The case for saving seed. There are so many triggers that might cause you to decide that now is the time for you to start saving seed, but perhaps they all fall under the umbrella of self-sustainability and self-reliance.
Saving your own seed means that you no longer have to pay for new seed every season. It means you breed seed that is adapted to your climate and soil which in turn provides you with more healthy, vigorous and productive plants.
But it isn’t only the practical matters that are involved. You are also passing down a heritage. Consider: Your great-great-great grandchildren planting seed from a plant you sowed all those years before them.
It reminds me of a pepper I am attempting to grow this season. It is affectionately called “Mary’s Delight”. I obtained this seed from Charles C. who has this to say about it:
It started out with Hawaiian Chili and Bouquet Peppers planted in the same bed together. I just kept doing it for about seven years and now they have crossed. My step mom gave me the plants so they are called Mary’s Delight. She passed away a few years ago.
Growing peppers may be fun, but growing a story is even better. It’s my privilege to help keep this story alive.
I can understand if the stories are not what matter the most to you. After all, what we’re really looking for is something to eat. However, having a story to share about the food you are eating can be a lot of fun as well.
Whatever your reason is for saving the seed, one thing is clear: We need the seed (or root, or clipping, etc.) in order to grow more food. And this is not just an annual crop issue. At some point even the mighty chestnut doesn’t produce enough food for a certain population and we need another tree to provide more food.
Types of Fruit and Vegetable Seeds
One thing worth reminding everyone is that to save seed we need to be using Open Pollinated varieties. As defined by the Seed Savers Exchange:
Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.
More importantly, the seed produces the same plant that the seed came from. There is no noticeable genetic change from the parent plant to the child plant grown from seed.
You may have heard the term “Heirloom” and have become accustomed to the idea that Heirloom = Open Pollinated, and that is true in the sense that all Heirloom’s are Open Pollinated, but not all Open Pollinated seeds are Heirlooms’. Again, as explained by the Seed Savers Exchange:
While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.
I very much agree with this stance. Your grandfather’s knife or your grandmother’s dishes aren’t family heirlooms because they are old, they are heirlooms because you know their history. So it is with seed.
Hybrid plants are different creatures and for the purpose of this discussion I will simplify it down to just saying that you cannot save seed from a hybridized plant and get the same plant that produced the seed. You can, however, produce your own hybrid plants so that you do not have to purchase the seeds, but it is an exacting science and you need to be ready to do all the pollination in a controlled environment.
There are other items to consider as well, climate being near the top of my list. For a beginner there is just no sense in trying to grow plants that are not meant for your area. After your experience has increased and your confidence is booming, then learn about micro-climates and sub-species of cultivars that might do better for your particular climate.
Another consideration of note is to select varieties for their specific traits. You can find heirloom varieties that do better against certain diseases, ones that do better in greenhouses, ones that store longer than others, etc. Select for your specific needs.
Once you know what you are going to grow you need to obtain your first seeds. The last ones you will hopefully ever pay for. This is where personal opinion can vary greatly. If you are staunchly opposed to Genetically Modified Organisms, you have to be careful. Some re-sellers that sign the Safe Seed Pledge, which means that the companies “…do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants” still source their seed from other companies that are not operating under the same pledge.
The trouble with this is that while you might be buying perfectly fine Heirloom seeds from the company, you may inadvertently still have supported a company that produces Genetically Engineered seed. You see, some of these companies really are just re-sellers. They buy from other companies who produce the seed. If, by chance, that 2nd company also happens to produce GE/GMO seed, then by buying from the company that made the pledge you inadvertently supported the company that also produces GMO’s.
There are plenty of other companies that, as far as can be figured, are not associated in any way with companies that delve into the sticky business of genetically modifying seeds. Despite that, companies who do make GMO’s can hide behind companies that are able to sign the Safe Seed Pledge.
That may sound very overwhelming, but fear not. The Safe Seed Resource List is a good start. If at all possible though, you should consider buying or swapping seeds with other local growers. That should be your first resource. The seed was harvested from plants already grown in your climate and you also establish a connection with other growers and savers.
If that is not an option, start by finding the company that is closest to you and give them a really good look-over. Call them. Be polite, but be honest. Tell them you want to purchase some seed but you would like to know where they source their seed from. If they save it all themselves or from other family farmers they personally know, great! If they start citing other companies, such as Seminis (which is owned by Monsanto), then you know something might be wrong. If they give you the name of a company, write it down, thank them for their time and hang up.
Research the company. A simple search such as “Who owns (name of company)” or “What is the parent company of (name of company)” may give you all the information you need. It is quite possible that the seed re-seller buys seed from a company that has nothing to do with GMO’s, so do not let the mention of a company name completely turn you off. Do your due diligence.
Growing and Harvesting Seed
Rest assured, seeds can be very easy to grow. They can, however, be very finicky as well. Seeds that are finicky are typically looking for some sort of event that would normally take place in nature to signal them that it is time to grow. Some seeds expect to be processed through birds to have their seed coat stripped down. Others expect a freeze and even others expect fire. Generally you shouldn’t have to worry about those things but you should be aware of them.
The details behind growing a plant and ensuring that it produces plentiful amounts of viable seed are beyond the scope of this podcast. If you were able to find a local grower to buy or swap seeds with, start there. When you get the seeds ask them about any special germination conditions, and special needs of the plant and any advice about when and how to harvest the seed.
Here are some other resources for you:
- Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners (Recommended by the Seed Savers Exchange)
- Saving Seeds: The Gardener’s Guide to Growing and Saving Vegetable and Flower Seeds
- Survival Seeds: The Heirloom Seed Saving Handbook
I do wish to mention one consideration: When saving seed, save it from the plant you want to emulate again next growing season. Was their one plant that really stood out for its health, its yield, its taste, etc.? If so, save seed from THAT plant.
Once you have your seeds ready to harvest you need to know how to properly store them, or all your work up until now may be wasted. Follow the same resources above to learn about proper storage.
However, for my sake, let me mention 2 things: Water & Containers
Too much moisture in the seed, or any on the seed, may cause the seed to rot, mold, or otherwise not be viable for planting next season. Moisture control is very important.
I also feel that too much emphasis is placed by some on containers. I store my seed in various sizes of reclosable plastic bags and have not had any issue with seed viability because of it. In other words, keep it simple.
It seems to me that if you go through the effort of doing this work that you should do yourself and the generations that follow you the small courtesy of documenting your work. What seed stock did you start with (where did you get it from and any story that goes with it)? How many generations have you been through (is the seed you have saved the 5th generation grown on your property or the 20th)?
The paperwork need not be extensive, but you and others may find it very meaningful and valuable in the future.
For me, saving seed is very enjoyable. I love putting one seed in the ground and collecting hundreds of seeds from that same plant at the end of the season. Imagine, someone gives you a single tomato seed that grows dozens of tomatoes and just 1 of those tomatoes may have dozens of seeds. So, you save 1 tomato for seed and next year you have a few dozen tomato vines instead of just 1. Now that is being self reliant for your food.
Whatever your motivation is, get out there and grow it. If you ever have so much seed that you cannot keep growing it, share, sell it, but do not ever let it go to waste!