Saving seed

Some of my favorite catalogs have already arrived…still waiting on others!

This time of year, when I’m searching through the seed catalogs and seeing the increased prices I wonder “WHY in the heck didn’t I save more seed?!?!” Or course, I’d still peruse the catalogs for any new, exciting varieties but I grow a lot of the “tried and true” things and could easily have collected and saved seed for much of this coming year’s gardens.

Well, maybe not “easily.”

The main problem of course, is that I grow too many varieties of a single crop so they get cross-pollinated by active insects. If one grows more than one type of tomato or pepper or lettuce or beans or squash or corn or zinnias or marigolds or whatever, and two or more of them bloom at the same time, then cross pollination is bound to occur unless drastic steps are taken, like covering blooms with organza bags, clipping off flowers from related crops, hand-pollinating just as a bloom opens, etc. This sounds easier than it actually is, because it’s hard to be observant enough and speedy enough to get those bags on buds, or catch a flower just as it opens but before a tiny insect bearing pollen sneaks into that opening! Tiny wasps, beetles, bees and ants are often out and working before I am. And they have better eyesight! And there are armies of them all determined to move pollen about. I am only one…

An heirloom red lettuce.

So, I don’t attempt to save a lot of seeds currently, but it’s something I’ve done lots of in the past, and could do again if needed. Right now, in terms of vegetables, I’m only saving the seed from an heirloom, very dark red Deer Tongue Lettuce that I’ve had for decades. Although I grow many types of lettuce, I let very few go to seed, and am careful if I do that only one variety is blooming at a time. I can do this with beans by carefully planning the timing, although it’s much harder to do if one grows pole beans because they bloom over such a very long period. And since I’m only growing Green Arrow peas this year I could collect seed from those, except that I’m growing sweet peas and snow peas, which will likely be blooming at the same time and since they are closely related, that won’t work. I’m unwilling to forego those two crops just to be able to save seed, but I could if the need arises.

Saving seed from a pumpkin or a squash is useless in my small garden because I grow so many types of each and all of them can cross. I only grow a plant or two of each, and I really want them to be exactly what they are supposed to be, not some weird combination. So, I purchase small packets of seed from a company like Pinetree that sells smaller quantities at lower prices per packet, seed only what I need, and carefully store the leftover packets in a tightly sealed bag in a cool, dry, dark location. The seed lasts for years if properly stored so I only have to purchase those once every five or six years. Since I only grow French Breakfast radishes, I could let a few go to seed and collect it easily.

It’s easy to save seed from most herbs: cilantro, cutting celery, parsley, lovage, dill and many other herbs and they will all be fine because there is only one variety of each. However, it would be useless to save seed from the basils, because again, I grow many kinds: clove, cinnamon, lemon, various purples, Geneovese, Spicy Globe, columnar, etc. Of course, if I just want to use them as bouquet filler, it might be fun to collect some seed and just see what I get! Wouldn’t a purple-leaved lemon basil be fun?

The parsley seed is easy to collect when it’s ripe, as are nasturtiums and calendula.

Larger seeds are harvested when they are dry and spread on horizontal window screens to finish drying. If husks or seed coatings need to be removed they are done indoors, usually in the Lady Cottage, and then the seeds are put into envelopes with the name and date written on the front. Tiny seeds are often put into coin envelopes and labelled.

Portulaca or Moss Rose doesn’t always come true from seed!

Two years ago I grew a lovely orange portulaca and saved the seed. The following year, most of the flowers were again orange but there were a few yellow ones. I carefully collected only the seed from the orange ones, but this year there were lots more yellow, some pink, some bordering on red, a few of the original orange, a few white, and a few soft peachy-apricot. I saved the seeds from the peachy-apricot ones and wonder what I’ll get this year.

These are the ones I like best.

I grow lots of hollyhocks from seed I’ve saved because I’m not overly concerned about what color they will be. I do only collect the seed from the ones I like best, but often a pink or red one shows up when the new plants begin to bloom. They end up in the garden club plant sale eventually. The same with sweet peas, although I tend to purchase one “fresh, new” variety each year because some of the more valued colors tend to disappear over time. Columbine seeds are easy to collect and if one doesn’t mind about specific colors, easy to grow. Columbines are notorious for crossing, and again over time the more rare colors can be lost and varieties that were dwarf may eventually be tall. This also happens often with sunflowers, with seeds saved from shorter plants growing very tall the following year but if one doesn’t care about height it’s a cheap, easy way to get a lot of sunflowers.

Rudbeckia “Chim Chimnee”

Recently, seeds collected from Gaillardia “Arizona Apricot” were seeded in the basement, and they are germinating nicely. Since it is the only gaillardia I grow, it “comes true” from seed, at least it has for about 8 years now. I also save seed from perennial blue flax, bread seed poppies, talinum, feverfew, hellebores, larkspur and nigella. I collect seeds from rudbeckia and am often happily surprised at the shapes and color combinations that result. I love the quilled one shown above, but so far all the seeds collected from it and grown are yellow or a combination of yellow and rust, some quilled, some not. However, in my view, one can never have too many rudbeckia and all of them are excellent garden flowers (except for the common Black-Eyed Susans, which can take over an entire garden in no time!)

Perennial bunching onions in mid March…ready to harvest! No winter cover or care required!

Bunching “Evergreen” onion seed can also be saved, because the only other Allium family members that are allowed to bloom in the potager are the chives, which bloom earlier and the garlic chives, which bloom later.

Seed from broccoli and kale are easy to collect, but since they are cousins they should not be allowed to bloom at the same time, and generally the broccoli I grow is a hybrid in order to get a good crop before the hot weather arrives. Collecting seed from a hybrid is generally a “risky” thing because it’s likely that the resulting plant will revert back to a grandparent that may be very unlike the hybrid in growth pattern, timing of maturity, disease resistance, etc. And, in all the years I’ve gardened, I’ve never seen a cabbage produce seed, but obviously it happens. Maybe I should do some research. Maybe they have to winter over and produce their bloom stalk the following year. Many other vegetables do that, like salsify and carrots.

So, it’s likely that I will attempt to be more observant and take some steps to get “pure” seed for saving, but it’s also very likely that I will just order from the catalogs as usual. They do such a wonderful job,and I’m willing to pay for their efforts. But, if shortages begin to be more commonplace, I have the experience that I could collect, cure and save the seeds for the foods we need most and that’s a valuable tool. I’d just have to greatly reduce the number of varieties I grow. Let’s see…if I could only grow one pepper, one tomato, one squash, one bean variety…what would they be? What would you choose?


About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
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6 Responses to Saving seed

  1. bcparkison says:

    There isa trick to every trade and I don’t always know the trick.


  2. Going Batty in Wales says:

    I buy my seed from a local company Real Seeds who supply only open pollinated ones so they grow true (unless they cross). They encourage customers to save seed – both to ensure survival of mainly old varieties and because the saved sseed will gradually be selected for the plants that do best in my garden. Their website has comprhensive and clear instructions.


    • carolee says:

      That’s a great company. I’m still greedy when it comes to having a variety of colors, shapes, flavors and textures to view and harvest in my gardens, and then to utilize in the kitchen so I’m not focusing on seed saving right now. If there comes a times when it’s more of a necessity, I’ll have some weird crops coming up from any crossed seeds I save, but some if not most will still taste good!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really wanted to save seeds from my Titan sunflowers to see if I can increase the head size over time but I ruined that by planting so many varieties;) I guess I’ll just have to eat them instead.


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