Seeds: The beginning of life.
How to choose and save the right seeds for your garden.
By ame vanorio © 2017 All rights reserved
I admit to being a seed catalog glutton. And while websites are wonderful and paper free I find guilty pleasure, sitting in my rocker by the woodstove in January devouring the pages. There are many wonderful seed companies. But all those beautiful pictures, skillfully written descriptions and array of terms can be very confusing.
The seed is the very essence of plant life. In scientific terms, the seed is the mature embryo of the plant. And just like any other “baby” the seed will grow and develop into a productive adult with proper nurturing. There is a lot of controversy over such small objects! Knowing what some of the terms mean can help you decide what to buy.
Hybrids are not evil creatures of the night. They are a plant variety that was developed by cross breeding two different varieties. The Aztecs began breeding maize varieties as early as 800 AD and George Washington Carver made a career in the 1920’s of developing peanut varieties and finding ways to market the crop. Controversy has developed over time as corporations have bred hybrids solely as a marketing strategy or a way to dominate in the field. Hybrids result from controlled inbreeding and limit the genetic diversity.
You cannot save seeds from hybrids. Hybrids have a letter/number to identify them such as F1 and F2 .The F is for filial (meaning offspring) and the number shows which generation hybrid they are after controlled cross-pollination. A seed from a F1 hybrid will not produce true to type and an a F2 hybrid will produce sterile seeds. If you are raising hybrids, you must buy new seeds every year.
Open pollinated plants reproduce through natural means such as insects or wind. Seeds from open pollinated plants can be saved and will grow true to their parent. Heirlooms are open pollinated varieties. Generally, these varieties predate 1945. Heirlooms may be self-pollenating or cross-pollinating. Heirloom plants were often developed for taste and hardiness to geographic areas of the country.
One advantage to growing open pollinated heirloom plants is that you can save the seeds. As your plants mature this summer pick some of the best ones for seed saving. Beans, melons, squashes, and tomatoes are easy plants to start with. By choosing the best plants for seed saving the gardener is using selection to improve their production.
Saving seeds builds food security while saving money. This helps your annual garden budget to shrink so that you are spending less money overall on food. You can also save seeds from your favorite plants thus assuring you will have them next year. Saving seeds can actually help improve your garden. By selecting the best plants to save seeds from you improve disease resistance, get a higher yield and a higher adaptability to environmental stress. When you plant your own seeds you know they are organic and grown in the best way! I view saving seeds as a tool for reaching my self-sufficiency goals but it is also a big fun experiment.
When saving seeds it is important to learn something about plant pollination and reproduction. Pollination takes place one of three ways; self, wind and insects.
Self-Pollination means the plant accepts its own pollen and does not need an outside source such as a bee to complete pollination. Such plants include beans, peas, oats, lettuce, wheat, and tomatoes. Seeds from these plants are easiest to save because there is little danger of cross-pollination. Other vegetables can cross-pollinate with others in their same species, which means you have to separate them.
Plants that are wind pollinated can do just that. Wind pollination means that the plant accepts pollen from other plants of the same species. Corn, Swiss chard, beets, spinach, and rye fall into this category. It also means that you have to spread varieties from the same species further apart so that they do not cross-pollinate. This is a biggie with corn if you want to grow several varieties such as sweet corn for eating and dent corn for flour. Different corn varieties should be planted at least 150 feet apart. You can also plant your corn at different times so that it matures separately. If you have two types of corn that take 100 days to mature then you can plant them closely if you sow those three weeks apart.
Insect pollination occurs when insects carry pollen within the same species. Bees have the best reputation as pollinating insects but ants, hoverfly’s, butterfly’s, and beetles are also important pollinators. Insect pollinated plants are the largest group containing broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplants, kale, melons, squashes peppers, and turnips. (Another reason why it’s important to grow organically – you don’t want to kill your pollinators!) Plants in this group need to be isolated. You can isolate your crops in a variety of ways. One is to simply plant different varieties at different times so they do not flower simultaneously. Another way is to cover plants before they blossom with a wire/garden fabric cage.
Each person needs to decide what percentage of heirlooms vs. hybrids to grow. I grow about 90% heirloom plants. I want to have the independence of saving seeds and I love the full flavors. But I do have several hybrid varieties such as Sungold tomatoes that I like and purchase every few years. Many gardeners develop a palate of preferred varieties that do well for them. It’s worth cozying up to your gardening neighbors to find out which varieties they grow and why they like them. I suggest buying a few new varieties each season. That way you can determine what grows well in your climate and soil and what tastes great on the table.
I prefer to order from those companies that are dedicated to sustainable agriculture. One thing to watch for is the Safe Seed Pledge developed by the Council for Responsible Genetics. While this is a volunteer opportunity for seed catalogs, with no regulation, it does give you a sense of the company’s ethics and priorities. You can dig deeper into a company and look at ownership. The majority of seed companies are part of large corporations that own multiple companies. Do they raise and develop their own seed or buy from other farmers or large corporations. You can see all the seed companies, listed by state, that pledge seed safety at http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org
Some companies such as Fedco are very transparent use a supplier code where #1 means the seed was grown on a small seed farm and/or by Fedco staff and 5 means large multinational companies who are engaged in genetic engineering. Other catalogs such as Seed Savers and Baker Creek use the description to tell the story of how the seed was developed and where it originates.
Some of my favorite catalogs are –
Johnnys is the grandfather of quality organic seeds. They have a broad range of seeds and supplies.
Fedco is an employee owned coop and offers substantial bulk discounts. Order with a group or a friend!
Seed Savers Exchangehttp://www.seedsavers.org/
Seed Savers is a non profit seed company dedicated to seed conservation of the world’s seeds and promoting the value and genetic diversity of heirlooms.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds www.rareseeds.com
This company was founded by Jere Gettle at the age of 17 sitting at his family’s kitchen table and has grown to over 2000 heirloom varieties.
An excellent book on this topic is Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth.
Ame Vanorio is the Founder/Director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center located in Falmouth, KY. Fox Run is a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to educate the public about environmental concerns and serve as a wildlife rehabilitation facility.