Many years ago, I was working on a farm, and happened by a group of people who were gathered around for a workshop. The man giving the workshop, who was about my age, was talking excitedly about plant sex which was enough to make me take pause! I listened for long enough to learn that they were talking about saving seed. He spoke of some crop types having male and female plants (dioecious), some having male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious), and some plants whose flower has both male and female parts (bisexual or perfect flower); and the role these distinctions played in world of plant breeding and seed saving, and how the gender relationships determined their isolation needs for seed production. It was the first time I had ever really given this aspect of agriculture a second thought, being that I was a new farm apprentice, and had yet to dive in to the intricacies of the world of agriculture. Turns out, this man was Tom Stearns, the founder of High Mowing. I thought, “What a remarkable thing to learn about, but first I need to get a grip on growing food, then maybe I can try to understand seed saving” and put it out of my mind.
It wasn’t until 4 years later that I sought out to work for High Mowing, and had my first experience saving seed along with the Seed Production crew. I actually worked as the Trials Crew Leader, but was lucky enough to take part in squash and tomato pollinations and some end-of-the-season seed saving projects. This is when it finally clicked…seed comes from seed, and produces seed, and so on; we eat the by-product, lucky us. I have since begun to run my own market garden (while still working in sales for High Mowing in the winter), but with a bit more knowledge of the whole process, and in turn enjoy saving some of my own seed. I have also begun to experiment with intentional cross pollinations (creating hybrids), as well as dabbling with some of my own selective breeding too. It is through my own excitement for these experimental field trials, that I invite you try it out in your own garden as well.
Seed Saving Options for a Beginner
There are a few crop types that make excellent choices for the novice seed saver. Tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas are all annuals, producing their seed in their first season. They are also primarily self-pollinating because they have perfect flowers (a flower with both male and female parts), requiring minimal isolation from other related varieties flowering at the same time. A few years ago, I wrote a seed saving article focusing on tomatoes, peppers and melons, so I will shift my focus this time around to cover a few of my latest endeavors: peas, beans, and (the slightly more advanced) corn.
Peas and Beans
While there are recommended isolation distances for professional seed production for peas and beans, insect pollination is so very rare, that for the purpose of home garden seed saving, no isolation distance is necessary. Pollination occurs inside the flower before the flower even opens, however there is a slight chance of insect cross-pollination. To avoid the possibility altogether, you can plan to seed other related varieties so that they are not in bloom during the same period. You can also use wider spacing for these crops which helps to increase airflow, reduces the risk of disease, and will make for a more viable seed crop.
Wait for harvest until about 4-6 weeks after the peas and beans are in their edible stage (4 weeks for peas and 6 weeks for beans). At this point, the pods should be completely dried down. If frost threatens before the pods are fully dry, harvest the entire plant by roots and hang in a cool and dark environment until the pods have dried completely. For small quantities, peas or beans can be removed from the pods by hand. For larger amounts, flailing may be necessary. Remove the chaff (remaining plant residue) and winnow with a fan to completely clean your seed crop. Seed is best stored clean; in a cool, dark, and dry environment for the longest shelf life. For more information about proper seed storage, you can review the seed viability chart on our website.
Corn, a Slightly More Advanced Seed Saving Option
I say it is slightly more advanced for two reasons, but it is not insurmountable. Corn is monoecious, meaning it has male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flower is the tassel on top and the female flowers are pollinated via the silk on the ear. One challenge is that the pollen is very fine and travels easily by wind. It requires an isolation distance of at least 1/4 mile from other varieties that will be receptive during the same window of time. However, if tree lines, woods or structures separate the corn varieties then shorter distances are probably okay. A minimum of 100 plants should be used for saving corn seed, which is another reason why this may be impossible for those of you with more limited space. However I have decided to mention it because I have had fun with saving our Painted Mountain Flint Corn for the past few seasons. I have doubled my planting so that I can selectively harvest the best looking plants for a seed crop and save the rest to grind into flour.
Harvest ears 4-6 weeks after the edible stage when the plants have completely dried. If a short frost-free season prevents this, harvest ears once the husks turn brown, pull back the husk and continue to dry in a cool and dark environment. Once fully dry, grip the ears firmly in your hands and twist to remove the seed kernels from the cob and winnow any remaining silk and chaff. Follow the same instruction for seed storage as mentioned for peas and beans.
Try Doing Some Test Crosses
After my stint doing squash pollinations for High Mowing, I have begun playing around with some of my own test crosses at home. Admittedly, I haven’t come up with anything worth bragging about, but it has been amusing to see the results. Why bother taking up space in the garden for a silly experiment, you ask? Well, because you may come up with a really great hybrid, something that has specific traits that you cannot find anywhere else…or because organic hybrids can be really pricy and you might be able to save yourself some money.
To clear up any confusion, since we have a lot of customers who wonder if hybrids are genetically engineered, the answer is no! A hybrid is simply an intentional cross pollination between two varieties or “parent” strains in the same species. Genetic engineering is a process where the DNA from one species is inserted into an entirely different species and is done in a laboratory, not the garden. Some critics of hybrid seed say that they are not sustainable because you cannot plant the seed from a hybrid fruit or veggie and expect the same results. While this is true, I don’t believe that any of you will be relying solely on your hybrid test crosses. So, if you are up for giving it a shot, I will walk you through a squash pollination.
Creating a Hybrid Summer Squash
First you need to find 2 varieties with separate desirable traits. For instance, say you want to try for a bright yellow patty-pan type summer squash with resistance to powdery mildew. Try crossing Benning’s Green Tint, a pale green heirloom patty-pan type with Success PM Straightneck summer squash. I’ve never tried this particular cross, but maybe I’ll try it this summer and follow up with my results. All you need are:
- a few plants of each variety
- some bread-type twist ties
- some flagging ribbon
- a permanent marker
Squash plants are monoecious, meaning each plant will produce male and female flowers. The female flower can be recognized by its ovary, which looks like a tiny squash at the base of the flower. Male flowers do not have an ovary. The female flowers are only receptive to pollen the first morning that they are open so you will need to familiarize yourself with what the squash flowers look like the eve before the blossom opens. They will be bright orange and very full, but you may want to mark some and revisit in the morning to see if you’ve got it right. Once you have learned to identify the flower at this stage, you will want to peruse your garden in the evening to find which flowers are ready for opening the following morning. (For a visual presentation of the following information, check out our video “Hand Pollinating Squash“)
- Select some male and female flowers from each variety, pinch the flower bud closed, and use a twist tie to gently close off the flower, so that in the morning when it opens, it is actually closed off to the bees (who would most definitely get to it first).
- The following morning, you will want to choose the plants that you wish to cross, say a male flower from a Benning’s Green Tint plant and female flower from a Success PM Straightneck plant.
- Remove the male flower from the Benning’s plant, keeping some stem intact as a handle and bring it over to your female flower on the Success PM Straightneck plant.
- Remove the twist tie on the male flower, and then remove the twist tie on the female flower. You will see the pollen-coated stamen; remove it and use it as a paintbrush to coat the stigma on the interior of the female flower.
- Then use your twist tie to close the female flower, so nobody else gets in there to pollinate.
- Identify the cross and the date on the flagging ribbon with a permanent marker and tie it loosely around the stem of the female flower.
- Do the same with the opposite cross (i.e. female Benning’s with male Success)
- Allow the fruit to ripen and grow far past the edible stage. It can be harvested once the outer shell hardens. Then you can allow it to cure for 3 or 4 more weeks to let the seed ripen even more.
- After curing is complete, hack open the squash, scoop out the seed. Rinse it thoroughly in warm water. Pat dry with a paper towel and allow to dry completely on a plate or cookie sheet. Store in a cool, dark, and dry location.
- Plant out your test crosses next season, being sure to stake your plants so you know which cross is which…and observe your results.
Seed Selection for Desirable Traits
Aside from creating your own hybrid test-crosses, you can also work to improve the varieties you already grow by using selective seed saving methods. Selective seed saving was the first form of plant breeding and has aided humans in improving varieties of plants since the beginning of agriculture thousands of years ago. You too can give this a whirl, but don’t expect immediate results. Selective breeding takes several planting generations before a new and improved variety is stabilized, but it sure is inspiring to try; to play an active role in improving strains that meet your specific needs, and most of all, because it is just plain fun to witness the evolutionary process. There are plenty of reasons why it may benefit you to look further into this age old tradition. Some reasons to improve a strain have to do with the more obvious physical traits such as size, color, flavor, and yield; while other beneficial improvements might customize a variety to perform better in your region such as:
- The ability to withstand drought
- Tolerance of damp conditions
- Long periods of excessive cold or heat
- Earlier maturity
- Ability to resist certain diseases
How can I begin Selective Seed Saving?
Start with the beginner seed saving varieties I mentioned earlier. Keenly observe your varieties as they grow. Say, for instance, that you love a particular strain of tomatoes because of the delicious flavor of the fruit, but the plants tend to be prone to disease. Then you happen to notice that there is one plant that is showing resistance to the prevalent disease. Save the seed from this plant. Specifically mark the seed as having come from a disease resistant plant. Grow out a test plot the following season and observe to see if any of the plants are showing the same resistance. If so, save the seed only from plants showing the disease resistance. Continue this for many successive plantings until finally you may notice that most or all the plants are showing disease resistance. It can take many years for this trait to become stable for the entire population, but it can certainly be worth it in the long run. Don’t be discouraged, though, because many times it is just a fluky thing, and you may not see the trait show up again the second season. Another example might be that you observe an early maturing pepper within a variety that usually takes much longer to produce mature fruit. Save the seed from this plant and plant it the next season to see if any trend toward earlier maturity.
With a broader vision, it is best, in general, to only save seed from your most vibrant, vigorous, highest yielding plants to ensure that you are improving your strains over time. And be sure to rogue out any plants exhibiting undesirable qualities to further prevent those traits from becoming more prevalent. Most importantly, with all your seed saving experiments, have fun learning about this amazing biological process. I save seed as a way to further connect with growing my food, and so I can pass down the knowledge to my daughter, so that someday she may pass it along as well. It gives me a sense of pride to know I can be an intricate part of my own food web. Seed is where it all begins, and what it all comes down to.