seed saving basics — before planting

If you haven’t saved seed from your vegetable garden, here are the basics you need to know before you plant. Some planning is required – you can’t reliably save seed as an afterthought.
First, be sure you’re starting with an open-pollinated variety rather than a hybrid. All the food crops we know and love were developed by countless generations of seed savers and will breed true to type from seeds you save – that’s open-pollinated. Hybrids are first-generation crosses between varieties – F1 crosses – that result in a very uniform set of characteristics (handy for mechanical harvest and for transport and sales) and a boost in robustness that is known as hybrid vigor. Save and grow the seed from your hybrid and the result (the F2 generation) will revert to a large range of characteristics, with most plants being unsatisfactory from an eater’s perspective.Hybrids were developed as a way for seed companies to create and hold a market – farmers and gardeners have to buy the seeds each year, and they cost more. Seed companies have to grow and save seed for both parent lines for each hybrid variety (exact identities often a well-guarded secret), as well as growing the F1 crosses each year – it’s not something any food-producing grower would find worthwhile. As hybrids came into vogue, traditional open-pollinated plant breeding fell by the wayside, with the result that today there are hybrids of many vegetables that outperform available open-pollinated varieties. This doesn’t mean hybrids are inherently better, just that hybrids are where the plant-breeding bucks have gone.
A short diversion about genetically modified crops: Monsanto et al have spent many millions spreading the lie that genetic engineering technology is just a modern extension of the kind of plant breeding that has produced F1 hybrids – no wonder many people are confused about the difference. As an economic model, yes, GE crops are indeed the next step – now growers are locked in not only to buying Monsanto’s seed but its herbicides – which are, after all, the chemical company’s main product line. More herbicide each year, too, as weeds quickly adapt. Does anyone see a problem here? How about Bayer’s proposed “fix”, an additional genetic modification so corn can survive applications of 2, 4-d?
Uh oh. Didn’t mean to rant. Just meant to point out that genetic engineering actually has much more in common with warfare than it does with plant breeding. GMOs=assault on nature. Plant breeding=partnership with nature.
Fortunately for the future of food, the tide has turned. We’re at the thin leading edge of that change, so new that we can still be mistaken for irrelevant hobbyists. But truly, all we have to do is do it. Every gardener can be part of the solution by saving seed. Everyone who eats can be part of the solution by choosing real food.
So back to basics. If possible, start with a plant you have already grown successfully, something you love, as you’ll have a lot of it when you grow it for seed. Start with an annual, a plant that lives its entire seed-to-seed life in one season. (Some vegetables are biennials, going to seed in their second year – carrots/beets/chard/cabbage for example.) You need to know a little about your vegetable’s sex life – how is it pollinated? – in order to determine the two important conditions for successfully saving seed:
1 – the minimum number of plants you need to grow in order to ensure genetic diversity, which will keep the variety’s ability to adapt to changing conditions
and 2 – the minimum isolation distance from other plants in the same family to avoid unwanted cross-pollination.
Some food plants primarily self-pollinate – you’ll find them referred to as in-breeders or selfers. Lettuce, peas, most beans, wheat, rice, barley, oats, modern tomato varieties – you can save seed from as few as 10 to 20 of these, and separate varieties by only 20 feet.
Plants that cross-pollinate – called out-breeders or crossers – require  larger isolation distances. Crossers divide into insect-pollinated species and wind-pollinated crops. Insect-pollinated annual food plants include cucumbers, squash, melons, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes. Wind-pollinated crops require the largest populations and isolation distances – 80 plants and up to 3 miles for spinach, for example. Corn, rye, sorghum, beets and chard are also wind-pollinated.
Organic Seed Alliance has great downloadable booklets for more detailed info – A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers is the one to start with; they also have guides to specific plants. Also I’ll soon be adding detailed seed-saving info about the particular seeds available at our Farm Stand.