Just as civilization has saved “Aida,” the Mona Lisa, and Macbeth for future generations, so should we save seeds of old-time vegetables and grafting material of heirloom fruit trees, says Carolyn Jabs in her book The Heirloom Gardener. They represent valuable achievements made by generations of gardeners and give a large range of choices to our descendants. Annual vegetable varieties are gossamer entities. Unlike a concerto that might be out of favor for a few years but is preserved because it is written on a sheet of paper, a carrot that has been grown for centuries can disappear in a year or two if no one grows it.
Growing an heirloom vegetable garden is an exciting variation on the usual array of current varieties such as ‘Yolo Wonder’ peppers, ‘Silver Queen’ corn, and ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes. It’s stimulating to try the old-time yellow tomatoes, purple broccoli, and cylindrical potatoes, not to mention the feeling of kinship you’ll have with previous generations while you shell the same kind of beans your great-grandmother might have shelled.
Some of these old varieties have traits that make them valuable eating in their own right, while others may be good only for future breeding stock. The effect of acid rain, carbon monoxide, and salty irrigation water on plants, for example, could not have been predicted one hundred years ago. Some of the old varieties will grow well with less nitrogen or water; others are more salt tolerant. There will be many problems in the future that we can’t foresee; therefore, it makes sense to keep as many plant-gene options as possible open for future generations.
How serious is the problem of annual vegetable variety erosion? Very! Thousands of varieties have already been lost. Kent Whealy, founder of Seed Savers Exchange, figures that only 20 percent of the pea varieties once in cultivation are still available. In the early 1990s a scientist compiled a list of 8,000 varieties of apples, and in 1981 the USDA could find only 1,000 varieties.
A great loss of varieties happened in the early part of this century when seed saving was discouraged and hybrid seeds were introduced. (In plant breeding, hybridizers cross specially selected strains and produce a second generation with desired characteristics.) Hybrid vegetables and grains have made American farms the most productive in the world, but, as with everything else in life, there have been tradeoffs. Home gardeners have benefited from hybrids that are more disease resistant, more vigorous and higher yielding, but the cost has been high. Not collecting seeds means buying seeds and being dependent on seed companies, which means fewer options for home growing.
The erosion of home varieties is starting to snowball. The new wave of losses is a result of a growing national trend—the buying up and consolidation of many small seed companies by multinational corporations. And because farmers buy the great majority of seeds in this country, varieties of vegetables that are tailored for agriculture—extra-firm for shipping, simultaneous ripening of the whole crop—are now stressed. As a consequence, countless home varieties are being dropped.
You can help. You can save some of your own seeds. You can share them with others. You can join a seed-saving organization and grow some of the rarer varieties. Even some of the old woody carrot varieties and mealy potatoes have value, because some are particularly disease resistant. You can help also by spreading the word. Most of the media is flooded with the latest information on the newest hybrid. These hybrids are usually great, but we have relied too much on them, and an adjustment period is needed.
The panda and the snow leopard are endangered, and often we can do nothing more than send a check to a conservation organization or a letter to a senator. Saving heirloom seeds, however, has a direct impact on the problem. In addition, growing heirloom varieties is interesting; it’s a great way to get a sense of history. Perhaps it will bring back a childhood memory and save you some money. You may very well discover that ‘Howling Mob’ corn and ‘Purple’ beans are the tastiest vegetables you have ever eaten.
Planning and Preparation
Because of the unpredictability of a first-time heirloom vegetable garden (that is, not knowing how well each variety will do in your garden and not knowing how well you will like each variety), you should not plan it as your only vegetable garden. Rather, it can be an exciting addition to some of your tried-and-true favorites.
To start your heirloom garden, you must obtain the seeds, thus, your introduction to seed saving. There are a number or ways to obtain seeds of heirloom species. The best way is to talk with some of your neighbors to find out if they have any varieties to share with you. If you don’t come up with anything, contact Seed Savers Exchange or one of the other seed-saving organizations, or buy your seeds from one of the new seed companies that cater to heirloom growers.
Making your seed selections will take some research. There is much more variability with some of the old-time varieties than with hybrids in adaptability, viability, and yield. Some varieties taste better; some taste worse than what you’re used to; some are just different. Some of the old string-bean varieties, for example, are particularly tasty, but each bean has a string down the side that is too tough to eat and must be pulled off; hence, the name string bean, right? You may like the taste but not the stringing.
Another characteristic of many of the old varieties is that they keep well. Before refrigeration it was critical that vegetables keep for long periods of time without rotting. Consequently, many of the old turnip, carrot, beet, and cabbage varieties can be stored very well in a root cellar. Another factor to consider when growing heirlooms is that while many of the varieties are disease resistant, others are particularly prone to certain diseases, and others have a very limited optimum-growth environmental range.
The limitations of some of the old varieties are what helped to make hybrids as popular today as they are. Hybrids offer adaptability, yield, and disease resistance. Remember, though, that one of the goals of growing heirloom plants is to make sure that we have the necessary starting points for future hybridization.
Begin by choosing six to eight varieties. The easiest families to start with are the legumes—beans and peas—and the solanaceae—tomatoes peppers, and eggplants. Order a catalog from one of the heirloom seed companies. Stick to open-pollinated varieties, no hybrids; the reasons will become clear as you read on.
A Prototype Heirloom Vegetable Garden
A good way to start your seed-saving adventure is to use the following as a guide.
1. Corn ‘Shoepeg’ 30 plants 1 foot apart in rows 3 feet apart
2. Beans (Pole) ‘Blue Coco’ 12 plants on tepee
3. Cucumber ‘Windermoor Wonder’ 3 plants staked
4. Beans (Pole) ‘Wren’s Egg’ 12 plants on tepee
5. Tomato ‘Persimmon’ 2 plants caged
6. Tomato (Paste) ‘Italian’ 2 plants caged
7. Eggplant ‘Early Long Purple’ 3 plants 20″ apart
8. Pepper ‘Ruby King’ 3 plants 20″ apart
9. Beans ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ 40 plants 3″ apart
Choose a part of your yard that receives at least six hours of sun each day. The layout of this garden is north to south, because you don’t want taller plants such as corn and pole beans to shade the shorter vegetables. I have chosen a summer heirloom garden to start because most of the vegetables are easy to grow. The heirloom varieties are grown the same way that modern vegetables are. Take note of the layout; not only is it important to have taller vegetables at the back, but when you are seed saving, you must try to isolate the plants that may cross-pollinate. Therefore, the different bean varieties have been separated by rows of other vegetables.
You can plant heirloom varieties of corn and cucumbers in your garden if you can isolate them; however, if you or your neighbors are growing other varieties of cucumbers or corn within 300 feet, you cannot save the seeds because the pollen from the other varieties may be carried to your heirloom plants, pollinating them and changing the next generation of the heirloom varieties.
People stopped regularly saving seeds early in this century when hybrid seeds—seeds produced by selectively bred plants—were introduced. Because hybrid seeds do not come true from seed—that is, succeeding generations are not like the parent plant—saving seeds was no longer worthwhile. Hybrid seeds virtually guaranteed the seed companies that their customers would return year after year. Over the last sixty or seventy years the American public has been so conditioned to buy seeds for the latest hybrids that a generation or two of gardeners has not learned how to save seeds from favorite plants.
As I said earlier, I never even thought about saving my own seeds when I started vegetable gardening. Seeds, in my experience, came in beautiful packages, not from my plants. I have just recently begun to learn about seed saving and have been amazed at how simple and satisfying it is. I keep a few ‘Dutch White Runner’ beans each year for the next year’s crop. When they are completely dry, I freeze them for a day to kill any weevil eggs that may be in them, and label them—that’s all there is to it. Once I went through the process, I felt like a chump for having faithfully sent off to Maine every spring for a new package of ‘Dutch White Runner’ beans—an open-pollinated variety that I could have saved easily myself.
I want to begin this explanation on how to save seeds with a review of the birds-and-bees information we think we know all about, until we are called upon to explain it. The reproduction of seed plants involves the transference of pollen, which contains the sperm cells produced by the male flower part, the stamen, to the stigma, which contains the ovary, the female organ. This transfer process is called pollination. Once a plant has been pollinated, seeds form. If the pollen from a flower fertilizes the ovary of the same flower, the process is called self-pollination. To self-pollinate, a flower must have both stamen and stigma; such a flower is called a perfect flower. Beans and peas have perfect flowers and are usually self-pollinated. When there is a transference of pollen, either between flowers on the same plant or between flowers on different plants, the process is called cross-pollination. In that case, pollen is carried from flower to flower either by an insect or by the wind. Corn, squash, broccoli, and beets are cross-pollinated.
In seed saving your aim is to preserve existing varieties unaltered. To do so it is necessary to avoid cross-pollination of the plant you intend to preserve. Say, for example, that you have a banana squash plant situated next to a zucchini plant. Along comes a bee that visits a male flower on the banana squash plant then flies to a female flower on the zucchini plant, transferring pollen from banana squash to zucchini—cross-pollinating the zucchini. If you planted the seeds from the pollinated zucchini the next year, the result would be a cross between the two plants. Sometimes the cross produces a good offspring, and that’s one way we get new varieties. Usually, you’ll just get a weird squash. I remember once letting some squash plants mature that had sprouted in the compost pile. I got a cross between a striped summer ball squash and an acorn squash: a striped, tough-skinned, stringy summer squash.
You can see that when you intend to save the seeds of your plants in order to preserve varieties over the generations, you must always take steps to prevent cross-pollination. With plants such as beans, which have perfect flowers and usually pollinate themselves before they open, cross-pollination is seldom a problem. Others, such as plants in the squash and cucumber family, cross-pollinate readily and must be planted in isolation to ensure that the variety will remain pure.
There are a number of ways to isolate plants. First, you can plant only one variety of each type of vegetable, since cross-pollination does not occur between different genera. Second, you can plant potential cross-pollinators far from each other. Some varieties need only one hundred feet between them; others require half a mile. This is where your research—getting information from books on the subject or from nurseries that specialize in open-pollinated varieties—pays off. Finally, you can use a physical barrier: a number of rows of tall corn between the species, or plant the species on either side of an existing building.
I have mentioned that saving the seeds of hybrids is wasted energy, since hybrid seeds don’t reproduce true. A hybrid is analogous to a mule. You get a mule by crossing a horse with a donkey; that is, you cross closely related species to create a new entity. That is also how a hybrid is created. The second generation, the mule, however, is sterile (not all hybrids are sterile). When you want to produce another mule, you must again cross a horse and a donkey; mules don’t beget mules. In plant breeding, hybridists cross specially selected strains to produce a generation that possesses desired characteristics as well as what is called hybrid vigor (unusually strong or productive plants). Because you don’t know which parents were crossed to create your hybrid plant (it’s all a trade secret), you cannot produce the offspring. When you save seeds, then, you have to know which are pure, or open-pollinated, varieties and which are hybrids. Those that are open-pollinated are the only ones you can reproduce consistently. To prevent confusion, seed nurseries label the hybrids. That information is indicated in the catalog and on the seed packet. You may notice the designation “F1 hybrid”—that is simply a form of hybrid.
In addition to knowing about pollination and hybrids, you must know the life cycles of the plants you are dealing with. While the life cycles of most of our vegetables are annual (maturing in one season), many are biennial, which means that they take two seasons to reproduce. Some popular biennials are beets, carrots, parsley, and chard; and these will not produce seeds the first growing season.
Following are some basic guidelines for seed savers.
1. Learn to recognize plant diseases since some of them, particularly the viral ones, are transmitted by seeds.
2. Always label the seed rows and packaged seeds, because our memories sometimes play tricks on us.
3. Never plant all your seeds at once; the elements might wipe you out.
4. Learn to select the best seeds for the next generation. For seed saving, select seeds from the healthiest plants and from those producing the best vegetables.
5. To maintain a strong gene pool, select seeds from a number of plants, not from just one or two (This advice does not apply to self-pollinating varieties).
6. Get to know the vegetable families; members of the same family often cross-pollinate.
7. Only mature, ripe seeds will be viable.
Seeds must be stored carefully to ensure that they germinate in the next season. The greatest enemy of seed viability is moisture, so be sure to dry the seeds thoroughly before storing them. A good test of moisture content is to bite the seed; if you can’t dent it, it’s probably dry enough.
Another enemy is heat. Seeds must be stored in a cool, dry, dark place, or, if sufficiently dry and in a sealed container, seeds can be frozen too. They will stay viable for years in a freezer if properly packaged. Also, freezing helps protect the seeds from insects, not an uncommon problem of seed savers (Don’t freeze beans or peas, though, they need more air than freezing provides.)
Beans are the easiest vegetable seeds to save. Most beans are self-pollinating, so you don’t have to worry about cross-pollination when you plant them. In fact, you’ll be able to grow 2 or 3 varieties with very few pollination problems. John Withee, one of this nation’s most devoted seed savers plants 250 varieties of beans every summer. He suggests planting varieties that are very different side by side; then, if any crossing does occur, the seeds that result will look quite different and you’ll know that your selected variety has been altered. When harvest time approaches, start choosing the plants that are the healthiest. With snap beans, let some of the healthy plants mature. They will be mature about six weeks after the eating stage. With dry bean varieties, allow them to mature as you would ordinarily. Beans usually ripen from the bottom to the top. Pick them as soon as the pods start to crack, so the beans won’t fall to the ground and get damp. Don’t pick the beans right after it has rained.
Do not save beans from diseased plants. Diseases borne by bean seeds are anthracnose and bacterial blight. The symptoms of anthracnose are small brown spots that enlarge to sunken black spots. Bacterial blight is characterized by dark green spots on the pods that slowly become dry and brick red. The most bothersome pest of bean seeds is the weevil.
After you thoroughly dry the bean seeds, package them in a breathable container, label them, and freeze them for twenty-four hours to kill the weevils. Then put them in a cold, dark place. That’s all there is to it.