Seed Saving – Making a Difference in Diversity

Saving seed is becoming more and more popular among gardeners of all kinds.  If you are like many of us, you see your favorite plants putting on seeds, and the thought comes to mind that there are next year’s planting hanging on the plant for no cost.  Sometimes, the realization comes too late, but often, the seeds for your next garden are there for the taking?

Why Save Seeds?

Seed Saving - seed packets and seeds

Saving your seeds is a good thing for several reasons above and beyond the cost savings that you can incur.

Seed Security

Saving the seeds from your garden helps ensure that you are in control of the plants you grow and the food you are gathering from your harvest.  Having your seed supply in hand well before time to plant next year’s garden can save you from the vagaries of supply and demand.  Several times I have gotten ready to re-order seeds from my favorite seed supplier, only to find that they have discontinued that variety in favor of a new hybrid.

Many people found themselves without seeds during the Covid-19 situation in the early part of this year.  As state-after-state issued stay at home orders, many people decided to take the time to garden.  This return to the soil created unprecedented sales for seed suppliers.  The result was seed shortages in almost every category.

Saving Seeds - seedlings in tray

Better Adapted Plants

Over time, plants adapt to the soil conditions, weather conditions, and growing conditions in your garden.  Planting saved seeds allows this adaptation to continue over generations of seeds until your plants perform better and produce better.

Seed companies select seed based on the need to sell the seeds across a wide variety of climates, zones and soil types.  The use of synthetic fertilizers is also a given in most commercial seed production.  The results are seeds that may or may not fit into the conditions in your garden. 

By saving seeds from the strongest and most productive plants in your garden, you carry on those strong traits to the next generation with each successive planting.  Over time, you are selecting plants that do the best in your garden with your style of gardening. 

Consistency

Imagine hundreds of acres of your favorite vegetable plants all grown, not for consumption, but strictly for the seed.  Then think about the possibilities for contamination and the risk that seeds from unhealthy or less than uniform plants will make it into the seed packet that you buy from the garden center or your favorite seed supplier.

Most seed producers don’t routinely remove rogue plants from their fields.  They don’t pick the choicest plants for seeds.  They are interested in volume as much as they want quality.  When you save your seeds, you ensure that you are getting seeds for next year’s garden that are from the healthiest and most productive plants in your garden.  Saving seeds doesn’t ensure that the seeds will perform the same way, but it does increase the chances.

saving seeds - vegetables

Diversity

Some estimates indicate that four seed companies now control more than 60 percent of the global seed market.  This trend toward consolidation of the seed industry into the hands of four multi-national corporations has had tremendous impacts.  Corporations exist for one purpose, to make money for their shareholders.  Despite what the public relations firms of these corporations may want you to believe, it is the bottom line the drives the majority of decisions.

Over and over studies have shown that the diversity of the seed bank is getting smaller as these corporations seek to reduce costs and increase revenues.  Varieties that have long been favorites of gardeners disappear, and the choices get smaller. 

Saving your seeds and sharing them with others is one way to create diversity in the world seed bank.  Keeping those heirloom and favorite varieties alive is perhaps the most significant part of a seed saving culture.

Understanding Seeds – The Key to Saving Seed and Maintaining Diversity

Knowing what seeds to purchase initially is essential to the success of your seed saving efforts.  If you don’t choose the right seeds at the beginning, your chances of having any success in saving your seeds and carrying on the variety are minimal.  For success, you need to understand the difference in seeds and the plants from which they come.

Open-Pollinated Seeds

Open-pollinated plants depend on insects, birds, and other natural sources of pollination.  This random pollination by natural means ensures a diverse genetic base for these plants.  A diverse genetic base tends to keep the plant population more stable as well as more resilient. 

For the most part, open-pollinated seeds will reproduce true to type each successive generation.  Reproducing true is an integral part of seed saving and allows you to select the strongest and most productive plants each season and save those seeds.  The effect is to grow increasingly better plants that have adapted to your soil, your environment, and your gardening strategies.

saving seeds - squash blossom

Heirloom Seeds

A cousin to the open-pollinated seeds is heirloom varieties.  Heirlooms are not necessarily old plants or antique plants.  In fact, after several generations of growing a particular open-pollinated variety in your garden and sharing those seeds among your family and friends, you may have created your own heirloom variety.

The definition of an heirloom variety is one that has a history of being passed down through multiple generations in a family or in a community of gardeners.  By selecting the best and most productive plants, saving those seeds, and sharing them with your gardening community, you can pass on the qualities that you find to be the best in almost any variety.

All heirloom plants are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are considered heirlooms

Hybrid Seeds

Creating hybrid varieties requires the controlled pollination of plants and the control of pollination to prevent pollen from unwanted varieties from being introduced.  This controlled pollination is usually done between different species or varieties of plants in order to create a new variety with a specific trait.

Hybrids, by and large, are less stable than open-pollinated plants.  Most hybrid plants will not reproduce true to type if the seeds are saved and replanted.  Many times the seed will revert to one or the other of the plants that were used to create the hybrid. 

It is this reason that most people who save seeds steer away from using hybrid varieties in their gardens.

Some Shocking Statistics

The Rural Advancement Foundation International is an organization with a mission to cultivate markets, policies, and communities that support thriving, socially just, and environmentally sound family farms.  According to research conducted by the RAFI-USA, some scary facts about the diversity of our seed bank have come to light.

Between 1903 and 1983, a period of 80 years, the following has occurred.

saving seeds lettuce varieites
  • The available numbers of lettuce varieties declined from 496 to 36
  • The choice of beet varieties dropped from 288 to 17
  • Corn declined from 307 varieties to only 12

It can only be assumed that this shrinkage in the bio-diversity in our world seed bank is continuing as varieties are allowed to go extinct in the search for greater profits.   Saving seeds as a community is one of the ways to combat this shrinkage in numbers than can be meaningful.

Getting Started – Saving Seeds from your Garden

There are no secrets or demanding processes to begin saving seeds from your garden.  You can begin to save seeds and make a difference in the quality of the plants you grow and the nutrient-density of the vegetables those plants produce.

Seed saving can be as complicated and time-consuming as you want to make it.  Here are a few simple steps that you can follow to begin saving seeds from your garden.  As you study and practice seed saving, you will, undoubtedly, learn more and become more astute and practiced at the skills to save better seeds to produce even better plants.

Making the Right Choices

  • Begin by selecting the right seeds to plant.  Chose open-pollinated or heirloom varieties to plant.  Ask your gardening friends what varieties they like and do well.  Ask for seeds and plant those. 
  • Keep good records from your garden and save seeds from the plants that do the best.  This is the first step in growing well-adapted plants the just keep better with succeeding generations.

The Best Time to Harvest for Seed Saving

  • For those plants that produce “dry” seeds such as amaranth, beans, or peas, the fruit should be left on the plant until they are dry. 
  • Wt fruits such as watermelon and tomato require a different approach.  Leave these fruits on the plant until they are slightly over-ripe but not rotten.  The seeds should be separated, rinsed, and then allowed to air dry in such a way that they do not mold.

Seed Cleaning and Drying techniques

Methods for separating and cleaning wet type seeds are as numerous as are the seeds in most of the plants.  In general, these steps will help you in processing wet seeds for saving.

  • Clean the seeds from the fruit.  This can be done by hand or, with some fruits that contain smaller seeds, can be performed using a blender and copious amounts of water.
  • Separate the seeds from the fruit pulp or the interior parts of the fruit. Melon seeds can be separated by rinsing in a colander or strainer.  Tomato seeds can be separated by crushing the fruits in a blender and then rinsing the slurry with fresh water until only the seeds remain.
  • Dry the seeds thoroughly by spreading them on a paper towel or clean cloth.  It is important to keep the seeds well aerated to prevent mold growth on the seeds

Storing Your Seeds

seed saving storage

How you store your seeds can make a huge difference in how well they germinate the following season.  These tips should help you keep your seeds fresh and viable from one season to the next.

  • Use only airtight containers that will prevent moisture from getting to your seeds
  • Glass jars, paper envelops or bags, or metal tins work well.   Only use plastic bags if you intend to freeze your seeds
  • Keep your stored seeds in a cool dark dry place
  • Avoid extremes in temperatures.  Unheated and cooled garden sheds or garages are not suitable for seed storage
  • The best conditions for seed storage will be between 45 and 55 degrees with less than 25% humidity

Want More Information and knowledge?

These links are some of our favorites for learning more about seed saving.  Many of them have very detailed instructions for each kind of vegetable and plant. 

We also suggest that you find your local Master Gardener Organization and find out what resources they offer.  Master Gardeners know about gardening in your area and can help getting started with gardening or landscaping.

It’s All About Getting Started

That first step is the most crucial.  Watch your garden and when those plants are ready, gather a few seeds for next year’s garden.  When you are preparing that fresh squash that you grew, instead of discarding those seeds, clean them, and save them.  Let a plant or two of beans dry on the stem and drop them in a paper sack to go back in the ground next spring.  Those simple steps can help endure a better harvest and a more diverse seed bank for the future.

Links and Resources

For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.

If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.

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