Seed Saving: Growing Your Own Seeds
Seeds...these tiny little powerhouses are loaded with energy and all the knowledge required to create a new plant. Though in appearance simplistic and inactive, these amazing marvels of nature actually have highly developed mechanisms that allow them to move, analyze environmental conditions, eliminate inferior specimens, detect light , sense gravity, defend themselves and pass on the genetic blueprints to the next generation. They have ensured the survival of thousands of plants throughout the ages, and are the curators of the botanical future.
For the gardener, seeds carry the power to economically create diverse and high-yielding food crops, and wise gardeners carefully grow, collect and protect their seed stores. Here are a few reasons to save seeds.
- Saving seeds saves money.
Though a packet of seeds may not be much of an expense, the cost to grow multiple varieties season after season adds up. By contrast, saving seeds is free. Growing and collecting seeds is simple and seed harvests are often abundant, allowing enough to save and still have some left over to share or trade.By trading at seed swaps or with gardener friends, you can increase the number of varieties in your garden—without spending a dime!
Seed saving allows the gardener to create varieties that are easy to grow, requiring less management and fewer chemical inputs. For the natural gardener who does not use synthetic pesticides, fungicides or other chemical products, growing varieties that are pest and disease resistant is crucial. Saving seeds year after year from the healthiest and most pest resistant plants serves to increase yields while at the same time decreasing the amount of management required to maintain the plants.
- Saving seeds creates varieties that are well adapted to your growing conditions and culinary tastes.
By selecting seed from the best plants in your garden, you will be able to create a seed collection that is well adapted to your growing conditions and specific cultivation methods. And by selecting seed from plants with the best flavor, color and texture, you can begin to develop unique varieties that meet your own personal culinary tastes.
- Saving seeds preserves genetic diversity.
In recent decades, the number of heirloom plant varieties has been reduced as many commercial seed producers promote only their best sellers and hybrids. The subsequent decrease in genetic variability is leading to decreased adaptability and reduced disease resistance in the plants on which we depend for food. Reduction of genetic diversity and adaptability amongst plants may eventually impair our ability to grow food. But by promoting and preserving diverse genetic variation, gardeners help to ensure the viability of future food sources.
Here's how to grow your own seeds.
1. Grow the right kinds of plants. Three types of plants are available to home gardeners, but only two of three types will set seed for collection. In order to grow your own seed, you must grow the right kinds of plants. Here's the 411 on seed types.
The first are open-pollinated plants, which are pollinated without human assistance by insects, wind, birds or other natural means. Unrestricted flow of pollen between individuals makes open-pollinated plants genetically diverse and adaptive. Seeds produced by open-pollination grow true,meaning that the offspring plants will be nearly identical to the parent plants (as long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species.)
The second type of plant are heirloom varieties, which are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation within a family or community. These plant varieties have been isolated and preserved for 50 years or more, and they often have an interesting story behind them. Heirloom varieties also grow true.
The third type are the hybrids, which are pollinated by human manipulation under controlled circumstances, crossing two different plant varieties to encourage a desired trait. Due to a phenomenon known as "hybrid vigor,' the first generation of hybridized offspring tends to be more vigorous and produce higher yields than the parent varieties. Unfortunately, the seed produced by these offspring plants is genetically unstable and successive generations tend to deteriorate in vigor and productivity. The value of hybridization is only in the initial increase in the quality of the plants, but gardeners who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seed every year.
Heirloom and open pollinated seeds are available for purchase on Amazon. I recommend purchasing a variety pack, which is the most economical way to get started and grow several different types of food plants.
2. Grow healthy plants. The key to growing high quality seed is to start with the most vigorous plants. Start by growing out seed plants using your normal cultivation methods. Do not favor them with any extra water, fertilizer, shade or other means. The goal in the first year is to grow seed that is well adapted to your climate and to the typical growing conditions in your garden.
Some growers employ controlled stress in order to select the strongest plants. For example, in a dry climate, exposing plants to controlled drought-like conditions and selecting seed from the plants that thrive under water stress will begin the process of creating a more drought resistant variety for your garden. Or, if particular plants are commonly attacked by a pest, allowing the insects to invade the garden in order to select seed from the plants that resist the infestation creates a more pest resistant variety the following season.
When employing stress to strengthen varieties, be careful not to strain plants to the point that they will produce small, weak seed. When a plant begins to flower and set seed, reduce the stressors to which they have been exposed so that the plant is able to focus its energy on producing large, healthy seeds.
Collect seed only from the strongest, highest yielding plants, and save only the largest, healthiest seeds. Discard small or misshapen specimens. This will ensure that the seeds will store well and will produce the most robust and vigorous seedlings possible.
If any of your seed plants show signs of disease, remove them from the garden before pollination, if possible, and do not collect seed from them. Diseased parent plants can pass disease pathogens via seeds, infecting the next generation of seedlings.
3. Make a plan. In order to avoid cross-pollinating heirloom varieties, carefully consider which varieties you will grow. In order to know which plants will cross-pollinate and which will not, take a look at the plant's Latin (or Latinised) name, which consists of two parts. The first name is a general (or genus) name and the second is a specific (or species) name. Together, the genus and species comprise the botanical name of the plant.
Plants that share identical names may cross-pollinate, as in the case of muskmelons and cantaloupes that share the botanical name Cucumis melo. There are many members of the Cucumis family, but not all of them share the same last name. For example, the common pickling cucumber, although it shares the genus name ‘Cucumis’ with melons, has the species name ‘sativus,’ and thus will not cross with melons.
Do not depend common names, which can be confusing. For example, although pickling cucumbers do not cross with melons, Armenian cucumbers have the genus “melo,” and thus will cross with cantaloupes and muskmelons.
Map out your garden’s layout to ensure that seed plants of the same genus and species are not planted too close together. Do some research to find out how farm apart the plants should be spaced, or what barriers can be employed to prevent cross-pollination, or simply opt to avoid planting cross-pollinating plants in the same season.
Fortunately, some vegetable varieties will not cross-pollinate due to their nature of self-pollinating. Genetically pure seed is easy to grow with these plants. Self-pollinators include peas, beans, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.
4. Water sufficiently. At flowering time, be careful to supply ample enough water that will allow plants to successfully set flowers and develop pollen. Insufficient water during this time period can impair seed yields and vigor.
In contrast, once seeds have formed and are drying in preparation for dormancy, reduce the amount of water. At this stage, warm, dry conditions are preferable. Allowing seeds to fully mature and begin to dry on the plant will enhance both their storage life an viability.
Keep a close eye on them at this stage. Harvest seeds as soon as they are fully mature, and bring them under cover to finish drying, especially if rain is predicted. Repeated wetting of mature seeds on the plant delays dormancy and can damage seed tissues as they alternately shrink and swell. Mold and mildew may grow inside wet husks and pods, rendering the seeds unusable.
5. Learn about harvesting seeds here: