Most gardeners purchase fresh packets of seeds each year to plant their garden. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. However, if you would like to ‘save a little green’ and become more self sufficient, heirloom seeds are just the ticket! Heirloom seeds allow you to save seed from year to year, as long as you do a little planning and work to keep your seeds genetically pure. Not interested in saving seed? Perhaps you will consider supporting companies that save the seed for you and sell heirlooms to preserve seed diversity and our gardening heritage. (Contrary to what you may have read, hybrid seeds can also be saved, but be prepared for different characteristics…check out my post, Can You Save Seeds from Hybrid Plants?)
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Many gardeners just don’t have the space or time necessary to save all of their seeds from year to year. Not only that, but it’s fun to try new varieties and plant different crops and flowers every spring. Sometimes we find that certain vegetables are disease prone in our area or we forget to leave a few carrots and other biennials to flower and set seed the following year. It can be pretty complicated to remember how far apart certain crops need to be planted to prevent cross pollination. There is so much to remember! So what’s a budding seed saver to do?
What’s the Difference?
Let’s start with a quick primer on the differences between hybrid, open pollinated, and genetically modified seeds. Small Footprint Family does an excellent job explaining the differences in their article Hybrid Seeds Vs GMOs. I couldn’t have explained it better, so I hope you will take a few minutes to read their article.
In a nutshell: Open pollinated seeds can be saved in the fall or (if biennial) the following summer to replant for future crops. Care must be taken to plant these varieties separate from other varieties of the same crop to prevent cross pollination, resulting in a hybrid. If you plant hybrids, you will still be able to plant the seed the following year, but the next generation will not be genetically the same as the old crop. Genetically modified seeds have DNA from other organisms implanted into their genetic code and will not produce seed the same as the old crop. It is not the same as a hybrid and many countries are banning GMOs because there are questions about how safe they are for human consumption. But that’s a topic for another post.
Now, if you wish to save seed from year to year, decreasing your gardening costs and improving your self reliance, you’ll want to plant open pollinated seeds. Many times these are referred to as heirloom seeds, seeds which have been saved from generation to generation. Heirloom seeds may not always have the best disease resistance or keeping qualities, but they often have some of the best flavors. This is perfect for home gardeners searching for the tastiest tomato and the sweetest carrot. Since you don’t have to ship your produce 1000 miles before it will be enjoyed, you have the option of choosing vegetable varieties that favor flavor over thick skins.
Many home gardeners who save their seed from year to year find that, in time, they are able to select the best tasting, least disease prone offspring for the next crop. Selective seed saving ensures that you are developing a variety best suited for your local soil and weather conditions. Some crops will remain true to type when planted just a few feet from other varieties of the same vegetable. Some crops need a great deal of space or you will need to hand pollinate and then cover the developing ovary with a paper bag or other barrier. This will prevent pollinators such as bees from introducing unwanted pollen to the flower, creating a hybrid.
In general, tomatoes, peppers and beans need around 10 feet between varieties, but corn, melons, squash and pumpkins need much more space to retain genetic purity. If you plant varieties of corn that tassel out at different times, it can be planted fairly close. Melons and squash can be hand pollinated. Planting a tall crop between two varieties will help prevent cross pollination by wind, but it will not prevent pollination by insects. So there are ways to get around the space requirements if you are willing to do some planning and work. You can also plant just one variety of a crop and save the seed every year. This might be the easiest method. However, if disease wipes out that crop, you may be starting from square one the next year.
One of my goals this summer is to save seeds from a larger percentage of my crops. I’ve saved tomato, hot pepper, dent corn, squash and pumpkin, bean, pea, and lettuce seeds in the past with pretty good results.