October 4, 2009

Seed Saving

When I planted my garden this year, I did it without a plan, and without a thought as to the kind of seeds I bought. Being late in the season, I was just happy to have a garden after three years of being gardenless (well, almost gardenless. I did try my hand at balcony gardening last summer). Only after I got this year's garden in the ground, did I discover that most of the seeds I had planted were open pollinated kinds.

What are open pollinated plants? The seeds from these plants will produce plants "true to type," i.e. they will produce plants just like their parents. This is obviously what a seed saver wants!

Saving bean seedHybrid seeds, on the other hand, are bred from specifically chosen parents to produce specifically selected traits: disease resistance, higher yield, better shipping qualities or marketing characteristics, etc. The seeds from hybrid plants are often sterile, and so produce nothing at all. Or, they may produce a "throwback" to one or the other parent, which may not have the qualities a home gardener is looking for. For the frugal gardener, using hybrid seeds means having to buy seed every year.

GMO (genetically modified organism) seed, on the other hand, is a different animal entirely. While some proponents like to say that all hybrid seeds are genetically modified, that is an extremely misleading statement. GMO seeds are developed with the recombinant DNA technique. This technique involves creating artificial DNA sequences by combining naturally occurring DNA strands in unnatural ways. Some of the traits being developed with such technology include plants with "built in" pesticides, purportedly higher yields (something which sadly hasn't been the case, story on that here), and plants that are specifically engineered to respond to specific pesticides (eg. "Round-Up Ready"). Since the patent on these seeds is jealously guarded, saving them is illegal. To further prevent saving these seeds, a terminator gene has been developed for GMO field crop seed.

[An interesting sidenote: even though humans may not be able to taste the difference in GMO produce, some animals evidently can. Click here for that story.]

Another seed term one hears used is "heirloom". I tend to use this interchangeably with "open pollinated," but technically this is not correct. In general, heirlooms are the old open pollinated varieties, those which were planted by our ancestors. In 1951, the first hybrids were introduced, so even open pollinated varieties developed after that are not considered to be heirloom.

For the seed saver, one thing to keep in mind is that open pollinated plants can cross with another variety, so the "true to type" part may or may not always be true. Corn and squashes are an example of open pollinated plants that can produce crosses. This presents challenges when it comes to saving seeds, but nothing that can't be overcome with good planning.

Saving okra seedObviously, for a either a frugal or self-sustaining gardener, open pollinated seeds are the only way to go. Garden seed is becoming increasingly more expensive to buy (along with everything else), so the prospect of being able to save all of one's own seeds is a real blessing.

If you're interested, here are a few articles on hybrid, GMO, heirloom, & open pollinated seeds and plants:

Hybrid or Open Pollinated - National Gardening Association
What is an Heirloom Vegetable? - Heirloom Vegetable. Gardener's Assistant
Grow open pollinated seeds for self-reliant gardening - Backwoods Home Magazine
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology - Organic Consumers Association
What to Grow: 10 Easy Heirlooms - Heirloom Vegetable Gardener's Assistant

My goal is to save all my own seed. I've made a small start this year, but plan to make a concerted effort to save most, if not all, next year.

Seed Saving photos and text copyright October 2009 
by Leigh at http://www.5acresandadream.com/


Renee Nefe said...

I know I should read the articles you posted...but can you save seeds from tomatoes ripened in the window?
We have such a short growing season and with the hail and early freeze I've had to pick all my tomatoes green and I am hoping they ripen in the window.

Next year I will try to start my seeds early in the house so that I have a better shot at actually getting something out of them. I would like to eventually figure out how to grow and preserve my own veggies.

I did try freezing some squash...I have to try some to see how it turned out. I don't know if it's all mush yet or not.

Julie said...

We do save seed from our flowers but we haven't had a garden in so long. But I love all the information that you have and hopefully I'm going to be able to get my garden some what ready for next year. But I don't know time is running out and the weather is changing so fast. But we shall try!!!

Leigh said...

That's a good question Renee. I believe you already told me your tomatoes are heirlooms? To test the seed, put a few between several sheets of damp paper towels. Roll them up and place in a plastic bag in a warm spot. Dick Raymond recommends the top of the fridge. Check them after 4 or 5 days. If they've sprouted, they're viable!

Julie, I need to start saving flower seed too. I've saved marigold seed in the past, but that's about it. I do hope you get at least a little patch of ground ready for next year's garden!

Lee said...

Hi - Thanks for such a great post. I'm just new to growing from seed, but am hunting out all heirloom varieties, and unusual varieties in particular. Anything my neighbour ISN'T growing!

Its lots of fun, but my "windowsill nursery" has run out of room, and I'll need to find more room to grow up the seeds!

Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh, when you get time, check out monsanto on my blog (use the search bar) if you havent already done some reading on them, all the more reason to save our heirloom, open pollinated, N-H, N-GM seeds.

Great post!

Leigh said...

Daharja, thanks so much for visiting and commenting! I love the idea of a window sill nursery. I should figure out a window to do that in this winter, whichever one gets the best sun. Good luck on finding those unusual heirloom varieties.

Molly, thanks! Oh yes, I am familiar with Monsanto. I was especially dismayed to recently discover that President Obama has appointed Monsanto people to the USDA. Very troubling.

bspinner said...

I've learned so much about seeds and plants from this posting.
We aren't doing a lot of planting but this sure helpful.

Sharon said...

I don't save seeds, but I don't have much of a garden either. We are thinking that a greenhouse is the only way to grow above the ground veggies. Two problems: they're very pricey and our high winds have sent many a well-intended greenhouse to the seed bank in the sky.

Nina said...

I have harvested madder, woad and dyer's greenweed seed regularly. Marigolds, Calendula, Sweet Cecily, Oriental and Icelandic Poppies when I can as well. Finally we're able to have a reasonable veggie garden again, so I'll be able to harvest veggie seeds again as well. The one that I'd love to harvest, but our frost date is too early for, is Dyer's Knotweed. It flowers too late in the season for seeds to develop here

Leigh said...

Barb, thanks. I love to plant things so I think everyone else should plant things too. :)

Sharon, it would be tough to have to deal with those problems. I would love to have a greenhouse too. Not sure how we'll manage that, because like you say, they're expensive. But it would sure be helpful.

Nina, herb seeds is something I need to start to harvest too!

Woolly Bits said...

yes, I do save seeds, but some fare better than others. I made up for this by joining the irish seed savers and partly by exchanging with others, which works well for a large amount of my needs. I do succumb to buying some though - sometimes gardening cats. are just as tempting as those for wool or fibres:))