Gardening Tips: Saving Seeds

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on 29 March 2017.


What to do this week

Garden planning time is the perfect time to think about what is needed for saving your own seeds. Even at the home level you want to do it properly, which means, you want to have success. Otherwise the seeds you save won’t be true to type, and that will discourage you.

Bags of seeds.

The main thing is to not use hybrid seeds. You can save seed from a whole bunch of different things, but you have to make sure it is not a hybrid plant. It will either say “hybrid” or “F1” in the seed catalog. Either of these terms indicate hybrid seed.

Other than that, I always recommend to people who want to start saving seed, start with the easy stuff. That means stuff that is mostly self-pollinated. The plants will not need to be planted at a huge distance from other varieties to stop them from cross-pollinating. Also, you will not need a huge number of plants to prevent inbreeding depression. Things that have to be cross-pollinated, like corn and squashes, have built-in mechanisms to help prevent inbreeding depression so you need a much larger population to seed save properly. But if you start with things like tomatoes and beans and peas, which are mostly self-pollinating, you are not going to have a whole lot of crossing going on, and you won’t have to plant so many to prevent inbreeding depression. These plants are more forgiving of that.

For tomatoes, for home use, you need to separate the plants by about 25 feet from other varieties of tomato. I grow a whole bunch of “eating tomatoes” in my plot but I’ll isolate my seed-saving varieties from them. Beans and peas are about the same — about 20 feet away should be plenty. With tomatoes, at home level, you need about six plants of any one variety to prevent inbreeding depression. With beans and peas, it is best to have 20 to 40 plants, but it isn’t so difficult to have that many bean or pea plants, compared to tomato.

Those are the basic considerations, so you see why it is important to think about seed saving now that you are planning your garden. You have to figure out where you are going to put the plants, even if you are only going to try with one variety of tomato, so they won’t cross pollinate with other varieties. You may think you don’t have many honeybees or big bees in your neighborhood, but you would be surprised at the other kinds of bees and pollinators you may have. There is a tiny pollinator bee that burrows into the ground and almost looks like a fly, if you don’t know better, and we have a very healthy population of them in Cape Breton. This is why distance is essential, or your plants will be a little bit too promiscuous for seed saving.

Here are just a few words on the benefits of seed saving:

Hybrid seeds are bred to be superstars, but for particular and predictable conditions. We don’t have a lot of that here in Cape Breton. We can call these seeds the prima donnas of the plant world. The non-hybrid varieties, sometimes called open-pollinated varieties, they are not so much Olympic athletes, specialists, but are just trying to be strong and healthy like the rest of us. Because they are not specialists or stars, you can keep propagating them and don’t need to be a specialist yourself. You can save seed without needing a high-tech lab, or knowing a whole lot of complicated genetics, so that is nice. It is more frugal shall we say.

Also, there is a lot more variety in the non-hybrids. They are more flexible. You might not get the same superstar high productivity, but they will produce a crop under more variable conditions than the hybrids will. In a place like Cape Breton, that is really valuable. Plus, if you get into it in a serious way, you will gradually be adapting varieties to precisely match the conditions in your garden. That is like evolution in your own little backyard.

For those of you who are interested in seed saving, I’ll bring it up again throughout the year, as key moments in the process occur.

Next week, we are going to start to get into a little bit of soil biology. I’m talking about nutrients, like whether or not you should lime your soil. Some people use wood ash, is that a good idea or a bad idea? Stuff like that. We won’t be spreading it yet, but you need to start thinking about it. You can expect a tiny review of high school science, because that will really help your garden.

Featured image: Seed envelopes. (Source: Pinterest)

leaf border




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!