesn't. It really just depends on the bees and what they are up to at any given time.
And it's always possible that no one else will happen to be growing the crop nearby, in which case what's growing in your own garden would be all you'd need to be concerned with. Just remember, even though occasional accidental crossing might yield surprising results, a squash is still a squash, and a cuke, a cuke – they will still be edible.
Crops That Require Greater Isolation
Beets and Chard
Most of the crops on this list are pollinated by insects, primarily bees. A quarter- to a half-mile isolation from other varieties is recommended in order to save pure seed.
When you're getting started, here are some basic guidelines:
1. Make sure you're saving the right kind of seeds. As we've mentioned, there are two main kinds: open-pollinated seeds, many of which are considered heirlooms; and hybrid seeds, which are cross-pollinated. Saving seeds from hybrids will often yield disappointing results, because when planted again, hybrids will either be sterile (i.e., they won't grow at all) or will revert to one of their parent types. Select types that you can isolate adequately in your situation.
2. Harvest seeds from your best plants. Select from the plants that had early yields, high productivity, and superb taste.
3. Before you start collecting the seeds, clear out a workspace for yourself and organize whatever equipment you'll need, such as paper towels, a knife and cutting board, a colander, jars, and labels. Many seeds look alike, so take care to label each batch of seeds clearly once they are scooped out to dry, to avoid confusion.
4. Cut the fruit open, scoop out the seeds, and let them dry in a well-ventilated area for fourteen to twenty-one days, or until they're totally dry and almost brittle. Remember to allow plenty of time for saved seeds to dry; packaging them when they're still moist is a surefire way to get moldy seeds, which usually aren't viable. We like to dry our seeds in front of a fan for one to two weeks.
The Heirloom Life Gardener by Jere & Emilee Gettle. Copyright 2011 Jeremiath C. Gettle and Emilee Freie Gettle. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.