How to Plan A Seed Saving Garden
* This article may contain affiliate links. For more information, please read my Affiliate Disclosure.
Spring is just around the corner, and that means it’s time to start planning your garden (if you haven’t started already!) But before you decide what to plant, you might want to consider whether or not you want to save seeds from your garden. If so, you’ll need to plan accordingly.
Seed saving is both a science and an art. While it may seem pretty straightforward, it actually takes a bit of forethought and pre-planning in order to grow a garden that not only produces delicious homegrown produce, but also produces viable seeds for you to harvest and save for replanting in the future.
Why Save Seeds?
So, why bother saving seeds in the first place? Why not just buy them from the store?
For starters, if you’re into homesteading and self-sufficiency, seed saving is like, the ultimate skill to have in your pocket.
Even if you’re a home gardener who doesn’t mind purchasing seeds year after year, if you want to hone your skills and improve your garden at the same time then you should definitely plan your garden with seed saving in mind.
Saving your own seeds not only saves you money, it ensures you always have seeds on hand that you can replant and turn into food, the ultimate goal when it comes to self-reliance! Seed saving also allows you to save your favourite varieties year after year and even improve them over time by carefully selecting only the best seeds from the best plants each year. This also results in seeds that are specially adapted to your garden zone and microclimate.
Who knows, you may even develop your own heirloom variety that can be handed down for generations to come!
How To Plan A Seed Saving Garden
So what do you need to consider when planning your seed saving garden?
For starters, you’ll want to begin by selecting the right kind of seeds to grow and save.
Then you’ll need to decide how involved you want to be in the seed saving process, which will help you determine which varieties you’ll want to save seeds from.
You’ll need to know what type of pollination the plants you choose will need, and how far their isolation distance is from one another. You might need to know how to hand pollinate different plants if you want to grow two different varieties close to one another.
And you should definitely know how to save seeds from the individual plants you choose. This includes knowing how long it will take for the plant to go to seed and how to know when the seeds are ready to harvest.
It might seem like a lot, but it’s really quite simple once you understand the basic process. So let’s break it down…
Selecting the Right Types Of Seeds
There are several types of seeds, and not all are suitable for seed saving. Here’s a quick break down of each type:
1. Open-Pollinated Seeds
* Good for seed saving *
These seeds come from plants grown and pollinated by wind, insects or by hand. This is how plants have been grown and how farmers have saved seeds since the dawn of time and the rise of agriculture, and the result is a huge amount of genetic diversity among plant species.
Open-pollinated seeds can be saved and replanted the next year and will grow into the same type of plant as the one they came from, so long as they don’t accidentally cross-pollinate with another variety. If you want to be able to save seeds from your garden, definitely look for open-pollinated seeds when planning your garden.
2. Hybrid Seeds
* Not good for seed saving *
Hybrids come from two different parent plants that are the same species, but not the same plant (for example, broccolini, which is a cross between broccoli and gai lan (aka. Chinese broccoli).
They are created by deliberately cross-pollinating two different types of plants to create an entirely new type. Some other examples of hybrid plants are sweet corn, meyer lemons (cross between lemons and mandarin oranges), and grapefruit (cross between sweet orange and pomelo).
If you save seeds from hybrid plants they probably won’t grow true to the plant you saved them from, meaning they’ll look more like one of the hybrid’s parent plants, or perhaps like something completely different, and they tend to taste woody, watery, bitter or just bland, depending on the vegetable type and what it was crossed with. If you grow hybrids you should probably stick to buying new seeds each year so you can be sure of what you’re growing.
3. Heirloom Seeds
* Good for seed saving *
Heirloom seeds are a type of open-pollinated seed that have been carefully selected and passed down through generations, hence the name “heirloom”. They’re typically the best of the best as they’re both open-pollinated and they’ve been carefully selected from the strongest, tastiest and highest-yielding plants by generations of gardeners and farmers.
In order to be considered heirloom seeds, the seeds need to come from open-pollinated plants that are at least 50 years old, but many heirlooms are hundreds and even thousands of years old, and have evolved and adapted to become some of the tastiest, most nutritious and most beautiful and unique plants in any home garden.
Heirlooms are the all-around best choice for seed saving. Not only will you be able to save seeds from heirloom varieties, you’ll be doing your part to preserve rare and one-of-a-kind seeds that have been carefully selected and passed down throughout history!
4. GMO Seeds
* Not good for seed saving *
Genetically modified “GMO” seeds are engineered in a lab and are often not only the result of crossing two different plant types of the same species, but different species altogether! So, for example, you might have a tomato that has been crossed with pig DNA to make its skin tougher so that it lasts longer, or corn that has been genetically engineered to include a bacterial gene that makes it immune to certain herbicides.
Since GMO seeds bred in a lab, they are patented, making it not only difficult to save the seeds (as they likely won’t produce true to their parent), but actually illegal! While it is highly unlikely that you will come across GMO seeds as a home gardener, it’s still something to be aware of when selecting both your seeds and your food at the grocery store.
Choosing the Best Plant Varieties For Seed Saving
Another thing you’ll want to know is which plant varieties are easiest to save seeds from. In order to know this, you’ll need to know how they are pollinated.
Self-pollinating plants are the easiest plants to save seeds from. As their name suggests, they don’t require cross-pollination, so there’s very little chance that they will cross with another variety of plant and produce hybrid seeds. This, in turn, means they will produce seeds that will grow true to their parent when replanted, and that’s exactly what you want when saving seeds.
Self-pollinating plants also require the least amount of work because you don’t need to worry about pollinating by hand or about covering plants to keep them from cross-pollinating with another variety. So if you’re a beginner or you’re just looking for the easiest plants to save seeds from, you’re gonna want to choose self-pollinating plants.
Other plants need cross-pollination in order to produce seeds. These plants either have female and male flowers that need to cross-pollinate, or each plant is either a male or a female and the two need to cross-pollinate with each other in order for the female plant to produce seeds.
While it’s absolutely possible to save seeds from cross-pollinating plants, you do need to take some precautions in order to make sure they don’t cross-pollinate with a different variety of plant. If they do cross-pollinate with a different variety, the seeds might not grow true to the plant you saved them from. We’ll talk about some of those precautions in the next section.
How to Save Seeds From Cross-Pollinating Plants
In order to effectively save seed from cross-pollinated plants, you’ll need to make sure that each varieties of plants from the same species are kept far enough away from each other that they won’t cross-pollinate with each other.
Cross-pollinating plants need a minimum amount of space between different varieties of the same species in order to produce seeds that breed true. This amount of space is called the isolation distance.
Plant varieties that are pollinated by insects and wind often need up to a mile or more of distance between different varieties in order to ensure they don’t cross-pollinate. That means you shouldn’t grow, say, pumpkins and spaghetti squash beside each other if you want to save seeds that will breed true to one plant or the other.
I learned this first-hand when I had a volunteer plant pop up in my pumpkin patch last year and realized it was obviously a cross between a pumpkin and a spaghetti squash due to its spaghetti squash-like shape and its pumpkin-like colour. Squashes that cross with different varieties tend to be more watery and less flavourful than their parent plants, which is why you want to be careful when planting two varieties close to each other if you plan on seed saving.
You can still save seeds from cross-pollinating plant varieties if you hand pollinate. The process is definitely more involved than just leaving self-pollinating plants to do all the work themselves, but it is a way to ensure you end up with seeds that will breed true to the parent plant.
There are different methods of hand pollinating, including bagging, caging and taping the pollen-producing and pollen-receiving parts of a given plant. This helps to ensure these plants won’t be able to cross-pollinate on their own and you’ll be able to manually pollinate the female flowers by spreading pollen from the male flowers by hand, either by gently rubbing the male and female flowers together, sprinkling pollen onto the female flowers by hand or by using a small brush or a similar tool to transfer pole from the male to the female plants.
Hand pollinating is a bit more of an advanced and involved technique so if you’re just starting to save seeds I recommend starting with self-pollinating varieties. But if you’re up for a challenge, hand pollinating gives you the ability to save true seeds from different varieties of cross-pollinating plants in your garden. Once you get good at hand pollinating, you can even get creative and try creating your very own hybrid cross!
How to Save Seeds From Common Garden Vegetables
Finally, you need to know how and when to save seeds from different plants in your garden. Most common garden vegetables are annuals, meaning they produce seeds at the end of their growing season in their first year. But some plants (like broccoli, kale, carrots, beets, onions and celery) are biennials, meaning they won’t produce seeds until their second year.
You should definitely know which are which if you want to save seeds from them so you’ll know when to expect the seeds to be ready. This is especially helpful if you plan on succession planting as you’ll know how long you need to leave a particular plant in the ground before it goes to seed.
You should also familiarize yourself with how to save seeds from different plants since seed saving techniques differ between different plant species. For example, beans and peas are probably the easiest seeds to save. All you need to do is leave the pods on the vine until they completely dry up. Then you crack them open and save the dried up seeds from inside.
Saving tomato seeds can be a bit trickier. They usually require a short fermentation, then need to be rinsed well and dried.
Once you decide what plants you want to save seeds from, you can familiarize yourself with the appropriate seed saving technique(s) for those particular plants.
How Does All Of This Affect Your Garden Planning?
When it comes to planning your garden, you’ll need to consider all of the above when deciding
- which plants, varieties and types of seeds you will grow
- where to plant certain varieties (and how far apart)
- whether or not you want to succession plant (and when you’ll be able to)
- whether or not you will need to pollinate by hand, and if you need to purchase any supplies (like netting or tape) to do so
If you plan on saving seeds from your home garden this year, now is the time to start thinking about it. In other words, don’t wait until October to decide you want to save seeds from your pumpkins, because by then they may have already crossed with your zucchinis! An ounce of planning is worth hundreds of homework seeds:)
So get your seeds and garden gloves ready because spring is on its way my friend.
Happy garden planning!
P.S. Be sure to download our FREE Seed Starting Cheat Sheet! Take the guesswork out of starting 10 common garden vegetables from seed and start growing your own organic food at home today!
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