Saving Seeds in a Small Way

Saving Seeds in a Small Way

by Thomas T. Watson

I don't have any fancy statistics to back up my observation, but it seems to me that gardens are getting smaller. You can blame the price of real estate, if you wish, or lament our hectic modern lives that seem to leave so little time for the quieter joys of life. Or you could take the more positive approach, and point out the many popular gardening techniques that make more intense and efficient use of smaller spaces. Why have a huge garden that is mostly empty space (rows) when you can get the same output by redesigning along, say, square foot guidelines? However you want to look at it, chances are you are gardening in a smaller space than your grandparents would have considered adequate, and if you are any kind of gardener at all you have by now realized that size really doesn't matter.

Except, of course, that it does. Managing a small, intensively planted garden is a very different task from keeping up with the orderly rows of gardens past. How you manage the soil, weeds and pests, how you deliver water, and how you set out plants and seeds are all different in the small garden. Even seed-saving, should you be so inclined, is a somewhat different activity in the small garden than it would be in a quarter acre self-sufficiency affair. Different, but not necessarily more difficult.

Before I launch into the how of seed-saving in the small garden, think for a moment about why you should bother. No doubt you have read some of the arguments for doing so. The predominant motive is the laudable goal of preserving the genetic diversity of our garden crops by keeping alive the heirloom varieties of by-gone days. The erosion of this diversity has already done considerable damage on both the large (farming) and small (home garden) scale, and anything that can be done to preserve this diversity must be done. We can be proud of the fact that much of what has been accomplished to slow the loss of crop diversity has been done by home gardeners. You have only to look at the average seed catalog these days and count the number of heirloom varieties to see that our desire to maintain the plants of our grandparents has had an affect. A less often mentioned, and far more practical motive, is the adaptation of a crop to the specific conditions of your neighborhood. Generation by generation you will be selecting seed from the plants that please you most with their performance, and these success stories will be the plants best suited to the growing conditions where you live. Ethnobotanists, when they describe native cultures doing this very thing, refer to the resulting variety-within-a-variety as a land race.

Having decided, for whatever combination of motives, to save your own seeds, the next thing to think about is which seeds to save. At first glance this seems too obvious a question to even ask: save the seeds of the crops you most enjoy having in your garden. Good idea, but before you lay your plans any further, line up those seed packets and read them carefully. Put any that have the word hybrid or the symbol F1 on them in one pile, separate from the rest. Unless you have been leaning heavily toward heirloom varieties all along, the hybrid (or F1) variety pile will probably be as large (or larger) than the pile containing the non-hybrid varieties. Your seed-saving will involve only those varieties that are not hybrids, those often referred to as heirlooms or open pollinated varieties.

If you've read any gardening literature at all you have no doubt run across a reference to hybrids not being suitable subjects for seed saving, and you've probably wondered why this is so. Well, hybrid varieties are the result of a plant breeding technique that comes down eventually to a set of often (but not always) highly inbred parent varieties that are crossed to produce a new variety, one that has special characteristics derived from those parent plants. Because of a poorly understood phenomenon called hybrid vigor, these hybrids (or F1 plants as the progeny are often labeled) are more vigorous than the parents used, and combine that vigor with the desired traits (disease resistance, early ripening, or whatever) of their parents. The combination of genes that occurs when two inbred plant lines were crossed is unique to that F1 generation. Any seeds produced by those F1 (hybrid) plants will have a different reshuffling of genes, and cannot be counted on to reproduce the characteristics you found so pleasing in your garden. They might grow into great plants, but they might not, and isn't gardening enough of a gamble already? The weather can't really be predicted, and neither can the severity of pests and diseases from season to season. You should at least be able to count on your seeds to be consistent, and so seed-saving should not be applied to hybrid varieties.

Does this mean you should stop growing the hybrids altogether? Some gardeners would say yes, but I'm not among those of the Pure Faith. I grow what works in my garden, and so should you. My preference is for heirloom types whose seed I can save, but the best tomato I have ever found for growing in my region (I live in Tucson) is the hybrid "Early Girl." If I ever find an heirloom tomato that pleases me as well as "Early Girl" I would probably switch, but so far "Early Girl" stays at the top of my list. Hybrid varieties have their place; just don't bother saving their seeds. However, if gardening space is limited, and seed-saving is to become one of your priorities, then the fewer hybrid you grow, the more productive this aspect of your garden will be.

As is the case with any gardening activity, advance planning can help make a difference between success and failure. (It won't insure success, of course, but the odds will shift in your favor.) When planning the small garden with seed-saving in mind, spacing becomes an element with extra importance. The key to keeping the varieties you have in mind pure, that is to say, genetically distinct from other varieties of the same species, is to prevent cross-pollination between varieties. In other words, if you have three kinds of lettuce you can't live without, and want to save their seeds, you need a way to keep the pollen of any one variety from reaching the others. And here is where the small garden presents its unique challenge to the seed-saver. In a larger, more conventional garden, you would simply plant the varieties far enough from each other to minimize - in many cases, eliminate entirely - cross-pollination. (Any book on seed-saving will be able to recommend proper distances, if you are blessed with a really large space and the time to keep up with a garden on that scale.)

So, how do you manage the necessary isolation when the plants are all tucked into something like three or four hundred square feet? After all, very few of the plants will ever be more than ten or fifteen feet apart in such a small garden, and if you think that is far enough to put off an insect as industrious as a honeybee, guess again!

The most obvious technique would be to plant one variety of a particular crop per season. For a vegetable garden like mine, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 square feet, this is the most practical approach, but is (of course) the one I would use least often. If you can live with only one kind of lettuce, or one variety of tomato, more power to you. For the rest of us (probably most of us) two other avenues of isolation are available: physical barriers and time.

A physical barrier can be as elaborate as a wood-framed cage of window screen, or as simple as a length of row cover. As a general rule, the more upright the growth habit of the plant, the more likely it is you will need to build something. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers can be enclosed in a simple cylinder of screen held together by wires or clothespins, with a cap of similar material on top, also fastened securely in place. Low-growing herbs and vegetables - basil or beans, for instance - can be protected by putting row-cover material over them and carefully securing the edges. (You need to keep track of temperatures with some row-cover material; don't let it heat up too much under there! ) Crops grown vertically on a trellis or other support require a bit more time and trouble, since covering the entire plant is not practical. For such crops the trick is to enclose just the flowers. If you have some spare scraps of row cover laying around, cut it into pieces of suitable size (which can be quite large for such as squash), wrap it gently around the flower, and tie it off with string. Not too tightly, of course! (Another squash note: you only need to wrap up the female flowers, those that open with the miniature fruit at the base of the petals.) Another material you might use for such projects is the nylon mesh you can find in any fabric shop. The stuff is cheap, easy to cut, and flexible enough for the purpose. I have also seen small paper bags used to protect flowers from unwanted pollination. What it comes down to is this: if you can wrap the stuff around the flowers and the material allows for the passage of air but not insects, you can probably use it to isolate individual flowers, which is to say you can't use plastic sandwich wrap. You can also wrap up individual flowers or flower clusters in upright plants such as tomatoes if you wish, and avoid the cost of a cage. Use your imagination and choose the method that best fits your resources.

With proper planning you can make it possible to have time on your side. Time can be as effective a barrier to pollination as a cage made of fine wire mesh, and matters of timing can also be used to make such physical barriers much more effective. The most obvious technique here is to plant varieties at long enough intervals that they do not bloom together, or that any such overlap is minimal. Where an overlap occurs - and in regions with short planting seasons this is inevitable - cages or coverings can be used to finish the job; the advantage here is that they need not be permanent structures since they won't need to endure quite so long. (A bag of nylon mesh wrapped around a flower or inflorescence will only withstand exposure to sunlight a few weeks, but if you only need its protection for a couple of weeks, this is no problem at all. And enough of that nylon mesh to get you through the season comes at a fraction of the cost of a few yards of wire screening.)

Biennial crops lend themselves especially well to the use of timing to prevent cross-pollination. Some of our favorite vegetables (carrots, radishes, etc.) are biennials, meaning they take two seasons to complete their life cycles and produce seeds. Believe it or not, this is a huge advantage for the gardener who just cannot decide which of the multitude of carrot varieties to grow in a small space. Let's say you like three carrots (or radishes, or whatever). Plant them all, then completely harvest all but one variety, leaving the best of that bunch in the ground to come up and flower next year. That will be the first variety from which you save seed. Grow those same varieties next year, but let the second carry over, and so on. Since refrigerated seeds last several years you need not worry that any saved seeds two or three years old will become nonviable before its next seed harvest.

You can, of course, follow this leap-frog rotation with any garden crop, just as you could use the rotating cage location trick on those carrots, and save all their seeds in the same season. If you have gardened for any length of time at all, you already know that it is a rare garden challenge that has only a single solution. You may find it sufficient to follow the above suggestions to the letter, at least for a start, but as time passes and your experience grows you will develop techniques that work best for your resources and situation. (This is as it should be; just make sure you share what you learn with your fellow gardeners.)

Of course, now that you have protected the flowers from pollinators you face the next challenge: those flowers still need to be pollinated. If the crops in question are tomatoes, peppers, beans, or peas this is no problem, since these plants are largely (in the case of some beans, completely) self-pollinated. Lettuce still produces seed if you prevent natural pollination, but you will get more seed if you are able to enlist the aid of the local bee population. Tomatoes and peppers benefit from having the flowers shaken gently, something that happens naturally when a bee lands on such a flower and "buzzes" it by vibrating its wings. This buzz pollination distributes the pollen more effectively within the flower and you can duplicate the effect by giving the plant a gentle shake a couple of times a day.

To hand-pollinate the flowers of other crops, lay in a supply of fine brushes, (the sort artists use), and a solid set of forceps. You might also consider a good magnifying glass to help you see clearly the plant parts with which you will be working. Pollen can be transferred from the anther (that little oblong bulb at the tip of the stamen) to the tip of the female part - the pistil - of the flower with the brush. Or you can remove the stamen with the forceps - if it is large enough for you to handle easily - anther and all, and apply its pollen directly to the pistil. This direct approach is especially easy with some members of the cucumber family, most notably the squashes, which as a rule have medium to large flowers. Smaller flowers on cucumbers and melons can be pollinated by removing the entire male flower. When dealing with squash and cucumbers you will find the stamens and the pistils in separate flowers; in other crops both sets are in the same flower. In either case, try to take pollen from one plant and place it on the pistil of a second plant. Such a cross will result in a more genetically diverse collection of seed when you are done. In fact, some plants cannot be fertilized by their own pollen, which is one reason why so many members of the plant kingdom have become bee-friendly. Remember to re-cover the flower and to keep it covered until a fruit has begun to form; by then the flower will no longer be receptive to pollination.

Some vegetables have flowers that are so small they do not lend themselves well to hand-pollination. Lettuce is, for me, a pain in the neck if it must be done by hand; so are radishes, broccoli, and most herbs. Again, you could limit yourself to single varieties, but of course you won't. (I certainly don't!) One possible work-around you could use would be to cage all but one variety for a day or two, and let the natural pollinators do their work. Switch the cages around every few days, until all of the varieties have had a couple of chances to be pollinated, then cover them all until their period of flowering has passed.

Hand-pollination of garden plants is a technique that take some practice, but in a garden where natural pollinators must be kept from doing their jobs to prevent unwanted cross-pollination, it's an essential skill. The small garden, where you have your plants closer together, makes hand-pollination much easier to manage. Take it slow, and be patient with yourself as you learn the proper techniques.

Working with corn is a special case in any garden; corn serves as the best example of how to deal with a crop that is wind-pollinated. Wide spacing of corn plots, combined with staggered planting times, is the traditional method employed in an old-fashioned large garden. But if you have a garden that is limited to three or four hundred square feet and an average growing season, a single variety is all you will grow; there simply isn't room for anything more extravagant. (At least, not if you want to grow anything except corn!) Problem solved, unless of course the gardener next door grows some corn. Next door in the average suburban neighborhood (or, come to think of it, a community garden) means their corn will probably be close enough to yours (and vice verse) for cross-pollination to occur. You could try to agree with that neighbor to grow the same variety of corn, but if they don't respond to diplomacy, buy a package of old fashioned paper lunch bags. Place these over the young ears as soon as you can; you must get this done before the tassels on the neighbor's corn start to shed pollen. When the tassels on your corn start to drop pollen get another bag or two (and a step ladder). Shake the pollen from the male flowers on top (those tassels I've been going on about), into the bag, then remove the coverings from the ears and sprinkle pollen on the silks dangling from those ears. You can start out with a sparing application to make sure you get to each ear without running out, then make a second pass if you have pollen left over.

Of course, if you have no gardening neighbors upwind, none of the above is necessary. Relax, and let nature take its course.

Through all of the above I've tried to stay focused on the situation of the small-space gardener. Lack of space means you can't use distance to keep crops of the same species isolated, so you rely on cages and coverings, or timing, to prevent unwanted crosses. The necessity of isolation by cages and coverings requires you to learn the art of hand-pollination, a task I think you will ultimately list as one of your more enjoyable garden chores once you've mastered it. Once you get past these considerations, seed-saving in the small garden does not differ noticeably from a garden that is an acre in size. You will save seed from a sample of a given crop that includes the plants that were most vigorous and productive - and you will make these choices based on standards that suit your needs. How you gather, process, and store seed in a small garden setting does not differ from the large garden, and so rather than risk losing my audience by going on much too long, I refer you to some excellent volumes on the subject (listed below).

Seed-saving is enormously rewarding, a worthy pursuit in any size garden, whether you want an adapted variety, hope to help maintain diversity, or both. I must confess that I rarely think on these larger matters when gathering seed in my garden. I know, of course, that I am preserving diversity and adapting a crop to my soil and climate, but mostly I am aware of a deep feeling of completeness. To go from seed to seed is, for me, the ultimate harvest. I enjoy the tastes of fresh peppers and tomatoes from my garden, and I delight in watching the seedlings grow, the same as any gardener. But to take the seed from this year's harvest and use it for the next turning of the cycle, that is gardening!

About the Author
Thomas Watson is graduate of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture, where he earned a BS in Agriculture, majoring in plant sciences. When he is not writing he is usually working in the garden, re-landscaping his Tucson home, studying botany and plant identification, or "out there" somewhere, studying the natural history of the Sonoran Desert. This is all, of course, based on the assumption that it isn't baseball season, in which case he'll get all of the above done before the next Diamondbacks game.


Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener by Suzanne Ashworth & David Cavagnaro, Seed Saver Publications 1995

Heirloom Vegetables : A Home Gardener's Guide to Finding and Growing Vegetables from the Past by Sue Stickland, et al.

Saving Seeds : The Gardener's Guide to Growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds by Marc Rogers, et al.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver et al.

About this Author