A Seed Savers Garden: Part I

Sharon March 8th, 2008

Note: This is part of my four part series on seeds and the issues of seed availability in a post peak agriculture.  I’ll write more about seed saving generally shortly, but I wanted to start this part of the series now, while I was thinking about it, and while we’re still planning/starting our gardens. 

I get my best ideas from the questions of my readers, and Stephen gave me a dilly. He mentioned that he felt intimidated by the problem of setting up a garden that could, besides feeding his family, also provide their seed needs, and did I have suggestions on this one. And that reminded me that I’ve wanted to write on this topic for some time. So I thought I’d talk about some model gardens people might set up. I wish that I had any design skills at all, or I’d show them to you, but you’ll just have to follow along verbally - and if any of you draw them out, and feel like posting them, submit a link and I’ll add it to this post. 

What are challenges of growing food and enough seed to keep the cycle going? Well, different crops present different challenges, and I’m going to go through my design, easiest crops to hardest ones, and the solutions available to each.  This will take multiple posts, however.

First of all, I recommend that all of you look into the very basics of seed saving - how it works, what the general issues are. The best basic reference, pointing you to useful books, websites and growers is at Sue Robishaw’s excellent website, ManyTracks here: http://www.manytracks.com/Garden/seedsave.htm#top. Personally, the very best explanations I’ve ever seen of basic, garden level seed saving came in Robishaw’s book _Homesteading Adventures_ - I believe (but have not read) that her book _Frost Dancing_ also includes tips for very northern seed savers. Just FYI, if you buy her book, HA is a book with a ton of useful information, and a very, very annoying format. It is worth getting through the conceit (Robishaw talking to two dumb new homesteaders) to get the information, though.  There are good online guidelines for seed saving here: http://www.victoryseeds.com/information/save_seeds.html

The two most useful books for seed savers past the very beginning stage are Suzanne Ashworth’s _Seed to Seed_ and Carol Deppe’s _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_ - I strongly recommend that these be part of every gardener’s library. The second one may sound intimidating, but even if you have no intention of breeding, it is full of fascinating and useful information about plant genetics, presented in an accessible and fun to read (I know that sounds nuts, but it really is) way.  The reality is that seed saving *is* plant breeding - each subsequent generation becomes better adapted to your region and its conditions.

Ok, now we’ve got the absolute basics down. So the first question is how you design a seed saver’s garden. You want to plant a full variety of foods, with enough to eat, and enough to save seed. You also want to minimize the amount of work you have to do in terms of hand pollinating, and caging, and make sure that your seed comes true. But you don’t have acres and acres of farmland - you have a suburban garden. (I know some of my readers do have acres of farmland, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll imagine we’re all dealing with smaller spaces.)

Now how much land generally speaking is needed for seed crops?  Well, first it is useful to distinguish between the crops where seed can be saved *and* you can eat the plant, and those where one has to make a choice between the two.  There are also some middle ground plants, where you can derive some benefits from them.

Plants where you harvest the plant more or less normally and the save the seeds: Winter squash, pumpkins, some melons

Plants where you can harvest leaves and stems fairly steadily and still have the remainder of the plant make seed: Celery, parsley, most leafy greens, lettuces

Plants where you have to choose between saving seeds and eating the plant: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions, all grains, peas, beans and plants where you actually eat the seeds, all brassicas, all summer squash and cucumbers (although some of the summer squash can be eaten like winter squash at the seed saving stage), most root crops. 

So how much of your garden will you have to devote to seed saving?  Well, it depends on the size of the garden  - some very small gardens won’t be able to save seed from some crops, particularly if you live in an area where others are growing gardens nearby.  It also depends on the sheer number of crops you want to grow - if you are content to grow a single member of each plant that could potentially cross with another, you can save more seed than if you have to maximize every inch between plants.   And generally, the smaller the garden, the larger the percentage of crops that have to be devoted to seed saving.  In their booklet _Growing to Seed_ by Peter Donelan (available through Ecology Action) Ecology Actions says that the *average* space required to save enough seed for the next year is 3% of your garden.  I would suggest that people average that up somewhat, both for reasons discussed in my prior post on seed availability, and assume that in the first year of a crisis, and while unless you are an experienced seed saver, 5-10% of your garden might be needed for adequate seed production.

There are a couple of factors here to understand.  They all affect how much land you need to devote to seed saving.

The first, and most important, is that you want to select for good traits, and the best of your plants.  This is perhaps the most fundamental way that a seed saver’s garden is different from everyone else’s - that is, seed savers have to track their plants even more carefully than gardeners.  Because you want to select seed from the plants that have the qualities you want to perpetuate - for example, if you grow a tomato because it is especially early, you will want to save seed from the earliest crop.  That means that instead of biting into that first red tomato, you might want to leave it on the vine - which is tough.  But you also have to be careful here - some plants, when allowed to set seed, will stop fruiting, because their ultimate objective is the perpetuation of the plant - so sometimes you won’t want to leave the earliest fruits.  You might be selecting for texture, color, vigor, resistance to disease, etc… - that is, you have to think about what plants to save seed from and why - and that means more than ever, making sure you are observing your plants and spending a lot of time with them in the garden. 

In order to ensure genetic health, most crops have a minimum plant population necessary to keep  them healthy.  That is, if you save seed for a couple of years from too small a population, eventually the plants will begin to inbreed, and the seed will get weaker and less viable.  Some self-pollinators need only one plant.  Others, such as corn, need a large population to ensure long term viability.  Suzanne Ashworth lists minimum plant populations for all her crops, and I’ve used that as a guide here.

 Next is “isolation distance” - that is, how far away plants will cross pollinate by accident.  Sometimes it is very close, sometimes quite far.  But if you want your varieties to come true, you need to respect this distance.  You can often stretch this by using barriers, like your house - plant one pepper on one side of the house, another on the other, and the odds are ok that they won’t cross.  Sometimes even a row of tall plants like corn or sunflowers are sufficient.  A very small gardener will have to grow fewer different varieties of plants that can cross with each other (sometimes people are surprised by what crosses with each other - for example, new gardeners often don’t realize that chard is a beet, and will cross with beets).

Then there is  “Storage Space” which applies to biennial crops in cold places and with long dry seasons.  That is, biennials are crops that make seed in the second year - most brassicas and many roots fall in this category.  In mild climates, many will simply overwinter in the garden and make seed the next year.  In very cold places, or places with long dry seasons, however, you have to find a way to dig them up and store them over the winter or summer and replant, so that they can make seed.  For home scale gardeners, this is pretty doable, but it does take time, space and planning.

And  finally, there are rotation issues, which are really a larger gardening issue.  That is, most crops shouldn’t be grown more than once every few years in the same space.  Which means that if you are growing out a plant that requires a large population, like corn or quinoa, you need to have several such spaces to grow seed so that you can rotate next year - or you have to have enough room to grow out seed one year for 3-4 years. 

Confused yet?  Seed saving gardening is different than simple vegetable gardening, and if you haven’t ever grown a garden, or are just getting started, I’d encourage you to start with the easiest crops for seed saving, and wait a little longer to get into practice with the others.  It will be hard enough to simply design and set up your garden - adding a whole lot of other considerations is too much.  So give yourself a year or so and a successful garden, and print out what information you need so that you can plan for a seed saver’s garden in the future.

So today we’ll start with the easy seed saving plants, the ones that even beginning gardeners can do without trouble.  We’ll get into more complexity later.  Remember, anyone can save seed - it just seems hard when you are getting started, like almost every new skill.  Give it time, and keep practicing - this is one of those things that is too important to give up.

Potatoes and Sweet potatoes are both grown from pieces of existing plants, rather than seed, generally speaking. You can plant potato seed, but what you get won’t be anything like its parents. It can be fun to do, and the advantage of potato seed is that it lasts 3-5 years, so if you couldn’t plant one year and then no seed potatoes were available, you could get a crop. Not all potatoes will set seed, but some do, and it might be worth saving it. The process is simple - wait til the seed ball is mature, and then make sure the seeds are dried fully before storing them. This is a useful hedge - but whether the potatoes you get will be good is another bet, so this should be a side-venture. More generally, potatoes and sweet potatoes present no trouble - plant them one year, dig them up, save your best tubers to replant in the case of potatoes, or put a few sweet potatoes in water to generate slips, and go on from there.

Most Grains won’t be a crossing problem, unless you live in a heavy grain producing region. That is, if you grow wheat in my neighborhood, or suburban LA, you don’t much have to worry about crossing - no one else will be doing it. The same is true of most other grains. If you do live in the wheat belt, the need for you to grow wheat on a home scale is probably pretty small - grow oats or something instead. So generally speaking, if you are growing small amounts of grain, simply harvest them and save some of the seed.  Corn and Quinoa are the major exceptions, and I’ll discuss them a bit later on.

Legumes are really easy - Peas and Beans are both, at best, marginal self-pollinators, that can cross, but are unlikely to. In fact, there’s some debate about whether beans actually cross at all - they are a crop that is highly likely to send out sports or mutations, so it may not be that they are crossing. You can usually grow peas (unless there’s a huge field of field peas next door) with just a row or two of taller plants in between them. Beans you can pretty much grow right next to each other, except Soybeans, which need a little more space - more like peas. But it is perfectly common for bean collectors to grow 20 or 30 varieties in a garden. All you do is save some pods on the vine and let them get completely dry, and put them away. Just remember to save your best pods for seed if you want to improve your stock.

Lettuces are extremely easy - it doesn’t cross very much, and even grown side by side, you’ll have 5% crossing or less, according to Suzanne Ashworth.  And as long as you harvest individual leaves, you can have your salad and seed too - just remember, you want to save seeds from the *last* lettuces to bolt, not the first ones.

Spinaches cross more, because they are wind pollinated, but I haven’t had any noticeable decline in quality saving spinach seed even well within the 5 mile limit. That is, my seed is probably crossed, but it seems to come out pretty much like spinach.  Otherwise, spinach is a lot like lettuce.

Tomatoes are another marginal self-pollinator - they do cross, but sufficient garden space - growing two varieties on either end of the garden is usually sufficient. You may have a few offtypes, but generally speaking, you’ll be ok.  A barrier will almost always do it, so if you want to grow paste tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, just throw your cherries in a pot on the side of the house, away from the garden.  Tomatoes must be unpleasantly overripe and mushy to save seeds.

So here’s where a seed saver’s garden has to get selective - you might need to narrow things down to an early variety, a paste/drying variety and a cherry. Or, you might have to get creative about where you grow them - remember, properly stored tomato seed lasts at least 3 years (and usually much more), so let’s say that you want to grow 20 varieties of tomato, but you also want to save seed from your three main crops. Well, since you can grow out enough seed to last you three years with just a few plants, perhaps you’ll find a spot away from the garden, over by the house, where you can grow three plants. The first year, you’ll plant your early variety there, and save seed (by letting tomatoes get overripe, and then fermenting and drying it) enough for three years, while you grow 20 other varieties in the garden. You won’t save seed from any of these - or maybe a few to test pollination distances. The next year, you’ll grow out your drying tomato, the third year your cherry - and then the rotation starts again (of course, you can’t grow tomatoes forever in exactly the same spot, so I’m assuming you are rotating them a little). You could also do this with a neighbor’s yard - offer them some tomatoes, and ask them to simply leave a few tomatoes on the vine to get overripe.

Peppers and Eggplants do self-pollinate quite a bit, and many of us will want to grow more than one - at least one sweet and one hot. Again, this is an argument for growing a few out each year as seed crops in a place isolated from the rest of your garden or in a neighbor’s yard. But there’s another trick that can be used with both of these plants. Unlike tomatoes, which are essesentially annuals - that is, they live only one year, in their native places, peppers and eggplants are perennials. That is, one way to save seed for them, if you have bright windowsills and a warm spot, is to dig up (or plant in pots to begin with) one of each kind of eggplant and pepper, and bring them into the house over the winter. If conditions are right (experiment before you depend on this) they will continue to fruit over the winter, and you can save seed from those plants, which had no wind or insects to crosspollinate them.  Both crops have to be way past ripe to save good seed from.

Next post on this subject: More crops, and designing your garden with all these bits in mind. 


3 Responses to “A Seed Savers Garden: Part I”

  1. Sarahon 08 Mar 2023 at 7:36 pm

    Interesting…so I guess ordering the mystery bush bean mix might not preclude me saving seeds from some of them. Do soybeans just cross with other soybeans, or with other beans as well?

  2. Jeanon 10 Mar 2023 at 8:01 am

    I have gardened for many years but have only last season begun to think of saving my own seed, so this is a very timely series for me. Not exactly true, I have saved seed from my Grandma’s large, pink tomatoes that she saved seed from. That seemed more like preserving my heritage, not a tomato though!

    Eagerly anticipating the next installment of the series! Thanks!

  3. Robyn M.on 10 Mar 2023 at 10:19 am

    I am looking forward to saving seeds for the first time this year. I just took a great workshop from one of our local universities on seed-saving, and I think I might just finally have a handle on it.

    If you’re bad at design, might I suggest checking out the garden design tool at http://www.growveg.com? I used it for the first time this year, and I’ve been totally geeking on it ever since. I’m still on the 30-day free trial, but I have every intention of paying the $30-ish yearly fee for it. It might not be very useful for you, as it’s clearly intended for folks with smaller spaces, but I’ve broken up various areas in my garden and done those. I think most home gardeners who aren’t currently in love with Adobe Illustrator could get a lot of use out of this.

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