Gardening Tips: Saving Seeds (Redux)

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared on 11 April 2018 and you’ll notice the opening the line could have been written today. Told you Michelle’s tips were timeless.



What to do this week

Well, perhaps you noticed that it snowed this week, so maybe we have to go back to garden planning. You can’t keep a gardener down, so we will take advantage of this time to talk about organizing your crops for seed-saving purposes.

If you want to get into a little bit of seed saving, my suggestion is that you start with a few things that are mostly self-fertile, that is, capable of self-fertilization; easy stuff like tomatoes, beans, peas and lettuces. You don’t want to try things like squash when you are just starting out. The danger of cross pollination is very high with squash because they have to be pollinated by bees, so starting out with things that don’t need that extra help, that are self-fertile, will be easier. Another advantage of self-pollinating crops is that you don’t need as big an isolation distance, and you don’t need as big of a population to prevent inbreeding depression.

Vegetable and herb seeds. (Photo by Rickproser [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

Vegetable and herb seeds. (Photo by Rickproser, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s take cucumber for example. You need about 20 plants to have enough crop to avoid inbreeding, and they have to be about 1,640 yards (1,500 meters) away from any other variety. When you are calculating this distance, don’t just think of what you are planting — you have to consider what your neighbors are planting too, so cucumbers might be complicated to start with. Consider beans instead. With beans you only need about 40 plants, that’s really just a good row of beans, and they only have to be isolated from other beans by 25 feet (about 7.5 meters). Technically, beans only have to be isolated by 10 feet (3 meters), but I manage a lot of bean-seed collecting and have found that I prefer 25 feet. Peas are the same.

Tomato plants also have to be isolated by about 25 feet, but you only need half a dozen plants to have a tomato seed population that will not be too inbred. Now six is the minimum, so maybe plant a few more to protect against the neighborhood kids or whatever you deal with in your garden. You have to end up with six surviving plants. Tomato plants have characteristics that allow for self-fertilization, so six plants are enough genetic variation to insure there is no genetic depression.

Crops like squash and carrots have characteristics that encourage cross-pollination, so you really need to isolate them, and you need a much higher volume of plants in your seed-collecting patch. Otherwise, you will be compromising the purity and health of your seed. If you don’t keep your distance and volume up, you will end up with a very high volume of dead seed, which is actually the plants’ mechanism to prevent weakening of the genetic stock.

These distances are only for the plants you are going to use to save seed. You can plant other things all mixed together. What I do is isolate the varieties of tomato, for example, that I will be saving seed from any particular year. Then I plant all the other tomatoes I want in my mongrel tomato patch just outside of the required distance. It doesn’t matter if they cross because I am just going to eat them. The seeds that I collect from the protected plants, if saved properly, will be viable for 10 to 15 years, so I don’t have to save seed from every variety that I plant every year. I do it on a five-year rotation, 10 varieties for seed saving each year. (You can start smaller. You probably don’t have to manage 50 varieties of tomato like I do.)

Back to lettuces. They are a great crop to start with because they are extremely self-fertile. The trick with lettuces is to not save seed from the first plant that bolts and flowers. If you do that, you will be inadvertently selecting for seed that bolts early. Instead, wait for the last plant that goes to seed. If that makes sense to you, you are the kind of person who would enjoy — and maybe excel at — seed saving.





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.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.