The Basics of Seed Saving

Take greater control over your food sources—and save some money—by learning to preserve your own garden seeds.

| September/October 2013

  • If you're a beginner, start with some of the easiest plants to grow such as lettuces and radishes.
    Photo By Fotolia

  • Photo By iStock
  • Dry seed should be put away in airtight containers in a dark, cool place until needed.
    Photo By GAP

Saving seeds is like putting money in the bank. It’s a great project for kids, it’s challenging, and it opens your eyes to the inner poetry of nature. Best of all, saving your own seeds is one sure way to regain control of your family’s source of food.

We now know that since the 1950s, commercially raised fruits and vegetables have declined dramatically in nutritional value. Lingering ills of pesticides and the chemicals used to prolong their shelf life are also concerns with commercially raised food. Growing your own food is also a lot cheaper. Since the economic crash a few years ago, these concerns have come together to spawn a huge shift in home gardening—a real return to basics.

Beginners can be bombarded with the vast amounts of contradictory gardening information floating around on the Internet. Speaking from some 50 years of experience, I can say that there is no better way to learn seed saving than finding a mentor who can walk you through the complexities of saving your own seed. Firsthand experience cannot be replaced by books. But even if you don’t have a mentor, keen observation and a little dose of patience are two reliable tools you can count on when starting out. Without a doubt, it is important to start your learning curve with the highest quality seeds possible because you want to cultivate healthy plants that represent the best of their type. These “best” traits are passed down through the seeds.

Choosing Plants for Seed Saving

The old-time art of seed saving and careful seed selection has mostly gone the way of quill pens, a sad commentary on the state of American agriculture and the craftsmanship that once made us leaders in this field. However, because the number of businesses selling quality seeds has declined for a variety of reasons, many people have turned to saving their own seeds. Before you join the new crop of seed savers, you need to know that all seeds are not equal. There are three kinds of seeds today—and some come with built-in issues that work against seed saving.

GM seeds, or genetically modified seeds, are seeds that have been created under artificial conditions to meet a specific list of criteria, usually resistance to a package of pesticides and herbicides sold with them. The home gardener is not likely to come across this type of seed because at the moment GM seed is mostly confined to large-scale commercial agriculture. GM seeds are also patented, which means you cannot legally reproduce it unless you pay the maker a royalty. Without belaboring the arguments pro or con about GM seeds, you should avoid buying any seeds that are patented. Most seed packets will state very clearly whether they contain patented material. (To read more about GM food, check out the article The Truth About GMOs.)

Another type of patented seeds are the F1 hybrids, crosses between different plant species. You cannot save seeds from hybrids because they will not grow true to type. Hybrids are common in seed catalogs everywhere and must be listed as such. After World War II, a few seed companies got the lucrative idea that F1 hybrids were better than traditional seeds and thus began to market them based on perceived benefits, primarily that the cross would have some special trait, such as wilt resistance. More importantly (to the companies marketing them), because you cannot save seeds from F1 hybrids, you have to keep buying new seed. F1 hybrids eventually lose their special traits, and companies must create new ones every few years to adjust for this decline. The seedless watermelon is a good example. It is a patented food because the seeds have been bred out, which is not natural, and the cross is not stable. Indeed, it will produce no viable seed. I call them “neutered fruit with neutered flavor.” 

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