Keeping seeds each year helps gardeners grow the plants they want
By Terri King
Any gardener knows conditions must be right for a particular seed to sprout and grow. A gardener plants a seed with water, good soil and the hope that it will produce certain desirable traits, perhaps the ones described in seed catalogs.
Many people order new seed from a seed company every year to make sure they can grow the varieties they want. But what if the desired variety is no longer available? One way to get around that problem is to save seed from your own garden. The gardener can maintain desired traits or select for different ones (natural selection) over time. Another benefit to saving seed is saving money; save what the plant produces instead of buying new seed every year.
An important consideration is whether the seed is open-pollinated or hybrid and whether or not it is genetically engineered or otherwise patented. Open-pollinated (the best option for seed saving) means that when two plants of the same variety are crossed, the resulting new plant is the same as its parents. A hybrid is a cross between two plants of the same species, but with genetic differences, meaning there is no guarantee that the seed you save will produce a plant the same as either parent.
Genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMO) are fairly recent inventions, created in labs, and are not the same as hybrids or natural selection. Genes of a crop are modified by inserting genes of something else that may not even be the same species. Those using GMO seed are dependent upon the corporations responsible for producing it. GMO seed cannot be legally saved and grown out. This is also true for other patented seed. To avoid purchasing GMO seed, be sure the seed company publishes a “Safe Seed Pledge,” which assures they do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.
Through saving seed and preserving seed integrity, we pass along desired traits and also history and stories. Some varieties have been passed along family lines or by friends and neighbors, while some are shared through seed swaps and seed libraries locally or widely. Sharing locally not only passes along local history but also traits plants have developed to adapt to local climate and soil types. These seeds come with a boost to sustainability and productivity.
Watch the plants in your garden, noting which ones, within a variety, exhibit the traits you want to encourage (such as growth habit, resistance to heat or cold, sweeter fruit or darker leaves, etc.) Save seeds from those plants. Some varieties easily cross-pollinate with others in the same species. Take care to plant these species the right “isolation distance” from each other.
Saved seed must be cleaned by removing seed covers and associated chaff and dirt. Seeds range from very easy (i.e.: beans) to more tedious. Consult seed-saving sources for instructions.
Seeds must be properly stored to retain their viability. Avoid humidity, and keep them in a cool place. A refrigerator or a freezer is the best option for preserving them for a year. A glass jar with an airtight lid is ideal for storing loose seeds or seed packets.
Well before planting season, do simple germination tests. Seeds can be placed between damp paper towels or coffee filters, then put in a plastic bag and placed in a warm location. Be sure to label the seeds. Check after two weeks to see how many have germinated (some types of seed take longer,) then figure out the germination rate. If you used 10 seeds and eight of them germinated, the rate is 80 percent. Include this percentage with seeds that you keep or share, and get rid of those with low germination.
Save seed and money this year. Enjoy the freedom of being able to plant what you want. Preserve history and seed integrity. Preserve strong seed suited to where you live. Pass along extra seed. Experience the joy of growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.
Ashworth, Susan: Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners
Conner, Cindy: Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People
Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook: Complete Free Seed-Saving Instructions: www.howtosaveseeds.com (includes a seed isolation distances chart)
Some sources for open-pollinated, heirloom seeds
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Mansfield, MO): www.rareseeds.com
Hudson Valley Seed Library (Accord, NY): www.seedlibrary.org
Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA): www.seedsavers.org
Seed Saving and Heirloom Gardening at the Wylie House (Bloomington, IN): https://libraries.indiana.edu/seed-saving-and-heirloom-gardening-wylie-house
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Mineral, VA): https://www.southernexposure.com
Sow True Seed (Asheville, NC): www.sowtrueseed.com
Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Inc. (Berea, KY): www.heirlooms.org
By Terri King