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Seed Saving Basics

Sara McCamant
25 February 2023

 

Introduction: Why do we save seed?

Sara started by reminding us that the Community Seed Exchange is one of the only seed libraries in the country that offers 100% locally grown (Sonoma County) seed.  Most seed libraries are reliant upon donated seed from companies.

Saving seed makes sense when done in a community context because of the abundance of seed that is produced from plants.  The seed is a form of “the Commons” that we are responsible for stewarding to carry forward for future generations.  Sara acknowledged the generations of indigenous peoples around the world that worked for thousands of years with wild plants to get them to produce the foods that sustain us today.  One example is the ancient wild grass plant from Central Mexico, teosinte, which became what we know of as corn.  We are keeping the legacy alive and it is the spirit and heart of the seed that touches us as well as the DNA.

Seed is the first link in the food chain and the global pandemic made it obvious that supply chains and large companies can be susceptible to disruption.  It highlighted the importance of maintaining a source of localized seed.  The majority of the seed industry is dominated by large corporations with chemical interests.  Big Seed focuses on uniformity, shelf life and ease of harvest.  That seed is not sustainable and it is not organic.

The lack of diversity driven by the major seed/chemical giants is a problem and we are always looking for varieties to keep alive.  “Biodiversity will survive in the hands of the gardeners,” is a quote from Alan Kapular, an artist and seed breeder.  There is more room in the garden for us to play with and save varieties.  Farmers are more focused with the need for production.

Seed Saving

Seed saving can be complicated, so it is good to start with what you love and what is easy.

Follow the basic guidelines:

Know your seed:

  • Know what variety you are growing.

  • Save from open pollinated seeds—not hybrids.

  • Know the plant in order to select for healthy, vigorous plants that are displaying true-to-type characteristics of that variety.

  • Is it an annual or a biennial?

What to save seed from:

  • Save from open pollinated or heirloom plants.

  • Don’t save seed from F (hybrids that have been crossed for several generations) or F1 (filial or first-generation offspring hybrid) plants. Hybrids do not breed true-to-type.

  • Don’t save seed from PVP plants (Plant Variety Protection).

  • Don’t save seed from GMO plants.

How does the plant pollinate?

  • To produce seed that is the same as the parent, you must make sure that it does not cross pollinate with other plants of the same species.

  • Self-pollination takes place within a single flower (usually before it opens).

  • Cross-pollination happens when pollen is exchanged between different flowers from the same or different plants.

  • Hybrids occur when the pollen comes from different varieties.

Landrace varieties:

  • Developing landrace varieties is a different approach to plant breeding popularized by Joseph Lofthouse.  https://goingtoseed.org/

  • Landraces are large groupings of plants with lots of diversity within them.

  • There is not a single uniform type.

  • It allows many varieties to strengthen the gene pool for long-term resilience.

Plant Populations

  • To maintain genetic integrity, it is import to save from a diverse population of individual plants.

  • Optimum population size depends on how the plant is pollinated.

  • Self-pollinated plants need a smaller population, and wind pollinated plants need a larger population. (Example corn needs 100 plants minimum and 200 plants optimum for seed saving.)

  • Make sure you know your optimum population size for that variety.  Charts are available with that information.

  • At CSE we like to have at least 8 plants of 1 variety.

Save from healthy plants:

  • Healthy vigorous plants make healthy vigorous seed.

  • Some diseases are seed borne.

  • Selection is a form of plant breeding as we choose what to save from.

  • Look for ideal characteristics without selecting from too narrow a gene pool.

Save information:

  • Good record keeping is a must.

  • The information you pass along is as important as the seed.

  • Try to include the following: name, Latin name, when planted, when harvested, population size, photos, observations, and original seed source.

  • A garden journal or map is helpful.

Species and Varieties

  • A species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding.

  • A variety has an appearance distinct from other varieties but will hybridize freely with other varieties.

Where to start:

The easiest seeds to save are from peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and wheat.

Peas and Beans

  • Population size 6-20 plants.

  • Isolation distance between varieties is 20 feet.

  • It is simplest to grow just one variety.

  • Don’t save from just the last plants of the season.

  • Let the pods dry down completely. (Beware of residual moisture.)

  • When peas and fava beans have dried, put the jars in the freezer for a couple of days to kill off the larvae of the bean weevils.

  • Beans don’t cross across species.  For example, a runner bean, Phaseolus coccineus, won’t cross with a pole or bush bean from the Phaseolus vulgaris species.

 

Lettuce

  • Lettuce is self-pollinating.

  • Population size is 6-10 plants.

  • Isolation distance is 10 feet.

  • Lettuce needs lots of space when it goes to seed.

Nightshade Family (Tomatoes and Peppers)

  • Tomatoes are self and insect pollinated.

  • Population size 5-10 plants although 1 tomato plant is okay.

  • Isolation distance is 10-50 feet.

  • Harvest fruits that are fully ripe.

  • Tomato seeds need to ferment for a couple of days to remove the gel sac surrounding the seed. 

  • Good seed is heavier and will sink to the bottom of the container.

  • Peppers are mostly self-pollinated but also insect pollinated.

  • Hot and sweet peppers can cross pollinate.

  • Population size is 5-10 but 2-3 is okay.

  • Isolation distance is 100-400 feet.

  • You can cover the flowers with bags to prevent peppers from getting insect pollinated.

Cucurbita Family (Squash, Pumpkins, Melons, Cucumbers)

  • Isolation distance is up to ½ mile.

  • There are four different subspecies of Cucurbita.  They are Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, Cucurbita pepo, and Cucurbita mixta.

  • You can grow squash from different sub species side by side without them cross pollinating.

Storage:

  • Make sure seeds are fully dry and clean.

  • Keep temperature and relative humidity to less than 100. (Example:  If the temperature is 75 the relative humidity needs to be less than 25.

  • Store seeds in jars and keep the jars in a dark place.

Resources

In closing, protect the Commons.  Save seed that is adapted to your location in order to maximize community resilience and to bring the seed along with us as conditions continue to change.​

Integrating Seed Saving into the Garden

Electra de Peyster

25 March 2023

 

Reasons to Save Seed

  • Abundance rules the day.  Plants always produce far more seed than one can use.

  • Seeds can adapt to your local conditions which is important with the variations of climate change.

  • There is enough to share with others including wildlife.

  • Plants get to complete their full life cycle.  They are hardwired to produce seed.

  • It helps us connect to our garden and the natural world more deeply.

 

What is your intention with the seed?

  • Do you want produce seeds for your own use?

  • Do you want to share with friends and neighbors?

  • Do you want to preserve seeds from rare varieties or family heirloom plants?

  • How you answer these questions will help you choose the best seed saving option.

 

Planning 

  • Start with what you love and what you have.

  • Think about your space limitations.

  • Use open pollinated seeds (open pollinated seeds are seeds that are the result of natural cross-pollination or self-pollination between two plants of the same variety.)

  • Encourage pollinators by planting flowers and plants that insects, butterflies, and birds want to visit. Seed production increases with more pollinators in the garden.

  • Remember that seed crops are in the ground for a longer period of time than food crops and take up more space.

  • Let plants go from green to brown.

 

Four Seed Saving Options

  • Bank the seed in the soil.

  • Keep varieties pure.

  • Do a community grow.

  • Grow a landrace.

 

Bank Seeds in the Soil

  • Let plants go to seed. When seeds are ripe they drop on the ground. They stay in the garden and wait until conditions are right to germinate. 

  • Volunteer plants will germinate when the natural conditions say it is the right time – sometimes this is the next year or sometimes it’s several years.

  • Leave your volunteer plants where they pop up or transplant them to your chosen location.

 

Keep Varieties Pure

  • This is our main focus in the Seed Garden.

  • It is important to know your genus and species. Varieties with the same genus and species will cross.

  • Grow only one variety of a crop that is within the same species to keep seeds pure.

  • Pay attention to population size required for genetic diversity.

  • Know what your neighbors are growing that could be cross pollinating with your crop.  

  • Try to know what the isolation distances are and use isolation methods (bagging) as needed.

 

Example:  The Cucurbitaceae Family has different species within it including C. maxima, C. sativus, C. melo, C. moschata and C. pepo.  The pepo species include acorn squash, crookneck, delicata, pappy pan, zucchini, spaghetti squash, pumpkins, and gourds.  Any of these plants will cross pollinate with any of the others in this species.  The seeds saved from such a cross pollination would result in plants that contain the genetics of both parents. A cross within the pepo species in particular sometimes yields a bitter taste and results in inedible fruit.

 

  • Hybrids are plants produced by plant breeders who intentionally cross- pollinate two different varieties. They are designated as F1 on the seed packet.  Seeds saved from hybrid plants will grow plants that may display differing characteristics from the parents and may not be the same as the original hybrid.

 

“Plants encode information in their DNA and store it in the seed ready to be used the next time it is grown out.” –Gina Covina from Open Circle Seeds

 

Population Size

  • An important chart on population size and isolation distances from Seed Savers Exchange is here https://www.seedsavers.org/seed-saving-chart.

  • Beans and tomatoes are self-pollinators and one can get viable seed from 1 plant.

  • It is always better to save seed from more than just one plant so as to not diminish or limit the genetic base of that variety.

  • Crops for small population sizes (minimum 5 plants) include self-pollinating annuals like beans, lettuce, tomatoes, peas, peppers, amaranth, quinoa, wheat, barley and oats, cross-pollinating annuals like squash, melons, and cucumbers, and biennials like Siberian kale.

Screenshot 2023-04-09 182618.png
  • Reminder:  these are population size numbers of plants of the same species and same variety.

In this example of a 4x8 bed, you can eat some of these crops and save seed from some too.

Pole beans are planted at 2” spacing so in 4 feet you can have 24 plants.

Bush beans are planted in 2 sq feet of space at 4” spacing, so you can have approximately 18 plants. These are planted for eating.

Allow 12” of space for each lettuce plant that you want to save seed from. In this example there are 5 plants planted with 1 foot spacing for seed saving and 12 planted at 4 in spacing for eating.

Allow 12” of space for peppers and plant 5 of the same variety. The seeds are ready when the fruit is ripe.

Flowers are planted in 2 sq ft of space at 6-12” spacing depending on the flower variety. In this space you can plant 4 to 6 flowers. The same is true for the spacing for herbs.

Save seed from at least 5 of the pole bean plants, and all of the lettuce and peppers planted on 12” spacing. 

Tomatoes do not meet population size criteria so community grow. Save seed from your fruit and pool the seeds with 4 others who have grown the same variety.


Flowers & Herbs

  • Important for pollinators.

  • Most flowers will cross-pollinate.

  • Save seeds from healthy plants.

  • Replant the seed to see the effects of cross-pollination.

  • Population size is unknown with flowers.

  • Herbs need large population sizes.

 

Community Grow

  • In order to get around some of the large population size requirements, one idea is to have a community of growers who will grow the same variety and then mix the saved seed all together at the end of the season and share it for replanting.

  • An example is basil with a 20-50 plant requirement.  Five growers could grow 4-10 plants each.  The plants will have responded to various micro-climates and soils and will be combined in the seed pool.

  • Tomatoes have a 5-10 plant minimum so 5 growers could grow 1-2 plants each.

  • European kale has a 20-50 plant minimum so 5 growers could grow 4-10 plants each.

 

Create Landraces like Joseph Lofthouse

  • A landrace is a collection of interbreeding varieties that are developed in a specific location as an adaption for survival in that location.

  • Select multiple varieties of a crop within the same species.

  • Mix seeds together and plant.

  • Harvest the seeds from the best plants to replant the following year.

  • The benefits of this method include having resistant plants, cross-pollination is not feared, the crops adapt to adverse conditions, and there is no need for fertilizers and pesticides.

  • For more information on this visit the following website of Joseph Lofthouse’s community https://goingtoseed.org/ .

 

In Closing

  • Start with one annual.

  • Choose which seed saving option is best for you.

  • Observe.

  • Save seeds from healthy plants.

  • Share your successes.

Building Soil
Sara McCamant
27 May 2023

 

Sara wanted to share some of her thinking around soil based on her 35 years of experience of gardening and farming.  Her hands are in garden beds every day.

Overview:  

  • According to the U.N. we have about 60 harvests left on the planet because of depleted soil and the way we farm.

  • 28-40% of the gases causing climate change can be traced back to agricultural practices.

  • The last 100 years of farming practices have been problematic.

  • A return to indigenous practices would be helpful as in many places successful farming has been continuing for millennia.

What is Soil?

  • Soil is composed of broken-down plant and animal material, mineral in the form of clay, silt, and sand (which is differentiated based on grain size), microorganisms, water, and oxygen.

  • Soil is not static, but rather is a living system that we can think of as an organism that is changing.

  • Compost is broken-down organic matter and is a soil amendment, rather than soil itself.

Last 10 years and a couple of aha moments

  1. All of us exist because of photosynthesis.  Plants release approximately 30-40% of the sugars and carbohydrates from photosynthesis through their roots to support microbial life in the soil.  The plants are feeding the soil which supports the whole system.  Plants are in relationship with the soil and it changed Sara’s thinking about the idea of plants just taking from the soil.

  2. An unintended experiment happened whereby 2 identical side by side garden beds were left differently for the winter.  One bed had been prepped with compost and covered with cardboard and straw, and the other bed just wintered as is.

In the spring, the bed that had been covered was soft and easy to work whereas the bed that was just left was more compacted.

This came at the same time as the no till/regenerative gardening concepts were coming to the forefront.  As such, Sara started an exploration.

Main Concepts of Regenerative Agriculture

  1. Do not use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

  2. Disturb the soil as little as possible.  Soil naturally builds itself.  Bacteria, fungi, mycorrhizae are naturally aggregating to hold in moisture.  Nature knows how to do this and when we till, we disturb this complex system.  Discing and tilling can break up compacted soil by adding oxygen and bacterial activity, but one must keep adding nutrients and organic matter if tilling is a continued practice.  What is disturbance?  Avoid inverting levels of the soil.

New gardens: one can sheet mulch for small areas. Start with cardboard and build the layers up. For larger areas, discing can start a new garden, but it is not advised every year.  Mix soil amendments into the top layers.  A broad fork can be used to open compacted soil to let compost into the top layer.

Issues:  With this method, gopher runs are not collapsed.  Using a broad fork can help with that.  Clay soils can be very difficult to work at first.  Daikon radish can help aerate the soil and start to break up the compaction.

  1. Keep soil covered as much as possible.  Weeds are nature’s way of keeping the soil covered.  Use mulch of some kind.  Organic straw and broken-down oak leaves are good for vegetables.  Wood chips are good for pathways and on perennial beds.  Issues:  With the soil covered, there is a tendency for more slugs and earwigs.  Sluggo can help. 

  2. Keep soil planted as much as possible.  When photosynthesis is happening, the soil is being fed by the plants.  Use cover crops of interplant between crops.

With cover crops, one can chop and drop, compost the cover crop, or dig it into the soil.  Buckwheat is a good summer cover crop.  Sara plants buckwheat after her garlic harvest is out and then leaves the bed until late summer planting for fall.  Leaving the roots of some plants in the ground is also good for the soil.

Finally:  Organic soil amendments can be added to the soil.  Calcium and nitrogen are important. Nitrogen moves through the soil quickly.  Feather meal and fish emulsion are good sources of nitrogen.  Azomite helps add minerals and biochar is good for holding in moisture.  Compost does not have a lot of fertility, but it helps enhance microbial life.

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