Last week I sorted through the bin where I keep my seeds, tossing out old partial packets I’ll never use, and making a list of what I need to buy. It was a short shopping list, because more and more of my garden seeds are born and raised in my garden. I confess that this has never been a primary goal – I love trying new veggie varieties – but seed saving quickly becomes habit-forming when you work with plants that make the process easy.
Easiest Vegetables for Seed Saving
The International Seed Saving Institute suggests these five crops for beginners: beans, lettuce, peas, pepper, and tomato. To this list I would add three annual herbs grown for their flavorful seeds - dill, cilantro and fennel. All of these plants produce mature seeds in one season and have flowers that are self-pollinating, so you don’t need a lot of plants and you don’t have to worry about them crossing with other varieties. After the mature seeds are gathered, they can simply be dried, with no special treatment needed before storage.
Unfortunately, many vegetables are biennial by nature, which makes seed saving harder because the plants need two growing seasons to produce seeds. Beets, carrots, onions, and most members of the cabbage family are biennials. Established biennial plants that are exposed to cold winter weather (vernalized) bloom heavily in late spring, but in my experience it is the waiting for the seed crop to ripen that goes on forever. In years when I do grow seed crops of parsley or celery, it is often August of the second year before the seeds are ready to harvest. Fortunately, two seed-bearing parsley or celery plants will produce enough seed to last several seasons.
Keeping Seed Strains Pure
When I go to local seed swap events, I never bring home seeds of squash or pumpkin, because most of the time no steps were taken to isolate the named variety from alien pollen carried by bees and other pollinating insects. Unique named varieties like ‘Yellow Crookneck’ squash or ‘New England Pie Pumpkin’ are the result of many years of careful selection, which can be undone in one season when varieties are allowed to cross.
For example, I grew all of the summer squash in the photograph above in one part of my garden, and they are all of the same species, Cucurbita pepo. If I had allowed fruits of any of them to mature, and then saved and replanted the seeds, most of them would be weird, and few would be exact replicas of their parents.
This is why isolation is so important for squash and cucumber family crops. I do grow my own cucumber seeds, which is only necessary every four to five years because cucumber seeds are good keepers. But in years when I grow a small bed of my favorite variety, ‘Little Leaf,’ for seed, I grow no other cucumber varieties that season to make sure the strain stays pure.
Preserving Heritage Vegetable Varieties
Back to the easy seed saving stuff. The first seeds I ever saved were of a variety of heirloom bean in danger of extinction, and I’m still at it. When you participate in preserving rare vegetable varieties by growing a seed crop every few years, it gives gardening a deeper dimension that makes the endeavor worthwhile. Right now I’m doing my part to preserve glossy black ‘Seneca Cornfield Beans,’ which were likely grown by the Tutelo Indian tribes who once inhabited my area.
And then there is the likelihood that the more generations you select of a certain variety after it has been grown in your one-of-a-kind garden, the closer you come to creating a strain that simply excels in your site and soil. I’m experimenting with a beautiful shell pea, and after growing and saving seeds from two generations, the strain may be slightly better than the original.
I admit that I have seen no change in our cute little ‘Stupice’ tomatoes, the poster child in my 2011 blog on Three Ways to Save Tomato Seeds. I save a few ‘Stupice’ seeds every other year, and the variety is just plain stable, as you’d expect from a variety bred in the 1940's that has stood the test of time.
Where I have seen change is in the size of my seed bill, which is in a steady state of decline. I am happy to pay for great seeds that I can’t grow myself, but some seeds are so easy to save that it’s the best way to go.