Seed Saving Primer

By Jean Pocha

Seeds in HandsIn January a Seed School was held in Missoula, co-sponsored by Native Seeds/SEARCH, Lake County Community Development’s Mission Mountain Food Enterprise and Cooperative Development Center, and the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program. AERO awarded scholarships to a number of participants, including Jean, from the Jane Kile Memorial Fund.

Seed School is the brainchild of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a seed conservation and education group in Tuscon, headed up by Bill McDorman, formerly of Missoula and Garden City Seeds. This week-long class covered everything from an introduction to seeds, botany, the state of the seed industry, practical seed cleaning, plant breeding, the history of genetically modified plants and seed patenting issues, to saving tomato and tomatillo seeds, plus great presentations by local seed growers.

Those of us that attended thought it would be great to have a seed swap at the AERO Annual meeting in October. If any of you fine folks are interested in learning more about seed saving it is important to be aware of a few things, including pollination style, plant families and plant evaluation. It would be great to see some of your seeds at the Annual Meeting Seed Swap!! Here are some tips and resources for successful seed saving:

– It is necessary to know how the crop is pollinated so that the best, purest, possible seed is grown. Self-pollinated varieties have “perfect” flowers, and all the pollination process happens in each individual flower. Outcrossers are ones that naturally cross with more than one plant. For the best seed, it’s important to research how many plants are needed to save seeds from.

– Another very important point is to use only open-pollinated (OP) seed for your seed saving ventures. Hybrid (F1) seed does not produce a reliable second generation.

– Learning what family the plant is in is also necessary. For example, squash has 4 different families. If two varieties of the same family are grown within ½ mile of each other, the resulting seed could be a zuccneck, or possibly a butterpan. The Montguide in the resources has a chart of squash varieties that is very useful.

– While you are planning your seed crop, remember that the mature seed-bearing plant may be bigger than at the eating stage. This is especially so in the case of lettuce, radishes and leafy greens. Use some of the resources listed to find out how to tell if the seed is mature and ready to harvest. The mature seed often comes from a fairly dried out plant. For example, beans and peas will have dry, brown pods that may even rattle with dry seeds inside. Lettuce seeds get fluffy tops on them, and you want peppers to be their full ripe color.

– Plant evaluation is also important. Mark the best tasting plants, possibly the earliest maturing or fanciest edged kale as the ones you want to save seed from. Plants that “bolt” or go to seed quickly will continue that habit in the next generation, so its best not to save seed from them.

Here is a general list of plant varieties and the ease for saving seed off of them:

Easy – self-pollinated varieties: Lettuce, Bean, Pea, Pepper, Tomato.

Intermediate – outcrossers – need several plants to assure good seed: Corn, Cucumber, Melon, Radish, Spinach, Squash/Pumpkin

Experienced – outcrossers – generally biennials, produce seed the second year: Beet/Swiss Chard, Brussel Sprouts/Cauliflower/Broccoli/Cabbage/ Kale, Carrot, Onion, Turnip, Chinese Cabbage


“Basic Seed Saving” by Bill McDorman. $5.00 pamphlet. Easy step by step instructions for 18 vegetables and 29 wildflowers. Available from Native Seeds/SEARCH, 3061 N. Campbell Avenue, Tucson AZ 85719, 520-622-5561, Online resource. Under “publications” there is a downloadable/printable free 30 page pamphlet that covers several plant varieties and other information.

Montguide: “Harvesting and Saving Garden Seeds”

“Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardeners and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving” by Carol Deppe

“Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step By Step Guide For Growers” by Rowen White

“The Organic Seed Grower” by John Navazio. A new book that is one of the most extensive works on organic plant breeding. Although very professional and in-depth, its also readable and relatable to small scale farmer/gardeners.

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