Setting Up Your Garden for Seed Saving

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A few posts ago I shared that one of the biggest challenges I face personally as a market-gardener is being disciplined to start seeds when I’m scheduled to start them. Life is full of distractions and shifting priorities which means that more than once I’ve gone to bed thinking “Crap! I was supposed to start seeds today!” Now that I’m trying to plant by the phases of the moon, the pressure has escalated.

So you can imagine the giant eye roll I gave to myself when I realized Thursday that I was supposed to start a ton of seeds on Wednesday. It looked a lot like this…

Add to that the fact that I was also supposed to start a ton of seeds on Thursday and you’ll understand why I spent a big chunk of the day folding newspaper pots and stayed up till nearly midnight planting seeds. (But I got done before midnight… technically still Thursday – YES!!)

While I was planting cherry tomatoes (Black Cherries and Tommy Toes), slicing tomatoes (Moneymaker), sweet basil, Golden zucchini, Fordhook zucchini, zinnias, Charleston Gray watermelon, and California Wonder peppers, I wanted something to listen to other than the pitter patter of rain. So I decided to catch up on something else I missed because my life got distracting: A webinar from Seed Savers Exchange on how to setup your garden for seed saving.

This webinar was a great way to multitask and make late-night seed-sowing that much more enjoyable. The information is very complete but straightforward and easy enough for a beginner (i.e., me) to understand. Please don’t think even for a moment that I am an expert on seeding saving, however, I thought I’d take the time to create a very simplified summary of the information provided in the webinar. If you don’t have time to watch the video, I promise these tips will help you… but you should make time to watch the video as well (posted below).

Basic Tips for a Seed-Saving Garden

  • You should learn the basics of pollination and specifically how the plants you’re growing are pollinated.
    • Some plants are self-pollinators with ‘perfect’ flowers (both male and female parts in the same flower). Examples include legumes (peas, beans) and tomatoes.
    • Some plants are out-crosses with both male and female flowers on the same plant such as squash plants.
    • Some plants are out-crosses where one plant is male and the other is female. Spinach falls into this category.
  • DSC03990 300x225 Setting Up Your Garden for Seed SavingKnow your plant’s genus and species because any plants in the same species can cross-pollinate. Cross pollination means that the fruit that comes from the seed you harvest won’t be true to its parent.
  • Keep in mind that just because plants are the same crop doesn’t mean that they are all of the same species. For example, there are four different species of squash. If you grow one plant from each of the four species, you won’t have to worry about cross-pollination. (For more detailed info on cross-pollination between squash species – and the teeny exception to the rule I just mentioned – click here.)
  • Know the weeds in your area because they may be of the same genus and species as the plants in your garden. For example, Queen Anne’s Lace is the same species as carrots. If this ‘weed’ cross-pollinates with your carrots, the carrots which come from your harvested seeds will turn out… weedy.
  • Preventing cross-pollination requires the use of isolation methods.
    • Complete Isolation: Grow only one variety of a crop (i.e., only one kind of tomato).
    • Isolation by Distance: Click here for information to help you determine how much distance you need to give you a better chance of avoiding cross-pollination.
    • Isolation by Timing: Plant varieties that will shed pollen at different times or strategically plant them to shed pollen at different times (i.e., planted a few weeks apart).
    • Isolation by Barrier: This involves use of tents and row covers. If you have two varieties of a certain species, you only need to use a barrier with one of them.
    • Hand Pollination: You can hand pollinate selected flowers and gather those fruits specifically for harvesting seeds. For more details on hand pollination, click here.
  • To fully represent your plant/fruit population, you’ll want to gather seeds from several plants and fruits. In general, the more inbred your seeds are (typically from self-pollinators) the smaller the population can be (because they are already used to limited diversity.) Out-crossing pollinators will need a larger population size.
  • To better control cross-pollination, you’ll want to know how your plants are pollinated. Do you have lots of bees and butterflies? Lots of wind? What are the other pollination sources in your area (i.e. neighboring gardens and weeds)? Know the plants you want to save seeds from – how far can its pollen travel?

 

Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving

Saving Seeds at Arcadia Farms {2013}

So as I was stuffing compost into newspaper pots I got to thinking – which plants should I select to save seeds from this year? Since this will be my first year (properly) saving seed, I decided to start with some of the easy self-pollinators. Fortunately I laid out the garden to provide some isolation between crops of the same species but different variety so the isolation by distance should help me out. I have lots of pollinators (especially bees) in my garden so, knowing that pollen could travel to my plants from neighboring gardens, I think starting with these self-pollinators (which typically have fully enclosed reproductive parts) is a good place to start. I’ll keep you posted on the nuts and bolts of actually harvesting and storing the seeds. Meanwhile, if you’re a visual person, here’s a map of our garden layout so you can see the distances between each variety. With all of these factors in mind, I’ve decided to keep seeds from the following plants:

  • White Tomesol Tomatoes
  • Black Cherry Tomatoes
  • Roma Tomatoes
  • Dragon Tongue Bush Beans
  • Sugar Ann Sugar Snap Peas
  • Rat’s Tail Radishes
  • Charleston Gray Watermelon
  • Table King Acorn Squash
  • Sugar Pie Pumpkins
  • Quinoa (mostly for eating, though!)

Since my watermelons (Citrullus lanatu) are a different species than my acorn squash (Cucurbita pepo) the fact that they live next door to each other shouldn’t be an issue for cross-pollination. Likewise, all of the tomato plants in the main garden will be far enough apart to minimize my concerns for cross-pollination. Unfortunately the tomatoes I’m planting in the Fenceline Garden (Moneymaker slicing tomatoes and Tommy Toe cherry tomatoes) will be close enough that I’m not going to take my chances with saving their seeds this year. Next year I’ll rotate those varieties into the main garden so that I can save some seeds.

Do you save seeds from your garden? Any tips? Do you use any of the isolation methods discussed above and in the video? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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