Saving Seeds and Saving Vegetables: A Multibook Review

May 22, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Say you’re an experienced gardener, adept at sowing and transplanting, weeding and harvesting. You’re ready for the next step in self-sufficiency; it’s time to start saving your own seed rather than always depending on buying new seeds from catalogs or a supermarket rack. But where can you get good information on how to do this reliably? I collected five books on the subject, two of which also go into breeding plants, to compare them for you.
Image RemovedSaving Seeds: the Gardener’s Guide to growing and Storing Vegetable and Flower Seeds by Marc Rogers, Storey Publishing 1990
This is a paperback available from Pinetree Seeds. The information is limited compared to the bigger and more expensive books below, but for someone interested in delving into seed-saving only lightly, it might be a good choice. It has line illustrations. Like all the others, it starts with a section explaining the basics of choosing and isolating and processing seed from the most common vegetables, and a few flowers, and then goes into detail on particular vegetables, organized by family. The handiest page for me is the chart that tells how many years each kind of seed is typically viable in home storage—important for planning what to save seed from, and when. A big issue with seed-saving is isolating your seed plants from others of the same species with which they might cross; but if the seed you save this year is good for another few years, then next year you can grow whatever varieties you want of that species, and focus your seed-saving on other crops.
This one focuses on breeding special varieties of vegetables and flowers, rather than just saving the seeds and perpetuating favorite strains developed by others. The best part of this one is the enthusiasm of the author, the feeling he imparts that you can jump right in with little knowledge and develop good new varieties yourself. The author has advanced genetics and horticultural knowledge, but the book doesn’t get technical.
Image RemovedBreed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: the Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving by Carol Deppe (1993, second edition 2000 Chelsea Green)
This one also features an author with technical expertise who nonetheless conveys the information in layman’s terms and with infectious enthusiasm. But this one is a bigger book, and Deppe goes into quite a bit of detail about the genetics behind the decisions you make as you plan and execute a breeding project. There are practical reasons for imparting this information, but it does get a bit dense; I had to read some of the chapters twice. She also has lots of stories which illustrate the principles and encourage experimentation; she shows that it isn’t necessary to have lots of land or time to successfully develop a desired new cultivar…at least not always. Other books explain the difference between “inbreeder”s and “outbreeders”; this one shows that there is a spectrum, and makes clear what the difference means in terms of designing a breeding program for the plant you want to work with.
Image RemovedSeed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth, (Seed Savers Exchange, 2002)
This book has only 33 pages of general information on seed saving before plunging into the section in which recommendations are given for saving seed from all the common and many less common vegetables, organized by family. Ashworth seems to regard saving varieties with as little change as possible as our mission; she does not discuss deliberately breeding for improved or changed strains, for which reason I found Deppe’s book the more interesting and useful of the two more comprehensive books. I note that this second edition does mention Deppe’s book; and Deppe’s mentions this one, as good sources.
Image RemovedThe Complete Guide to Saving Seeds, by Robert and Cheryl Gough
Like the others, this one starts with general principles and then goes through the details about individual species; this one includes vegetables, flowers and even trees and shrubs. It skims over breeding very lightly but has quite a bit of information about saving seeds from existing varieties of a wide variety of species.
So which book should you buy (or check out from the library)? That depends on whether your goal is to save strains just as you got them, or to develop new cultivars. If you just want to reliably save seed from open-pollinated strains that you like, then Ashworth’s book is the standard, and the Goughs’ a good alternative–but Rogers’ will do for an introduction. You also might want to join the Seed Savers’ Exchange, and get their catalog.

If, on the other hand, you want to develop new varieties, then Tychonievich’s is certainly worth the read but if you’re serious, Deppe’s book is easily worth the $20 or so it will cost to have it on your shelf. There is too much information to absorb at one reading. You’ll want to consult it to figure out the best approach to your project depending whether your target is an inbreeder or an outbreeder, depending on your goals, and you’ll need it to adjust your plan as the generations pass and give indications by the percentages of different phenotypes exhibited, of what the genotypes must be. I‘m now contemplating trying to dehybridize the new Iron Lady tomato to get the genes for resistance to septoria blight  (my nemesis) into an open-pollinated variety that has high acid and good flavor…but I’ll need to be able to consult Deppe to guide me on such an ambitious project. 

Mary Wildfire

Mary Wildfire lives on the Hickory Ridge Land Trust in West Virginia with her husband Don. She endeavors to grow more and more of their food, while continuing her quest to figure out how to save the world. Currently she’s writing novels set in the near future, because she thinks the depiction of a positive future is dangerously neglected.

Tags: building resilient food systems, home gardening, plant breeding, seed saving