Why are seeds worth saving in the first place?
The potential success of a seed depends on the specific growing conditions that a plant has adapted to. If growing conditions change too drastically, the seed might not successfully grow into a strong plant. For example, if a plant has adapted to the conditions in a windy backyard garden in Calgary, Alberta, the seed produced by that plant might not grow well in different conditions like a sunny raised garden bed in Oakville. By saving seeds from successful plants, you are continuing their lineage and increasing the odds that the seeds it produces will grow well again in a future growing season.
Buying seeds from big box stores can be convenient. But the plant that grew the seed might have been grown in a completely different ecoregion from your location. An ecoregion is an area that is defined by specific ecological and geological conditions. Over many growing seasons, a plant will develop to adapt to those specific conditions. So there is no way to guarantee that a seed that grows well in one ecoregion will work elsewhere. This is why local heirloom seeds are sought after by seasoned gardeners. Saving the seeds from heirloom varieties that are a proven success in your ecoregion can increase the odds of strong and healthy gardens in the future, because you are artificially selecting the plants that have successfully adapted to the specific growing conditions.
Saving seeds to ensure that the strongest plant genes are continued isn’t the only reason to save seeds. Working with the rhythms of nature and increasing self sufficiency are other benefits. Seed saving is one of those skills that will help gardeners learn about the life cycle of different plants. You will not only look forward to the food produced by vegetables but harvesting seeds as well.
Seed saving fully completes the loop of the gardening skill set. It allows a gardener to perpetuate his or her own garden over many seasons without being dependent on seed companies.
So how do you save seeds?
First of all, it’s best to save seeds from open pollinated varieties of plants rather than hybrids. Hybrids are less predictable and are not usually saved by most gardeners. Next, you need to pick plants to save seeds from. Within the open pollinated category of plants there are self pollinating, and cross pollinating plants. The easiest plant types to save seeds from are self pollinating plants like peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers. These plants will produce seeds that will grow into plants that are just like the one that grew the original seed.
An important point to make about seed saving revolves around genetic diversity. If you only save seeds from a single plant, the same specific genes will be in all of the seeds it produces. Genetic diversity is important for resilience to pests, droughts and different weather conditions. If all the plants have the same genes, they all have the same weakness. To get around this, seed savers can go to events to swap seeds like “Seedy Saturdays”. This ensures that a good level of genetic diversity is maintained. You can also meet your fellow Halton gardeners!
Cross-pollinating plants such as brassicas, corn, carrots, beets, squash, and cucumber are pollinated by other plants of the same species. If you grow more than one variety of lettuce for example, cross-pollination can occur. If you want to maintain a specific characteristic of a cross- pollinating plant, it’s important to isolate different varieties of the same species. This can be achieved by growing one variety and alternating different years. As mentioned, genetic diversity is important for all plants. For cross-pollinating plants, it is recommended that 50 or more plants are used for the long term health and vigor of the seeds. This was a lesson learned from the potato famine in Ireland. But you can still save seeds from your plants and use them for one or two more future seasons.
There are different techniques for seed saving depending on the plant. For example, seeds from peas and beans are easy to save because they can simply dry in the pod. Ones from eggplant on the other hand, are best harvested when rotting starts. Seeds also have different storage lives. Pepper seeds are good for 2 years, while lettuce is usually good for 6 years. When you set out to save a specific seed type, it’s best to do a little research to learn the best methods. You can also go to “Seedy Saturday” events to learn from other gardeners.
Saving seeds is not only important for maintaining genetic diversity: it can also add another exciting dimension to gardening. It’s best to start out with the easy wins like peas, beans, tomatoes and peppers and move to cross-pollinating plants. Remember, seeds are capsules packed with potential – they’re worth saving!
By Nate Van Beilen