Spring Planning for Seed Saving
Spring Planning for Seed Saving
By: Amy Grisak
Years ago it seemed when someone said they were saving seeds it meant they hung onto the rest of the packet that they didn’t use that year. Fortunately, more people are interested in harvesting seeds from their favorite crops to ensure they have a viable seed source for the next season.
There are several reasons for this. Gardeners want to be more self-reliant. They don’t want to rely on the seed companies because they’re not confident they’ll always be there, or at the very least, they know varieties are sometimes retired for no apparent reason.
While it’s a huge disappointment when you can no longer buy your favorite variety, it’s becoming more common. When huge conglomerates buy up small seed companies, the bottom line dictates what seeds make it into the catalog. Sometimes it’s not the one you’ve grown for decades. And since this is more the rule than the exception, the only way you can be sure you’ll be able to grow what you love is to save your own seeds.
The challenge to saving seeds is it has to start in the spring. If you decide to save seeds in the fall, it’s an iffy proposition. Maintaining pure strains depends on the precautions you take at the beginning of the season. Saving seeds as an afterthought can result in major disappointment the following year.
The difference between heirlooms, hybrids and GMOs
As someone who councils a lot of new gardeners, I’ve found there is a lot of confusion when it comes to the open-pollinated, heirlooms, hybrids, and genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Hybrids are often shunned by new gardeners because they automatically think they’re part of the growing number of engineered crops designed by evil corporations. But hybrids aren’t characters from a science fiction novel. They are usually created by hand-pollinating two different parent plants that have the desirable characteristics growers want in plants. This typically results in varieties with qualities such as disease resistance, uniform size, or early maturation.
There’s definitely a reason breeders jumped on the bandwagon decades ago to create varieties gardeners love. Cross-pollination occurs in nature, but when plant breeders are carefully matching desirable traits, it takes a lot shorter time to create the preferred outcome. Granted, it often takes them dozens of generations to make it to the end product, but it’s still accomplished much faster than it would happen in nature. That’s a hybrid.
The major drawback for hybrids is the seed isn’t “true” from them. This means the offspring from the original parent plants may produce excellent fruit, but if you try to save the seed from it, you never know what you’ll get. And most of the time, it’s not worth much. So with hybrid seed, you have to buy it every year; you can’t save your own.
Being open-pollinated, which means the offspring will closely resemble the parent. This is one of the most important attributes of heirloom cultivars, which are often the varieties your grandparents remember.
Heirlooms are all the rage lately, but there is a little confusion about the true definition of one. Some claim it has to be at least a century old, although most will concede that a 50 year history of not being cross-pollinated with another variety is adequate to classify it as an heirloom variety. There typically has to be a story behind it, too, which is one of the delightful aspects surrounding this type of fruit or vegetable.
If you want to taste history, bite into an heirloom vegetable. Heirlooms offer the flavor many people thought was just a childhood memory earning them a well-deserved place in the garden.
Up until around 1950 heirlooms were the norm in the home vegetable garden, but after a successful creation of an F1 (first filial generation) hybrid sweet corn after WWII, hybridization of vegetables increased dramatically. Gardeners like the vigorous growth, uniformity and disease tolerance that are desirable characteristics breeders try to achieve, but this is often at the loss of the scrumptious flavor people remember from the earlier varieties. This is why heirlooms are in the garden for the long run.
Looking through a list of heirloom vegetables is like reading a colorful narrative of botanical history. Names like the ‘Green Zebra’ tomato, ‘Lazy Wife’ string bean or ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrots offer hints of the unique nature of many heirlooms. There are stories behind each one of them, often as a description of its appearance or flavor.
Flavor is by far the primary reason most people grow heirlooms. When a tomato or other vegetable’s outstanding characteristics include the ability to travel 1500 miles without bruising, such is the case with many modern hybrids, you know some other trait must be lacking.
The good thing about heirlooms is there are types to suit every taste. Some prefer the ‘Black Krim’, which is a dark-colored tomato renowned for its almost smokey taste, while others like the ‘Black Plum,’ a smaller version that’s an extraordinarily heavy producer.
The yellow varieties, such as ‘Plum Ray’ or ‘Yellow Pear,’ offer varieties that are less acidic and excellent for eating fresh from the garden.
Although tomatoes are an easy way for people who aren’t used to heirlooms to step into this world of history and flavor, there are plenty of heritage varieties available for everything from artichokes to watermelons. Sweet peppers from Italy and other European countries bring ethnic cooking to modern times, and the myriad of heirloom winter squash varieties offer plenty of flavors to enjoy throughout the cold months.
I grow a Hungarian medium hot block pepper that comes from our family farm back in Ohio where a friend of ours grows them for his produce market. It’s the only place I know to obtain the seed. I grew up eating the pickled peppers, and was shocked when I moved to Montana and couldn’t find the peppers at the local farm stand. So, I started growing them out here, and saving the seed from year to year. It’s just an example of how important it is to hold on to these varieties.
To complicate the matter a little more, an heirloom always is open-pollinated, but an open-pollinated variety doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an heirloom. There are plenty of open-pollinated cultivars that don’t have the history or story to qualify them as being an heirloom, yet they’re the absolutely worthwhile to grow if you’re planning on saving seed.
The easiest thing to remember is if you’re going to save seeds, you need to grow an open-pollinated (OP) variety. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an heirloom.
The designer GMO crops are an entirely different animal. GM (as they’re often called) varieties are popular in commercial operations since they’re bred specifically to resist pests or are Roundup Ready® – meaning the crop (often corn or soybeans) can be sprayed with the herbicide without harming the corn. While it sounds like a miracle on the practical front, the concern from consumer arises because scientists inject genes from other species, such as a gene from a rat that increases the amount of vitamin C in a plant or moth gene to resist fire blight on apples, might have unknown consequences to human health. Many home gardeners want to avoid these “Frankenfoods.”
The disturbing aspect is the GM crops are becoming more prevalent every year. It takes a fair amount of diligence to buy all of your food items avoiding GM ingredients since it’s in practically everything from cooking oil to white vinegar (unless it’s organic).
Fortunately for the home gardener, it’s not economically feasible, yet, for the large seed companies to create GM seeds for the home market. I’m not saying it’s never going to happen, particularly since cross-pollination is very much a possibility when it comes to GM crops, but at least now they’re not in the catalogs.
Picking open-pollinated varieties
When deciding what to add to your garden, look for varieties thrive in your area. For northern climates such as mine in Montana, I look for vegetables with less than an 80 day maturation time. I’m often looking for varieties that originate in Russia and other cold climates.
One of my favorite tomatoes (which can be a challenge for us to grow because of our short season and cool summer nights) is the amazingly early and delicious ‘Stupice.’ It’s a Czechoslovakian heirloom that came to America in 1976, but it has been around so long it can’t necessarily be traced to its beginning.
But for those fortunate souls who live in areas with longer growing seasons, you have far more choices. ‘Brandywine,’ which was originated by the Amish in Ohio in 1885, still stands as the best tasting tomato ever by those that love it. It takes over 80 days to mature, which is marginal around here, but does fabulous in other parts of the country.
The key to choosing the right varieties for your region, particularly when you’re going to save the seed, is to pick open-pollinated types that will thrive in your growing conditions. This way you can save the seed, and know you’ll be happy with the results next season.
Think about saving seeds now
Although the actual seed saving is several months away, spring is when you have to take measures on ensuring your plants are not cross-pollinated with a neighboring plant.
Some varieties are easier than others. Tomatoes have what’s called a perfect flower, meaning it has male and female plant parts within each blossom, and it can pollinate itself. This is good news for those who wish to save seeds because they’re less likely to cross-pollinate.
Insects do play a part in pollination with tomatoes, although it’s typically the native bumblebees and not domestic honey bees. The fascinating thing about the bumblebees is even though they’re not absolutely required to produce tomatoes, they assist the process through what’s called “buzz pollination.” When they grasp the tomato flower, they buzz in the tune of middle C, and the flower releases the pollen. I’ve been told you can do this with a tuning fork, and you will witness the result.
While you do not have to isolate tomatoes when you’re saving seeds, it’s a wise decision to keep them away from your other varieties. Plant them on the other end of the garden to cut down the chances that an insect will go from one tomato flower directly to another.
Peppers are similar in the fact that they have perfect flowers, and it’s also best to plant desired varieties on opposite sides of the garden to reduce the chances of a home hybridization experiment. Since my garden isn’t nearly as large as I’d like, I segregate mine underneath a floating row cover or inside a portable cold frame. This way the barrier keeps insects out so they can’t cross-pollinate. To help the pollination process I’ll gently shake the plant to encourage the pollen to mingle inside the flower.
Other crops, such as corn and squash, are more challenging. If your neighbor plants corn, yours could be cross-pollinated since it’s often pollinated by wind and insects. (This is also true if your farming neighbor plants GM corn, which is a frightening possibility.) It’s almost impossible to protect your corn from such an intrusion. My best advice is to keep it as far away from other varieties as possible. You can also plant corn that matures at a different time to help minimize cross-pollination.
Insects also play a big part with squash, melons, pumpkins and cucumbers. If you’re growing these crops, you need to exclude specific female flowers. An easy way to keep “helpful” insects from moving pollen where you don’t want it is to cover the female flower (the one with the little fruit growing behind it) with tulle netting to provide plenty of air circulation without insect interference.
You have to act like the bee in this instance. When the female flower opens in the morning, take a paintbrush and gently swirl around the center of the male flower, then transfer the pollen to the female flower. Put the netting back on just to make sure there are no other visitors until the fruit begins to grow and the flower falls off.
Other crops, such as carrots and parsnips, are biennials. This means the first year the main plant is established; the second year it produces seeds. If you’re going to save seeds from these plants, you need to put them in an area where you can leave them over the winter. Next spring they’ll send up flowers, and you can harvest the seed once it ripens.
Saving seeds is a great way to ensure you have crops from year to year, and spring is the time to plan for it. Start by choosing open-pollinated varieties, and keep them away from other similar crops to prevent cross-pollination. If you do this, you have the potential for an unending seed supply.