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F

orays into seed saving often begin quite


simply, when gardeners opportunistically collect seeds from a self-pollinating
cultivar as the seeds present themselves in the
vegetable garden. While a gardener needs only
a minimal understanding of what a species
requires in order to produce true-to-type seeds in
this case, such a simple act of seed saving often
proves successful and leads a gardener down the
path of collecting seeds from other crops. From
there, the education of a seed saver evolves as
new skills are acquired and an interest in growing
a wider range of seed crops develops. As seed
savers gain experience, they learn to balance the
many factors that comprise the art and practice
of seed saving.

The first step in planning a seed garden is


determining the scale and scope of a seed-saving
endeavor. The best advice is to start small and
with familiar crops that one has grown before. To
choose varieties from which seeds can be successfully saved, one must understand the conditions,
isolation distances, population sizes, and length
of season that different species and varieties
require to produce viable seeds. Mapping out
the garden for efficient use of space to produce
both vegetables and seeds should also be considered when planning a seed garden. In addition,
a gardener needs to determine what the primary
goal is in saving seeds: Are seeds being collected
simply for sowing in the garden the following
season, or for the conservation of a rare variety?
A careful consideration of these factors (bearing
in mind how much effort one is willing to invest)
is the starting point of planning a seed garden,
whether a gardener is a novice or a practiced
seed saver.

Choosing Seed Crops


Gardeners tend to want to collect seeds from the
crops they grow most, but it is essential to determine first if it is feasible to cultivate seeds from
a particular species. Seed savers must examine
whether they can grow a species to seed given its
spatial and cultural requirements. And, because
varieties of the same species can differ dramatically in the time it takes them to reach maturity,
seed savers must also ask whether or not seeds
can be collected from a specific variety.
It is critical to remember that while seeds produced by a hybrid, or F1, variety are occasionally
grown out by breeders and advanced seed savers

Some plants, such as amaranth, readily self-sow


throughout the garden, and these volunteers demonstrate the ease with which many species produce seeds.

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THE SEED GARDEN

Although watermelons are typically thought of as a


southern crop, Blacktail Mountain watermelon is an
early-maturing variety that was originally developed to
mature fruit in northern Idaho, where summer nighttime temperatures fall below 50F (10C).

in an effort to stabilize the traits of the variety,


such seeds are highly unlikely to develop into
plants that closely resemble the original variety.
Open-pollinated varieties, on the other hand, will
produce seeds that are true to type and maintain
the desired characteristics of their variety provided a seed saver takes care to prevent unwanted
cross-pollination between cultivars.
Regional and climatic conditions should
also be taken into consideration when selecting
seed crops. Knowing what species and varieties
grow well as food crops in local conditions is
useful in determining what can be grown for
seed. For annual crops, it is essential to calculate
whether the fruits and seeds will have time to
mature before the end of the season. Most seed
packets include information about the number
of days to maturity, which is an estimate of how
many days a variety needs from germination
or transplantingbefore it can be harvested
for eating. For annual crops that are normally
harvested at botanical maturity, such as tomatoes,
winter squash, and grains, the days-to-maturity
figure is a relatively accurate predictor of when
seeds will be ready for harvest. Annual crops with
fruits that are usually harvested when botanically
immature, such as eggplants, snap peas, and

cucumbers, need additional timeoften several


weeks or morebeyond the estimated days to
maturity before their seeds will mature. Annual
crops grown for their leaves, stalks, or roots also
require additional time beyond market maturity,
but this amount of time varies from species to
species and even from variety to variety. In the
case of seed crops where information on the
days to seed maturity is not easy to find, the best
a seed saver can do is experiment to see if the
season is long enough to allow seeds to fully
mature.
The days-to-maturity figure can also guide
seed production of biennials so that they reach an
appropriate size for overwintering, which is often
slightly smaller than full size, but depends on the
manner and climate in which they will be overwintered. Biennials can only be grown for seed if
they are exposed to a cold period that will fulfill
their vernalization requirement. One must consider whether a variety can be
overwintered in the ground
under local conditions. If it
cannot be overwintered in
the ground and needs to be
dug, having an appropriate
space to store plants through
the winter that will provide
the right conditions is critical
to successful seed production. Whether vernalized
in storage or in the ground,
biennial crops will also need
to be given space in the
garden to flower and develop

Although broccoli is commonly


cultivated in vegetable gardens,
it is difficult to bring to seed
because flowering often occurs
when temperatures are too high
to support successful fertilization.

P l a nni ng the S e e d G a rd e n 107

mature seeds in their


planted. When one
second growing season.
takes into considThe feasibility of proeration the prolific
viding these conditions
nature of lettuce plants
and requirements
(a single plant can
should be considered
produce more than
when selecting what
a thousand seeds)
crops and varieties to
and their relatively
grow for seed.
small garden footprint
When garden space
(lettuce seeds can
is limited, a seed saver
be collected from a
may want to bear in
smaller population
mind how much of the
size, and plants can be
garden will be occupied
spaced more closely
by a particular seed
together than kale),
crop. Decisions about
it might make more
what seed crops are
sense to routinely save
worth the space they
seeds from lettuce, but
occupy may be influto buy kale seeds every
enced by the size of the
few years. However, if
plants at seed maturity,
the kale variety is rare,
the recommended
and the lettuce cultipopulation size for
var is readily available,
maintaining a variety,
a gardener may choose
Labeling a plant takes on more importance when
saving
seeds
than
when
growing
it
only
for
eating.
and the length of time
to collect the kale
the plants will occupy
seeds and purchase the
valuable garden space.
lettuce seeds.
Gardeners may also want to think about
When the fruits or seeds are the edible part
the availability of a variety from other sources
of a plant, additional space in the garden is not
and the amount of seed that can be collected
necessary when saving seeds. Provided they can
from a harvest and used in seasons to come. For
be properly isolated, these crops are often ideal
example, a gardener with a few raised beds may
for saving seeds in smaller gardens. For example,
have a hard time allocating the necessary space
seed savers can simply harvest a few properly
to grow a kale crop to seed, even if a modest
isolated fruits from a planting of peppers being
population size is used, because the plants are
grown for eating and have seeds for many seasons
large and require relatively wide spacing. Kale
to come. Although cross-pollinating crops,
also requires vernalization before flowering, so
such as winter squash and melons, may require
it occupies garden space for a longer period of
hand-pollination in order to produce true-totime than most annual crops. Additionally, many
type seeds and can take up plenty of space in the
home gardeners grow only a few kale plants each
garden, they also work well for space-conscious
season, and so a single packet of seeds will proseed savers because seed production occurs convide enough seeds for several growing seasons at
currently with crop productionthe seeds can
a modest price. In contrast, it is not uncommon
be collected from fruits that are harvested to eat.
for gardeners to grow dozens or hundreds of
The isolation requirement of a species or
lettuce plants in a single season, especially if the
varietyand the amount of work it would take
crop is harvested as baby lettuce and succession
to provide itis another consideration when

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THE SEED GARDEN

selecting what to grow for seed. For all but a few


species that requires a significant isolation
strongly self-pollinating species, a plants mating
distance, and it is not easily managed by altersystem or pollination method needs to be taken
native isolation methods. In addition, the
into consideration to ensure that it produces
recommended population size from which to
true-to-type seeds. For cross-pollinating crops,
collect spinach seeds in order to prevent inbreedisolation of a variety can be addressed by either
ing depression is large. All of these factors bear
meeting isolation distance recommendations or
consideration when selecting crops from which
by managing pollination in some other manner.
to save seeds.
When home gardens are located a sufficient
distance from other gardens or farms, and seed
saving is restricted to just one variety of a given
Making the Most of the Garden
species in a given year, isolation requirements
For many gardeners, space for growing plants
can often be met for many cross-pollinated crops
is valuable real estate, whether in a backyard
or those with mixed mating systems.
vegetable garden, a community garden plot, or
But when this is not the case, and isolation
in the beds and borders surrounding a house.
by distance is not feasible, the amount of effort
Good planning and creative use of available land
needed to employ other controlled pollination
is part of any good garden design, and for seed
methods should be considered. If a species can
savers, smart design plays a truly critical role. A
be isolated by means other than distance, such as
thoughtfully planned garden will either meet
with eggplant, which has flowers that are easily
necessary isolation distances between varieties of
blossom-bagged to
species that may
prevent unwanted
cross-pollinate
cross-pollination,
or use flowering
isolation distance
distractions and
may not be a limphysical barriers
iting factor. When
to help reduce
hand-pollination
these distances.
of some insect-polThese companion
linated species is
plantings can have
possible, such as
additional benefits
with pumpkins
such as supporting
and squash, isolaa healthy mix of
tion can also be
beneficial insects
easily managed,
and pollinators.
although a seed
When it comes
saver may wish
to isolation, some
to consider how
gardeners get
much time must
creative by lookbe invested in the
ing outside the
process. On the
confines of their
other hand, spinvegetable plot for
ach may not be a
additional space to
practical seed crop
grow seed crops.
When space is limited in the vegetable garden, seed crops such
for some gardenWhile it may not
as these Blue Podded peas can be mixed in with ornamental
ers because it is a
be possible within
plantings in other areas of the yard or property.
wind-pollinated
a relatively small

P l a nni ng the S e e d G a rd e n 109

MAST E R C L ASS

creating habitat for


garden pollinators
and beneficial insects
Most gardeners have plenty of pollinators on hand
to ensure pollination of their seed crops without taking any additional measures. However, a
few simple practices will not only help ensure a
good pollinator community, but will also support
a strong beneficial insect population that may
prey on crop pests, helping to keep a seed garden
healthy and productive.
Flowering plants, especially native wildflowers, planted near the vegetable garden provide
bees, other pollinators, and beneficial insects with
additional nectar and pollen sources, as well as
with a habitat for nesting. Rather than competing for pollinator attention, other plants flowering
throughout the growing season will encourage
pollinators to take up residence in the area. Native
wildflowers are a highly recommended food
source for such populations. In addition, flowering kitchen herbs and clover (mixed in with the
lawn) help support a healthy insect population, as
do a number of ornamental flowering annuals and
perennials commonly found in borders, such as
nasturtiums, bee balm, and catmint.
Minimizing pesticide use or avoiding it altogether if possible is also recommended as part of
any effort to maintain insect populations. Even
organic-approved pesticides such as spinosad,
Beauveria bassiana, neem oil, and pyrethrum are

Leaving an area to grow


wild near the vegetable
garden will not only provide food for pollinators
but a place for nesting
and overwintering.
Butterflyweed (left) and
other milkweeds are
common wildflowers that
will establish themselves
in uncultivated areas.

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Flowering plants, such as anise hyssop, planted near the


vegetable garden will help attract a variety of pollinators
and beneficial insects.

deadly to pollinators and other beneficial insects.


Spot treatment of unwanted infestations with horticultural soap is a preferred method of treatment
when chemical management is necessary.
Pest outbreaks can often be reduced by growing a diversity of crops, by rotating crops, and
by removing garden debris. Reducing pesticide
use and planting an abundance of flowers can
increase populations of beneficial insects, helping
to suppress pest populations that might call for the
use of pesticides.
Protecting nesting and overwintering habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects is also
helpful to ensure their presence in the garden.
Many native bees are ground nesting and prefer
uncultivated land. Reducing tillage has been
demonstrated to increase squash bee populations,
for example, and bumble bees tend to prefer
overgrown areas for nesting, such as brush piles
and areas with tall native bunchgrasses. Such
undisturbed natural habitat also supports spiders,
songbirds, and beneficial insects that can help
with pest control in the garden. While it is possible to construct artificial nest boxes for bumble
bees and wooden nest blocks for wood-nesting pollinators such as leafcutter bees, sanitation can be
a concern because those structures can become
contaminated with disease spores and parasites.
The simpler, more ecologically sound approach
is to conserve undisturbed natural habitat in areas
surrounding the vegetable garden.

By planting a variety such as this salmon-flowered


runner bean in a container or in the ornamental border,
it may be possible to give it the isolation distance necessary to prevent it from crossing with other varieties.
Hedges and other flowering plants can also serve as
barriers and distractions to help reduce chances of any
unwanted cross-pollination.

vegetable garden to provide common beans


with the 10 to 20 feet recommended to prevent
unwanted crossing, varieties can be planted in
other areas of the property to achieve the isolation distances necessary to ensure true-to-type
seed. For example, gaps in perennial beds and
shrub borders can be used to house a seed crop
of pole beans or okra. This approach keeps these
plants the recommended distance away from
other varieties with which they may crosspollinate. Containers on the terrace can also
provide a home for such seed crops, and in the
case of some crops, such as peppers, eggplants,
and tomatoes, can create beautiful container
plantings that are easily cared for. Although
growing self-pollinating plants, such as lettuce,
in containers may not be advantageous in terms
of managing isolation, this practice allows plants

Orach is grown as a warm-weather substitute for spinach, and this


varietys magenta foliage adds color to the vegetable garden. Its bracted
seeds take on a special beauty in the evening light.

to be moved to a protected area to minimize


exposure to overhead watering or rain as the seed
crop matures.
Just as gardeners have come to appreciate the
beauty of the seed heads of angelica and ornamental grasses in the garden, many vegetable
plants have a similar beauty at seed maturity and
can be a welcome addition to the ornamental
border. In addition, the fruits, blossoms, and foliage of others, such as the scarlet blooms of runner
beans, the chartreuse-flowered umbels of dill, and
brightly colored fruits of orach, contribute color
to the ornamental border throughout the season.

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MAST E R C L ASS

applying seed-saving techniques


to ornamental plants
For many gardeners, seed saving did not begin
with the collection of vegetable seeds, but with
the seeds of flowers that present themselves
throughout the season in ornamental borders. In
many cases, the seeds were not even collected, but
simply allowed to drop and set volunteers in the
garden. Foxgloves, calendulas, cosmos, columbines, and sea hollies are known to seed about and
show up in the garden where they will prosper, as
are seeds of flowering bulbs such as snowdrops,
scilla, and grape hyacinths, which will then return
year after year as their bulbs develop and grow.
By collecting fruits of columbines and poppies or the seed heads of angelica, anise hyssop,
or bronze fennel and sowing them in the garden,
gardeners can ensure that these annuals, biennials, and short-lived perennials appear in the
garden from year to year. Unless saving seeds of a
favorite cultivar, cross-pollination of flowers may
be less worrisome, giving this form of seed saving
a little more leeway than saving true-to-type seeds
of heirloom vegetables. However, the knowledge
that one gathers in collecting seeds from open-pollinated varieties of vegetables can help to prevent
unwanted cross-pollination between cultivars of
flowering ornamentals. In some cases favorite
garden flowers and herbs are in the same family as
commonly grown vegetables and will respond to
similar practices in seed
saving. Some gardeners
approach this by growing only one variety of a
species so that they can
increase the chances
that the volunteers that
appear in their gardens
Columbines produce their
seeds in capsules and will
be processed similarly to
some species of Allium that
have this same fruit type.

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THE SEED GARDEN

This zinnia, growing amongst the tomatillos, will produce


seeds that can be saved using the same techniques
applied to other crops in the Asteraceae, or sunflower
family. Similar to sunflowers, zinnias produce achenes in
a composite head.

have the desired traits of that cultivar, such as


the double flowers of Black Barlow columbine.
Conversely, an understanding of cross-pollination
allows a gardener to intentionally cross a double
hellebore with a single yellow form, with the hope
that some of the seeds will have the desired combination of traits from each parent and produce
plants with double, yellow flowers. This playful
breeding offers mixedand somewhat hard to
predictresults, but the fun is in seeing the progeny of such crosses.
For a seed saver, the seedpods of iris and
species peonies will offer up not just their visual
beauty, but the promise of more plants. Of course,
some of these flower seeds, especially those of
perennials, have different germination requirements, such as stratification, but a bit of research
can easily provide answers to any questions that
arise around a particular species and its needs.

Common beans are a great annual crop for beginner


seed savers because they are primarily self-pollinating.
Pole beans such as Purple Podded Pole are easy to
harvest and shell, and their colorful flowers and fruits
contribute to the beauty of the vegetable garden.

Recommendations for Beginners


Planning a seed garden does not have to be
overwhelming and can be done to the ability
and interest level of the individual gardener. Just
as a new gardener is told not to take on more
than can be managed when planting a vegetable
or flower garden, starting small and knowing
just what species to begin with when growing a
variety for seed will help ensure success. And by
growing familiar varieties, it is simpler to measure ones success at collecting seed that is true
to type when that seed is planted and grown the
following year.
A general rule of thumb for beginners is to
select annuals that are primarily self-pollinating as starter seed crops. Species that require
vernalization or have larger isolation distance
requirements take more planning and care
than self-pollinating annuals. For this reason,
open-pollinated varieties of lettuce, peas, and
beans are ideal choices for anyone new to seed
saving. Peas and beans have another advantage
in that they take up the same space in the garden
when being grown for seed as they do when
being grown for eating, making it simpler for
a new seed saver to plan out a garden without
having to reconsider spacing considerations.
Endive, which requires a little more space when
grown for seed, can still be grown at its regular
spacing and simply be thinned to desired spacing
for seed maturation. The plants in between can

be harvested as the season progresses, making


room for the selected seed plants to fill out
andflower.
Other vegetables with perfect flowers, such
as tomatoes, can be successfully grown for seed
by bagging individual flowers and collecting
seeds from these fruits, or by meeting the modest
recommended isolation distance between
varieties when growing more than one cultivar.
Cucumbers, okra, and melons can also be good
crops for beginner seed savers as long as nearby
neighbors are not growing a different variety of
them. Although these three crops are insect-pollinated and outcross to varying degrees, planting
only one variety allows for the production of
true-to-type seeds when adequately isolated from
other gardens. More adventurous beginners may
wish to try hand-pollinating a squash or pumpkin
variety, and in areas where the climate allows for
in-ground vernalization, they may even attempt
to grow leeks, beets or collards and collect their
seeds in the second season.
Whether one decides to take on more complex seed crops over time or to simply collect
seeds from easy-to-manage crop varieties is a
matter of choice. And whether one collects seeds
from many varieties of vegetables or only a select
few, there is a growing satisfaction that comes
along with being an active member
of the seed-saving community.

When growing out a hard-to-find variety


such as Groen Family bean, it is best
practice to hold some seeds in reserve in
case the crop should fail. In the very rare
case of a seed lot that is unique, such
a practice could prevent a variety from
disappearing. One of the joys of seed
saving is sharing seeds of such varieties
with others to help ensure that they do not
disappear.

P l a nni ng the S e e d G a rd e n 113