My greatest reward is harvesting seed. I find it miraculous that a single small seed can reproduce, often thousands of times over, all the while adapting to its environment. It is also astounding to me that humans have been involved with this process for at least 12,000 years, consciously selecting seed that originated from wild plants for useful characteristics and traits. This seed was handed down from one generation to the next, shared with the community, or traded to other communities and families, increasing the bounty of both the giver and receiver.
Humans and plants evolving together in a mutually beneficial alliance is a relationship often overlooked in our modern world. Not so long ago, most gardeners routinely saved seed from their gardens and handed it down to their children or shared with their neighbors and community. These heirloom seeds were treasured and passed on. After World War II, with the rise of industrial agriculture and the promise that corporations could provide better seeds and food, the practice of saving seed in the United States dwindled. Small regional seed companies were bought up or went out of business, and by 1983 our varietal heritage had decreased by 93 percent, diminishing a rich ocean of genetic diversity.
Today there is a resurgence of interest in seed-saving and preserving heirloom varieties, inspiring gardeners to follow the cycle from seed to seed. The treasures that remain are being increased and new ones are being discovered and created through open-pollinated breeding.
Seedsaving can be as simple as saving dried beans from your garden or a more complicated process of breeding your own new variety over many years. Many factors are involved with saving seed from different crops, but the following basics will help you get started.
Start with good seed from a trusted seed source and be sure your seeds are open-pollinated and capable of producing offspring like the parent plants. Hybrid seeds are often sterile or produce a majority of offspring unlike themselves.
When planning to save seed, it’s important to know how a plant is pollinated. Many favorite garden plants, like tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, and lettuce, have perfect flowers; that is, they contain both male and female reproductive parts in the same flower. These plants can self-pollinate without the aid of insects or the wind. Seed saved from these plants will come true and be a close replica of the parent plant.
Monecious crops, like cucumbers, squash, melons, and corn, have male and female flowers on the same plant. Dioecious plants, like spinach, produce male and female flowers on different plants. Both monecious and dioecious plants require insects, usually bees, or the wind for pollination.
Knowing how your crops pollinate will help determine how to space, or isolate, different varieties in order to avoid unwanted cross-pollination. In general self-pollinating crops need less isolation. Crops that are insect-pollinated such as squash and cucumbers will need at least a half-mile between different varieties of the same species to ensure purity. And wind-pollinated crops like corn and beets need at least one mile of isolation as pollen can travel for miles in the wind.
Know how big a plant will get and the average length of time to harvest the seed. Dainty lettuce can get up to six feet tall when it flowers. Carrots and beets are biennials (requiring two years to produce seed) and turn into garden monsters that can take up a whole bed. Beans, corn, and peas take longer to mature and dry their seed; this becomes an issue if you need that space to plant crops in succession, or if rain or frost threatens.
There are many good books and resources available that will help you navigate seed-saving nuances like determining isolation, inbreeding depression, and selecting for desired characteristics like regional adaptability, flavor, and early maturity. But I hope this inspires you to get started on the enriching path of seed saving and join our ancestors in securing a bountiful, diverse, and delicious future.