Saving seeds is rewarding on so many levels. It’s not just about the end result of getting viable seed. It’s not even just the harvest you get from that seed next season. In fact, it’s not about any one thing.
Saving your own seeds is about the entire journey–from the moment you hold that tiny fleck of life on the tip of your finger, all the way through that plant’s life, to that special moment when you are holding the next generation of seeds in your palm. This experience gives seed savers a special relationship to plants and the food they provide us.
But when you’re first starting out on your seed saving journey, it doesn’t often feel this magical. If you’re making these three mistakes, you’ll end up disappointed, like someone just took your birthday cake:
Saving Seeds Mistake #1: Trying to Save & Breed Hybrid Seeds
Hybrid seeds are the result of two open pollinated varieties of the same species mixing. When this happens, the seed is either as sterile as a mule or a weird mutant plant that makes you feel like your life took a turn into a sci-fi alien movie.
Seed savers avoid hybrids because they do not produce relatively stable outcomes (a true-to-type variety). Now, a hybrid can be stabilized over time and become a true-to-type variety, but this process takes many years of growing, selecting, and saving seed. And there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get what you’re aiming for.
Saving Seeds Mistake #2: Planting Different Varieties From the Same Species Too Close Together
Plants grown from open pollinated seed can still cross-pollinate with other varieties. When this happens, you’ll get the same weird and unpredictable results as you will when you try to save the seed of hybrids that happen to be fertile: you never know what you’re going to get. Basically, these are naturally bred hybrid seeds.
To save seed and get the same variety next year with relatively stable traits, you want to plant only one variety of each species within the space that variety pollinates. This is called the “isolation distance,” and all crops are different.
For example, lettuce only pollinates at a distance of around 20 feet. This makes it easier for most home growers with medium-sized gardens to save seeds.
However, the species Brassica oleracea (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.) is another story. Members of this species can cross pollinate if they’re within half a mile of each other. So you only want to grow one of these if you’re planning to save the seeds. You’ll also want to find out if anyone else within a half mile radius is growing anything from this species!
But if you’re a home gardener and still want a variety of food and to save your seed, there are other options besides buying a piece of land miles wide. Connect with your community of seed savers and growers and exchange food and seed. You grow the brussels sprouts, and let your friends grow the others. This way, you can maximize your garden space, get a variety of food in your diet, and still save your seed.
Saving Seeds Mistake #3: Not Planting Enough of the Same Variety
If you don’t plant enough plants of a variety when you’re saving seeds, the result is gene bottlenecking and a deterioration in the genetic stability of the traits of that variety. The most common way to recognize this phenomenon is if you notice that your next generation of seeds just aren’t producing as vigorously as previous generations.
To preserve genetic diversity in that variety, you have to do one of two things:
1. Grow enough plants to preserve genetic diversity long term.
How many plants is enough? Well, that depends on the variety.
For some varieties, it’s only a few plants. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) only require 20 plants minimum for long term genetic preservation. And they get planted between 2-6” apart depending on the variety.
But for corn, you need more than 200 plants! Each corn plant needs a lot of space to grow, so unless you’re a farmer, it’s a little unrealistic.
If saving a seed is out of reach for you because that crop needs too many plants per season to preserve the genetics, then go for option number two below.
2. Reintroduce new genetic material every so often.
If you’re growing Glass Gem heirloom corn and you can’t plant 200 plants, plant what you can, and save those seeds. Then every so often, buy a packet of Glass Gem heirloom corn from Rareseeds.com, or get some from the local free seed exchange, and plant them in with the saved seed you have. This can help preserve the genetics of that variety.
When you’re first starting out on your seed saving journey, it’s best to start out with self-pollinating plants. These plants generally don’t need a ton of plants to preserve long term diversity, and they usually have shorter pollination distances (like the lettuce in Mistake #2).
When it comes to saving seed, you’re going to have much more success if you plant enough plants, follow proper pollination distances, avoid mules and aliens, and stick to those open pollinated seed varieties.
GYOV Instructor and Harvest Club Support
Crystal owns and operates a one-woman wholesale commercial living microgreen operation in the mountains of western North Carolina. After working and managing local restaurants for over a decade, she saw the need for chefs to have access to more affordable, organic food for the delicious creations they craft for our communities.
Crystal hopes to stand as a clear message to anyone who thinks they can’t grow: You can. Anyone can. With the right system, mindsets, and mentor, everything becomes possible.