Documents: Special Interest: Seeds, Bulbs & Such:

Saving Seeds
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

October 3, 1999

Gardening is such a soul-satisfying activity to engage in, partly because it's so intimately connected with life cycles, nature's repeated journeying from germination to dying down. The completion of a plant's natural cycle is its production of seed for a subsequent generation of offspring, so there's particular appeal for gardeners in growing certain plants through to producing seed, then harvesting and storing that seed for the following year.
Unfortunately, saving one's own seed can seem like a dauntingly complicated business involving arcane factors of self-pollination, open pollination and hybridization. We have a fear of producing runts and genetic throwbacks. Ransacking the seed racks at the local garden centre or ordering by catalogue from a reliable seed company seem like more sensible and predictable alternatives than fussing over plants that may or may not produce vigorous and viable seed. But in reality, seed saving can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. I find the vegetable patch provides paticularly fertile ground for the work.
Simplest of all, to begin with, are annual plants that self-pollinate. These are plants that complete their life cycle within a single growing season and whose flowers contain both male and female plant parts. They are not pollinated by pollen from other plants, so their seeds stay "true" to the parent. Beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, aubergine and peppers are common examples.
Other annuals, such as brocoli, corn and squash, are pollinated by having pollen carried by wind or insects from one flower to another. To ensure "true" seed from a particualr variety, you have to prevent other plants that could pollinate it from flowering out. It's important with cross-pollinated plants to save seed from several different plants to prevent inbreeding.
Roughly half our commonest vegetables are biennials, plants that produce their edible parts in their first year of growth, then overwinter, flower and set seed the following year. Virtually all the root crops - beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas - work this way, as do cabbage, parsley, chard and others. In severe winter areas, biennials selected to produce seed have to be dug up after their first year and overwintered in a protected space, then replanted the following spring.
At this point in the proceedings, a heated discussion usually erupts as to whether it's worthwhile, or desireable, to save seed from hybrid plants. Some argue that seed from hybrids will either be sterile or revert to one or other less-desireable parent, and that we're far better off saving seed from older, non-hybridized varieties. The counter argument is that certain hybrid types - in sweet corn, for example - are vastly superior to open-pollinated types and that by carefully selecting desireable offspring, the home breeder can develop a uniform open-pollinated variety that performs almost as well as the hybrid from which it was derived.
With whatever seeds one is saving, it's critical that they're fully matured and dried down before harvesting. If the weather turns foul, seeds that are almost mature can be brought indoors and spread in a sunny, dry spot to complete their drying. Storage is critical too for keeping seed viable and vigorous. Cold and dry, like a martini, is how seeds like it. Most do best if sealed in moisture-proof and airtight containers that can be stored in the freezer. Peas and beans are the exception here: they prefer to be kept open in a cool and dry place. Properly stored, the seeds of most plants (parsnips are one notorious exception) will remain viable for several years, so seed saving is not necessarily an annual undertaking.
Serious seed savers may want to get involved with the Heritage Seed Program in Canada or the Seed Savers Exchange in the U.S. Both of these programs facilitate the saving and exchange of seeds from heirloom varieties that might otherwise be lost.
At whatever level of engagement, seed saving is as gratifying as it is economical. It certainly gives you a reassuring sense of independence from multinational seed producers and bioengineers intent upon crossing cucumbers with octopus. It ensures that your seed is organically grown and, perhaps most gratifying of all, it puts you in intimate contact with the complete life cycle of your cherished plants.

Des Kennedy gardens and writes on Denman Island, British Columbia. His latest book is An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in a Country Garden (HarperCollins, $20)

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