Category Archives: Seed Saving

Easy Seed Saving with Promiscuous Pollination

I’m sure many gardeners consider saving some of their own seed, but then feel like it would be too complicated. I’m guessing the main deterrent, for gardeners who have learned something about seed saving, is what we hear about isolation distances. Southern Exposure, for example, has for many years recommended that when home gardeners save their own seeds, they isolate their seed crops from other varieties in flower of the same species by at least 5 feet for lettuce, 40 feet for peppers, or 300 feet for various crops including corn, okra, and squash. For those gardeners who can’t isolate with distance, we describe methods including hand pollination, isolating in time, and isolating with physical barriers like row cover.  Without such isolation measures, it’s generally likely that pollen from one variety will reach the female flower parts of another variety, and that some offspring will have mixed characteristics of both varieties. With such isolation measures, it’s quite unlikely, but often still conceivable, that some offspring will have mixed parentage.

This photo, showing one plot of tomatoes in the foreground, and another in the background, illustrates how we separate tomato crops when producing seed for sale on the farm where I live.

This post is a rare plea to go ahead and save seed, if you want to, regardless of how close your plants are to others of the same species.  Offspring with mixed characteristics are not forbidden in your garden. It is not wrong to let them grow. You might prefer to have a more predictable garden, or you might relish the surprises.


This year demand for garden seeds has been so high that many seed companies have had to put limits on placement of orders. At Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, in 2021, we’ll still have enough supply of seeds of most of the crop types we sell. However, for large-seeded crops like beans, southern peas, and field corn,  our dehumidified, cooled storage space is generally only sufficient for a couple years’ supply.  So, next year we won’t have as many varieties of beans, southern peas, and field corns available. These are crops that you can save seed with methods very much like those you would use to harvest food. You could fill a little bit of the gap between the supply and the demand for these seeds.  If you list your seeds on Seed Savers’ Exchange, Grassroots Seed Network, Etsy, or another online platform, you could make a few dollars at it, too.

NT Half Runner beans at various stages of maturity, from the early snap stage through the seed maturity stage. Beans can be picked for seed once they reach the leathery stage, yellow in the case of this variety

Here’s a little story of how I first began to stray from the gospel of isolating varieties. Rushdat Hale, a Nigerian gardener living in the US, shared seed with us for a Molokhia (a.ka. Egyptian Spinach) from her home country.  I planted it in spring of 2018, and wrote to her that summer: “In our trial patch, the variety we got from you has two distinct leaf shapes.  As far back as you can remember, has that variety always had both types?  Do you know if it was already that way when it was brought over from Africa?  Please write back to me to tell me what you know about the variation in the Molokhia.” She wrote back: “I’m surprised you’ve noticed only two leaf patterns. Back home they don’t separate varieties.”

I wrote back, “I find it very interesting that in your home country (and maybe most of your home continent?) varieties don’t get separated even when folks are saving seed.  I wish I had a better idea of how widespread that kind of seed-saving was in countries like this one, as well, before there were many seed companies.  I think there are some significant advantages to doing it that way, including in terms of adaptability to unpredictable growing conditions.  But, it’s generally not the way varieties are stewarded at companies like ours.”

Over the course of the past two years I have thought more and more often about this conversation, and I feel increasingly confident that it has only been in recent decades, that anyone has come to have the expectation that seed-savers will isolate their varieties.

I estimate that seed-saving philosophies like Rushdat’s are still common in most rural parts of the world, and also among many Americans who learned how to save seeds from relatives who learned how to save seeds from previous relatives.  I expect that adherence to isolation distances is the norm only among people who have learned to save seeds from books, or from seed companies.  As with many other aspects of academic in relation to cultures that are more intimately dependent on land, I see a risk of unintentional disparagement if we say that things must be done the way we’ve been taught in formal settings.

I expect that the academic-style learners and teachers are, on the whole, much whiter than those who have learned to save seeds from their relatives. Race is certainly not the root cause of such differences. However,  over the years, white people overall have certainly had much greater access various resources that have made it more possible for some people to move away from dependence on the land and away from ancestral traditions. Formal education is one of the biggest of those resources. Therefore I see a risk of exacerbating racial inequities if we insist that things, such as seed-saving, be done the way we’ve been taught in formal settings.

Nigerian Molokhia

There are plenty of other examples of traditional seed-saving practices that are quite different from what’s generally recommended in modern times. Will Bonsall maintains a type of flint corn from Byron, Maine.  The people of Byron had a tradition of mixing their corn: When a farmer was on his way to visit a neighbor, he would take a pocketful of corn from his corn crib, and during the visit he would drop those kernels in the neighbor’s crib.  The neighbor’s strain of Byron Yellow Flint Corn was probably slightly different, probably a little better adapted to that neighbor’s own microclimate. As modern geneticists would say, the mixing helped ensure that the farmers’ corn did not become too inbred. (Corn is more prone than most crops to negative effects of inbreeding if seed is saved from too few plants.) I wonder how often Byron farmers dropped pocketfuls of corn into corn cribs far from Byron. I wonder how often Maine farmers — or other farmers — would mix their corn with dramatically different varieties of corn.  I wonder what kinds of conversations those farmers had about this practice.


Suzanne Ashworth decided to write Seed to Seed because, before the 1991 first edition of her book, “a comprehensive guide to saving vegetable seeds on a small scale was not to be found.” She also wrote that “The only isolation distances ever published for some crops are the recommendations made by commercial seed producers.” And so she provided those distances as guidelines in her book. She also wrote that “Isolation distances are highly site specific and depend on many factors such as plant population size, pollinator population density, presence of alternative insect forage sources, geographical barriers, vegetation barriers and other habitat-related factors. These commercial recommendations should be viewed as maximum starting points for individualized experiments to determine isolation distances that would be more appropriate for specific garden sites.”

Southern Exposure was one of the first sources to make specific recommendations about what minimum isolation distances home seed savers should use for various crops. We’re still making those recommendations, including with this very popular Basic Guide to Seed-Saving (pdf). I’m confident that the primary messages my coworkers and precessesors wanted to convey with this advice were: 1)You don’t absolutely have to isolate by very large isolation distances like those cited in Seed to Seed and 2) Isolation distances do matter, and they vary a lot from crop to crop.

However, I detect an assumption throughout Seed to Seed, and also in resources provided by my company, that the goal of the seed-saving gardener is generally to maintain varieties in their original forms, or at least fairly close to those original forms.  I also detect an assumption that when we sensibly veer off the path of simply maintaining a variety, we do so by choosing and then enacting distinct changes in the variety, such as by crossing it with a carefully chosen second variety, or by selecting for earliness, sweetness, disease resistance, or keeping quality.  This is generally considered to be more complicated than simply maintaining a variety in the form we receive it in.

For many seed savers, genetic purity is a perfectly good goal.  For example:

  • If you’re growing seed to sell to a seed company, that seed company has every reason to want to know that the description in its catalog will continue to be an accurate description of the variety.
  • If your great-aunt gave you a bean variety that her family grew for many decades, you may have personal reasons for wanting to keep it like it was when you got it.
  • Even if you don’t expect to share it with anyone, you might feel it’s quite essential to keep your corn from getting cross-pollinated with GMO corn.

There are also plenty of sensible reasons for breeders to create new, uniform varieties by carefully choosing which varieties to cross and carefully choosing which attributes to select for.

South Anna Butternut, a recently introduced variety of squash, created by our neighbor Edmund Frost, by using hand pollination to cross Waltham Butternut with Seminole pumpkin, and then selecting for qualities including disease resistance, yield, flavor, and long shelf life.

But genetic purity does not need to be a goal of every seed saver.  Some even consider crop genetic purity to be a disadvantage.

Researchers, agronomists, and others have generally used the term “landrace” to describe varieties like Rushdat’s Molokhia.

The landrace gardening movement, as in this article from Off The Grid News and on this permies forum thread , encourages gardeners to create their own highly diverse landrace varieties by planting a mixture of many different varieties, saving the seed, planting it the next year, and repeating year after year. The diversity of the resulting mixes gives them more resilience to the pressures of disease and weather.

Perhaps the foremost and most vocal of these gardeners is Joseph Lofthouse, who lives in Utah, in a climate where most commercial varieties of most crops just won’t yield a harvest at all.  As Joseph points out, “The plant, the farmer, and the society are all intimately entwined in landrace growing.”  He has developed many different landrace varieties that are available for sale, mostly through the Experimental Farm Network.

As Joseph put it on the aforementioned permies forum,

“Starting with the same seed, someone that grows in a raised bed might end up with genetics much different than someone that grows in the dirt. Growing with lots of mulch might result in different genetics than growing in plain old dirt. One time when I trialled a lot of new tomatoes, I noticed that plants from my saved seed grew differently… Because my vines tended to arch upwards to keep the tomatoes out of the dirt… Since I don’t stake tomatoes I only save seeds from tomatoes that are not touching the dirt and rotting. So I had inadvertently been selecting for genes that keep the tomatoes suspended in the air without staking. There’s so many nuances like that… The plants adapt to everything around them… Even my customers at the farmers market are influencing the genetics of my plants due to their eating preferences, and the seeds they return to me, and the seeds they gift to me.”


You don’t need to choose between these two goals – genetic purity and landrace gardening – even for one crop.  One intermediate route would be to save seeds from your favorite varieties without worrying about whether they’re cross-pollinated or not.  Of course, the more widely you share the seeds you’ve harvested, the more likely they would inadvertently get into the hands of someone who assumes that purity of plant genetics is every seed saver’s goal.  So, if you sell or trade seeds from plants are promiscuously pollinated, I’d recommend making that pollination method clear in your descriptions.

If you are going to save seeds without aiming for genetic purity, here are two situations to keep in mind where crops that we call by different names are in fact in the same species, and can cross with each other:

  • Most zucchini, most pumpkins, some other winter squash, and most small gourds are all in the species Cucurbita pepo, and can cross with one another over significant distances.
  • The species Brassica Oleracea includes broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cabbage, kohlrabi, brussel sprouts, gai lan,and some types of kale. These can cross with each other over significant distances if they flower at the same time.

In New Mexico, it is common for farmers and communities to maintain their own varieties of chili peppers, such as the Hatch Valley chilies, and to exchange seeds freely, but to tell recipients that the peppers won’t be the same if grown in a different place, and should not be called by the same name. Terroir is a prominent aspect of this line of thought.  New Mexican farmers giving away chili seeds may encourage the recipients to let those peppers cross with other peppers, save the seeds, and develop new varieties unique to their own locations.

This year I might save seeds from the section of our gardens where I’m growing and comparing 40 kinds of peppers, including sweet and mild and hot, belonging to four different pepper species.  I wonder, should we offer the mix (or part of it) for sale?

Several varieties, representing three species, of peppers in Southern Exposure’s 2019 taste test for purposes of variety assessment

So why aren’t diverse landraces more common among heirloom vegetable varieties?

It’s largely because, while those heirloom varieties were being developed, the farmers growing them didn’t have access to a whole lot of seed catalogs. So they basically just grew one variety of each of their crops, with occasional, sporadic introductions of new genetics through various means. Over many generations of plants, when new genetics don’t get introduced, a landrace variety will tend to stabilize.  The plants in it will become more similar to one another.

Also, landrace heirloom varieties might be more common than we tend to think, especially in crops that cross-pollinate over large distances. With the right pollinators, it possible for there to be at least some cross-pollination between squash varieties even at ½ mile. At Southern Exposure, we’ve heard about a few highly variable landrace varieties of squash from the Southeast – and I’m guessing there are many we haven’t heard about. We also know about landrace varieties in other crops, including Alabama Blue collards and Cherokee Cornfield pole snap beans.

A modern landrace variety of squash in the species Curcurbita maxima, on the farm of Aya Wada in the highlands of Ecuador

Nowadays, most breeders aim for uniformity.  On large commercial farms, uniformity is essential. These farms are aiming to harvest the largest possible amounts of produce with the smallest possible amount of labor, which includes the smallest possible number of harvests.  It also includes eliminating any need to pay attention to any differences between the plants. When seed companies trial varieties to decide what they want to carry, uniformity also makes it easier to develop a sense of what each variety is like.  (This is especially true when we don’t have much space for each variety in our garden.) Even in a home garden, uniformity has its advantages. But in a home garden, you probably would prefer to spread your fresh produce over the longest possible season.  And you might even prefer, when you plant one kind of squash, to get fruits that vary in flavor, shape, and size.

In future presentations about seed saving, I’ll mention landrace seed-saving philosophies, and I’ll temper the recommendations I give about isolation distances.

Fall Reads: Five Books on Seed Saving

From the outset, seed saving can seem like a rather simple affair. How hard could it be to collect seeds from your vegetable plants right? When you start trying to learn, it becomes apparent that things are a bit more complicated then that. All of a sudden your thrown into the world of seeds and you’re trying to learn about things like isolation distances, pollination dynamics, and seed cleaning methods. This fall, add one of these five books to your garden shelf for all the seed saving information you need.

Seed To Seed: Saving Our Vegetable Heritage

Written by Suzanne Ashworth , Seed to Seed provides a comprehensive look at seed saving. It’s perfect for complete beginners or those looking to improve their knowledge. Find information about both common and rare vegetables and herbs from seed collection and storage to maintaining variety purity.

The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving

This wonderful book was a partnership between The Organic Seed Alliance and Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a great companion to Seed to Seed. It focuses more on main vegetable varieties with helpful guidelines for both farmers and home gardeners. It also features new seed saving research.

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties

Create your own locally adapted varieties. Carole Deppe provides an informative look at seed saving and plant breeding for both farmers and gardens. Plus, the book is filled with inspiring tales of such interesting vegetables as popping chickpeas, hairy mustards, purple peas, rainbow corn, storage watermelons, and many more.

The Organic Seed Grower

“An essential guide to high-quality, organic seed production: well grounded in fundamental principles, brimming with practical techniques, thorough in coverage, and remarkably well organized, accessible, and readable.” – Jeff McCormack, Southern Exposure founder. This book is a valuable tool for any seed saver, covering topics like seed-borne diseases, reproductive biology of crop plants, seed crop climates and more.

Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties

This book obviously doesn’t provide a comprehensive look at seed saving like those mentioned above, but it is perfect for any tomato enthusiast. Author Craig LeHoullier introduced Cherokee Purple tomatoes to SESE and the world. His book offers incredible insight into all aspects of tomato growing and breeding.

Perfect for your fall reading list, these 5 books can help you save seeds of your own, whether you want to help preserve your favorite heirlooms or breed a local cucumber variety. They’re also a great option to keep in mind for the holidays.

Seed Saving for Beginners

Saving seed and heirloom varieties is extremely important work, whether on a large scale like at Southern Exposure or a smaller scale like a family’s backyard garden. Saving seed helps to preserve genetic diversity, provide people with secure food sources, and connect people to the earth and their local community.If You want to buy some seed in America, I recommend you to visit most trust worthy site  best American seed banks.

Unfortunately saving seeds isn’t as simple as harvesting and cleaning your seeds. First you need to ensure you have the right kind of plants to start with.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

In order to save seed that will “breed true” or have the same characteristics as its parents you need to start with open pollinated or heirloom seeds or plants. All heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open Pollinated

Open pollinated simply means that a variety has been bred and then maintained until it was genetically stable. This means that if you save seed from an open pollinated individual that seed will grow plants with the same characteristics as its parent plants.

Heirlooms

Heirlooms are just open pollinated varieties that have been passed down for many generations. While there are a few definitions, at SESE we describe heirlooms as varieties dating from before 1940. Unlike modern varieties that have been developed for use with modern industrial agriculture and our global food system these varieites were grown, saved, and cherished by small farmers and gardeners.

Hybrids

Hybrids on the other hand are not genetically stable. They are the seed from two seperate varieites being crossed. While their first generation traits are predictable they would not be if you were to again save seed. The second generation seed can have characteristics from one or both of the parents or entirely new characteristics altogether.

Hyrbrids are not GMO or inherently bad. In fact many people grow them for their “hybrid vigor” which can make them grow faster than their open pollinated counter parts.

Choosing a Variety

Obviously you’ll want to choose a variety you love and care about. Maybe you fell in love with an heirlooms story or your family just can’t eat enough of your a certain variety. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to stay motivated throughout the season and proccess if you’re really invested.

If you’re a first time seed saver you may also want to consider choosing from a few easy vegetables. Squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, tomatoes, and peppers are all great choices for beginners.

Planting

If you want to grow plants to save seed there’s a couple things you need to consider. First many plants require other plants of the same variety to pollinate with and produce viable seed. Also for this reason seperate varieties should be kept a certain distance apart to avoid cross pollination. For more about how to plan a seed saving garden check out this post:

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

Selection

Even if you don’t have longterm goals for changing or creating a new variety selecting which seed to save is still important. You want to save seeds from healthy and productive plants that have desirable traits.

Harvesting the Seed

Tomatoes

Old German Tomato

To save seed from tomatoes you should harvest them when they’re fully ripe. Then the flesh can be seperated from the seeds and gel that surrounds them. The gel and seeds should be placed in a glass container with a bit of water and lightly covered. This mixture should be stirred twice a day unil the seeds sink to the bottom. The liquid can then be poured off and the seeds rinsed and spread on a towel to dry.

Peppers

Cayenne, Long Red Hot Pepper

Peppers are much easier to save seed from than tomatoes because their seeds lack that gelatinous coating. Wait until the pepper is over ripe, it should begin to wrinkle, and then harvest the seeds and spread them out to dry.

Cucumbers

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Mouse Melon, Sandita)

A ripe cucumber for eating is not the same as a ripe cucumber for seed saving. Cucumbers you wish to save seed form should be allowed to ripen on the vine until they’re yellow or brown in color. Then they need to cure for an additional two weeks or until mold begins to appear. Then the seeds can be scooped out and fermented in a jar just like tomato seeds.

Peas & Beans

Creel Crowder Southern Pea (Cowpea)

Harvest your peas and beans when the pods have turned brown. Then dry them in a single layer for 1-2 weeks until they’re crisp and dry enough that you can here the seeds rattle in the pods. They can be threshed individually or stomped or beaten in a pillow case to remove the pods and then winnowed.

Squash

Candy Roaster Melon Winter Squash

Winter squash, summer squash, and pumpkins are all harvested in the same method. Wait until the fruit is hard and large to harvest. Then cure for 1 month at room temperature before removing the seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and lay out in a single layer to dry for 3 weeks.

Storage

All seeds should be stored in air tight containers in a cool dry place. Some people choose to add a small amount of silica desiccant in with their seeds to absorb moisture. It’s also important to note that different types of seeds have different lifespans.

 

Saving seed really isn’t difficult. It’s a great way to connect with land and a bit of history. Start saving seeds this season or making a plan for next year’s garden! For more information check our Seed Saving Guides in our Growing Guides Library.