One of my resolutions for this year is to get more serious about saving my own seeds. I’ll admit that I am a bit of a seed freak – there’s something about having a good stockpile of them that appeals to me in an almost primal way. I like to get all romantic about it and think that it is the call of my farmer’s genetics and the inherited wisdom of my ancestors telling me to put by for next year, but I also get all romantic about things like old canning jars, arthritic tabby cats and ancient wallpaper so the genetics thing is probably bunk. I just like seeds. I like the promise of so much to come in such a little package (getting romantic again), in tidy little envelopes covered with precise information, all in a row in a neat little box. I also like label makers, file folders and tiny little notebooks with subheadings and an index, but I digress.
With planting time just around the corner my garden daydreaming has turned to more serious planning, with heavy consideration being given to planting with the intention of saving seed for next year. I think this is the next logical step for me – closing the loop on at least this small part of our set-up will allow us to be self-sufficient (at least in the veg department), save me more money than I care to admit, and as an added bonus help stick it to scumbums like Monsanto who want the world to rely on them to eat. And I like sticking it to Monsanto, even if only in a teeny-tiny, quiet way. Anyway, I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the subject, knowing that I would have to have the plan in place before the garden ever went in. Mostly what I have found is that it is actually pretty simple to save seed from year to year – except when it’s not. There is a fair amount of conflicting information out there, but hopefully I have sifted though it all enough to get by.
So, referring to my tiny little note-book with the subheadings and index, this is what I have distilled from the multitude of different sources I used. (And, yeah, I should have just bought a book on the subject.) Of course it goes without saying that you need to use open-pollinated or OP varieties if you’re going to save seed. It’s possible to save seed from hybrids, but you won’t end up with anything like what you started with. And of course this is no means a comprehensive tutorial on the subject, just what I am going with and thought interesting enough to share.
In a nutshell, these are the plants that have both male and female parts in the same flower and produce viable seed without pollen from other flowers, no insects involved.
Lettuce – can be grown side by side with only a slight chance of cross-pollination, but for assured purity separate varieties by 20′.
Peas – pollination usually occurs before the flowers open, but cross-pollination by insects is still possible. Separate varieties by 50′ for purity.
Tomatoes – There are two types to keep in mind: those with short styles and those with long styles. (check this out if you’re not sure what a style is.) Most modern varieties have short styles and generally don’t cross as much. If you want to be sure, separate them by at least 10′. Heirloom varieties or potato-leafed varieties (think Brandywine) have long styles and do cross-pollinate. These need to be separated by 100′ or so. It’s also a good idea to plant something tall that will flower in between tomato varieties to intercept any bees or whatnot.
Beans – Pollination usually occurs before the flowers open, but a separation of 150′ between varieties will ensure purity. Planting tall flowering plants in between helps here too.
Peppers – these are tricky. Technically they self pollinate, but bees will also spread pollen around if given the chance. Separation by 50′ and a tall flowering plant is the minimum, 500′ for purity.
The Cross Pollinators
These are the plants with their manly bits and lady bits in different locations, need pollen from other sources or need the help of wind or insects to produce viable seed.
Corn – this is pollinated by wind. Corn pollen can travel great distances, so varieties need to be separated by at least a half mile, with a mile being preferable. The bare minimum I found was 250′ as long as there was a building or something in between, but this is a gamble. Corn is also prone to inbreeding, so at least 200 plants are needed for genetic diversity. Of course, if you plant varieties with different maturity dates, they can be planted side by side – as long as they don’t have silk at the same time there’s no need to worry about cross-pollination. Corn is also funny in that, if it does get cross pollinated, the current year’s corn is also effected. This means if your sweet corn is pollinated by your dent corn, both are going to be no good to eat this year.
Cucumbers – these are pollinated by insects, so varieties need to be separated from each other by 1/4 to 1/2 mile. The bare minimum number of plants to prevent inbreeding seems to be 6.
Radish – red radishes are annuals, whites (winter) are biennials. Both are pollinated by insects and need to be separated by about a 1/2 mile.
Squash – reading about these made me want to beat my head against the wall. So much conflicting information, but I think I’ve got it figured out. There are four species that you need to be concerned about : C. maxima, C. mixta/C. argyosperma, C. moschata and C. pepo. There is a lot of conflicting information about cross pollinating between these species, but the general consensus seems to be that they will not, so that’s what I am going with. The squash species include:
C. maxima: bananas, buttercups, delicious, marblehead, hubbard, marrows, Hokkaido, giant pumpkins, sweet meat and turbans
C. mixta/C. argyosperma: cushaws
C. moschata: butternuts and cheese types
C. pepo: acorn, cocozelles, zucchini, ornamental gourds, most pumpkins, crooknecks, delicata, scallops, spaghetti and Lady Godiva pumpkins.
If you want to be safe, don’t plant more than one variety from the same species. If you must, they need to be separated by at least half a mile since they are pollinated by insects. Or let them cross-pollinate and grown giant pumpkizukes. That would be kind of cool.
Spinach – this has male and female flowers on different plants and is pollinated by the wind. Separation for purity is often listed in kilometers or miles, so it’s probably best to just grow one variety.
These are the plants that need two seasons to produce seed and need to be overwintered in the garden or your basement.
Beets & Chard – these are pollinated by the wind and will cross-pollinate with each other. Separate them by a 1/2 mile. Again, 6 plants seems to be the rule for genetic diversity.
The Brassicas - brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, collards and kohlrabi. These are pollinated by bees and will all cross with each other, so separate them by 1 mile. It’s also important to note that, if you want to save seed from them, do not pick the heads from broccoli and cauliflower the first year.
Carrots – these are pollinated by insects and varieties need to be separated by 1000′. Also important to note, carrots will cross-pollinate with Queen Anne’s Lace (the weed) so you will need a way of either removing all of it in the area or isolating your carrots.
Leeks & Onions – both are pollinated by insects and will not cross-pollinate with each other. Isolate varieties by a minimum of 200 ft, but 1 mile is better. 50 leek plants are needed for good genetic diversity, and 100 onions, although those numbers seem rather outrageous to me. They also do not cross with chives.
Celery - is pollinated by insects and will cross with celeriac, so separate these by 3 miles.
Parsnips – one of the easiest biennials to save seed from since they overwinter easily in the garden even in very cold climates. I couldn’t find any information about isolation distances, but really, why grow more than one variety anyway?
So there you have it, kids, the information I’m basing the game plan on. There is no way I am going to be able to save seed from all of these plants this year, given the amount of room it would take, but at least I have an idea where to start. I’m thinking a plot out behind the barns for the pumpkins for next year, and I can’t imagine I will ever be able to save carrot seed given the amount of Queen Anne’s Lace around here. I’m also going to go out today and rip out the one lonely brussels sprout I left in the garden, so it doesn’t contaminate my kale.
So tell me, do you save your own seed? Do you have seed independence? Do you care about genetic purity, and if so, what steps do you take to preserve it? Tell me about it!