April 21, 2010

Thoughts on Seed Saving

Gardening. Self-sustaining food production. Open-pollinated seeds. Produce variety. Seed saving. Each of these concepts by itself is pretty easy for me to manage mentally. Putting them all together is turning out to be not as simple as I first assumed however.

I have to confess that I have a sense of frustration with the concept of a self-supporting homestead. This is largely because I don't have a seasonal routine yet. I know that spring is for planting, fall is too. Summer is for harvesting and preservation. Autumn for collecting seeds and preparing the garden for the next year. Winter is for nurturing the fall garden, planning, and getting an early start on planting seeds. So the general overview I'm okay with. It's putting all the details together that are difficult.

Part of this is because I am still learning the soil and seasons here. With each garden I've had, I developed a seasonal rhythm, knowing when things needed to be done. As we come up on the anniversary of our first year here, I know that I am just beginning to get a sense of that. It is an experiential process, for which cooperative extension literature and regional gardening books are only nominally helpful.

Another thing is that some of these activities are new for me. In the past I've had little success with my early seed starting, yet I know this is something I must master and make a permanent part of my homesteading routine. My attempts this year were weak, as were many of my seedlings. Still, they're getting in the ground and I have hopes most will make it.

My fall garden was a new experience. Rather I should say my successful fall garden was a new experience. I'd tried before with not such good results. Being able to harvest turnips and carrots throughout the winter was a real blessing. As was seeing my fall broccoli, lettuce, radishes, and spinach make a spring comeback. This year I need to expand on that by learning and utilizing more overwintering techniques. I've also added a hoop house to my to-do list.

Food preservation. I'm very comfortable with this for the most part: canning, freezing, and dehydrating, are things I've done for many years. Lacto-fermenting has been new. And welcome. I had good success keeping winter squashes and sweet potatoes throughout the winter, but I've never grown and kept white potatoes before. This is new.

The goal of course, is to grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible. It will be a few years before the fruit trees and bushes will come to bear, but I certainly work toward this with the vegetables. In the beginning, how much we'll need will take some guesswork, but aside from unexpected problems, we should do fairly well with this.

The other goal is saving as much seed for 2011 as possible. I managed to save quite a few from last year, but I would like to expand that this summer. The end goal is to not need to buy any seed.

One concern is growing and saving seed from different varieties of the same vegetable. Corn for example. In the past I only planted hybrid corn and never gave a thought to saving the seed. Now I am concerned about managing to grow both sweet corn and popcorn, but without having them cross pollinate. How to manage? My thinking is going somewhere along these lines....

The sweet corn, Stowell's Evergreen, has 100 day till maturity. Or so says the seed catalog. The popcorn, Japanese White Hulless, takes 110 days. I have some field corn seed too, which takes 95 - 105. I'm not sure if we'll be able to plant the field corn, but the sweet and popcorn for sure. I planted the sweet corn seed last week. The popcorn I will wait until next month, taking advantage of our long growing season. Hopefully they will flower at different times and I can avoid the problem. As an added measure, I will plant them in different gardens. Hopefully I'll be able to save seed from both.

I have the same concern for my beans. I got two types for drying, one for canning green, and one to try for feed: One takes 60 days to mature, one 64, one 85, and the last is unknown! I find myself wondering, can I stagger their plantings over the weeks and days of my growing season to avoid cross pollination?

Then there's squashes (Buttercup, Acorn, & Butternut, yellow crookneck) and melons (cantaloupe, watermelon, and casaba). Oh my. How can I grow all those things but maintain seed purity. How do seed savers manage it all? How would you?

Of course I could take the time to sit down, read, and study Saving Seeds: The Gardener's Guild To Growing and Saving Vegetable and Flower Seeds by Marc Rogers. And I do. Still, there seems to be a vast gap between instructions in a book, head knowledge, and the experience of a thing. It's the knowledge from the experiences that are the building blocks of the seasonal routine I long for. Well, I won't get that by just sitting here at the computer and lamenting that I don't have it! Time to get back to work.

Text of Thoughts on Seed Saving copyright April 2010 


Anonymous said...

Can't tell you how much I love my hoophouse. I can only dream of what I could do with it in your milder clime! I think you will love one.

Check my blog for a pictorial on how we constructed it. It has made a big difference in season extension for me, and I am hoping that this year will be even better.

Theresa said...

Hm, I know nothing about seed saving or cross pollination between varieties, but does every variety need to be planted every year? Obviously you want as much variation as possible, but..it was just a thought.
I do envy at times your long growing season. This I say as I watch another inch of snow pile up, about 6 already. At least I know the bulbs/pips I planted will get enough moisture! ;-)

Mother Moon said...

i am much like you... trial and error still although I keep trudging on deteremined to get the knack of it. Over the last few years I have learned much. My biggest lesson I think was learning my soil.

Renee Nefe said...

I went back to the used book store and bought that book on gardening in our area. Now to actually read it. LOL!

I'm going to put it in the bathroom so I can read it while I'm in there.

Ewan R said...

To avoid cross pollination between corn varieties you can cover the developing ear (paper bag/whatever) before silking, hand pollinate once you've got pollen produced, then pop the bag back on the ear for a while - once you're done with your pollination whack off the top of each corn plant to prevent any further unwanted pollinations, and uncover the ears.

Leigh said...

Ali, thanks for that! Photos would definitely be helpful, so I'll be taking a good look before we get on it in earnest.

Theresa, that's a thought. My goal then would be to grow a couple year's worth, or maybe eat certain dried beans in certain years. Something to consider.

Mother Moon, well put. I agree, soil is key.

Renee, LOL. Good idea. I tend to feel guilty if I just sit down and read. I know that it's important and necessary, but it's that "doing nothing" idea that I can't shake!

Ewan, I will give that a try. I can see that there is an art and science to seed saving. I'm already curious as to how successful I will be with this endeavor!

Nina said...

The biggest issues I've had to worry about with starting seeds is moisture, light and soil depth. If too wet, they get weak, if too dry they just die. If they don't have enough light, they get leggy and weak and if the soil isn't deep enough, they don't develop enough root system to transplant easily. Peat pots, egg cartons, newspaper pots all dry out really easily which can be an issue as well.

Apparently tomato seeds are mainly pollinated by close flowers, so you can even just put a few flowers in a small organza bag and shake them about and wait until the fruit sets. Don't forget to mark them so you don't eat them by mistake!

I'm starting small with my seed saving and only going after a couple of varieties this year. Once I get the routine and method established, I'll increase what I save.

Lee said...

All good plans. The learning never ends.

We hope to venture into the great unknown of seed saving this year as well. Last year we saved beans and popcorn, but our popcorn crossed a bit with sweet corn so we ended up just eating it all.

Beans are pretty easy to save because they self pollinate and tend not to cross very much. We grew four varieties in the same area of the garden and the seeds all appear true. I think tomatoes are another candidate for easy saving because of self pollinating.

On the other hand, our corn crossed quite a bit, although admittedly we had multiple rows next to each other in a windward direction. This year we are growing 3 varieties of corn and we're going to stagger them in the garden with respects to the wind and plant tall growing plants (amaranth & sunflowers) to block the pollen to a certain extent. If that doesn't work, we'll have to upgrade to Ewan's advice.

Leigh said...

Nina, my problem always seems to be enough light. I end up with those leggy plants of which you speak. I either need a grow light, or better yet a greenhouse. I did note that the egg cartons dried out quickly, and even though I kept them watered, I worried about too much dampness! Next year I need to made a concerted effort to get serious and do it right.

I'll be interested in how your seed saving comes along this year. Last year was my year to try something new (the cukes) and this year I feel downright daring with all the varieties I'm going to try.

Good advice about marking those seed plants!

Lee, I remember your post about the corn. That was so interesting to me because it never occurred to me that ears could grow two different kinds of kernels.

I'll be interested in your successes this year. You've made me feel better about the beans; I'll just plant them in different places in the garden.

I have to admit that it finally occurred to me that any failures won't be tragedies. I can always buy more seed next year!

Kaat said...

I am just about to blog about my first saved seeds: the winter harvest, especially the kale. I grew only one kind of kale last year, the White Russian, and had it overwinter and now, after plenty of Spring harvests, it bolted. I am so looking forward to collecting the seeds.
The Mache and Claytonia have all gone to seed now and I'm harvesting that today. Should check if these cross-pollinate...

katrien said...

so, just out of curiosity, why "private"?

Leigh said...

Katrien, congrats on your first saved seeds! I definitely need to get some kale seed for my fall garden. Seems early to buy seed for that, but it's harder to find seed around here toward the end of summer.

"Private" wasn't the best term I don't think. But, private in the sense of revealing my own concerns, shortcomings, and lack of experience & knowledge. I reckon we all prefer to come across as knowledgeable and able. But privately, I know that's not entirely true about myself. Of course it seems somewhat of a risk to reveal that publicly about oneself. but what the heck. That's me.

Kaat said...


Tracy said...

Hi Leigh. Man, you have a lot of blogs. How do you do it all? Anyway, I haven't been able to read all your earlier stuff, but I'm a member of


Lots of good info and, although there has been a big reorganization of the board, it still seems to be doing it's job. Lots of good info, seeds, books, etc. Good Luck.

Leigh said...

Tracy! So good to hear from you. You probably figured out that I neglect most of my blogs rather badly, and only post to this one regularly. I had a seed savers catalogue an long time ago. I'm glad you mentioned them, so thanks for the link!