Seed Saving

Summer 2012
‘Klari Baby Cheese’ pepper
Peppers are among the easiest of crops from which to save seed. Just be sure the fruit is mature, as is this ‘Klari Baby Cheese’ pepper. English photo.

By Roberta Bailey

When people first visit my farm, many are surprised by how little space it takes to grow seed crops. On the home scale it can be quite small. Erase the vision of acres of dry beans or fields of wheat. Picture a 10-foot row of garden peas or a trellis of morning glories, 10 tomatoes or peppers. On the farm scale, rows of seed crops can be intercropped with market crops.

Why Save Seed?

Why make the time in your busy farm life to save seed? For more seed security, for one reason. How many times have you gone to order your favorite seed variety only to find that it is no longer available? Or have you ever wished a certain crop was just a little hardier, or that all plants performed like that one plant in the row did that one year?

Other reasons include concern about seed contaminated with genes from genetically engineered crops; having trouble finding pea seed that is not full of other types of peas (off-types); scary spring seed bills; or the desire to diversify farm income or get away from weekly produce deliveries and markets.

The seed industry continues to merge into a few very large multinational corporations. When small companies are bought, their locally adapted varieties are dropped in favor of those that perform pretty well in many climates. If not for an upsurge of local seed saving efforts and of small seed companies specializing in hardy heirloom varieties, we would be left to grow varieties bred for Texas that barely produce in New England.

Contamination with genes from genetically engineered crops is a growing concern. It is increasingly difficult to find clean corn, soy, beet or chard seed – even organic seed. Much beet and chard seed available in the seed industry is grown in or near the Willamette Valley, where Monsanto keeps trying to grow GE sugar beets.

Saving your own seed won’t lower that spring seed bill as much as we would all like, but it will help.

Perhaps a greater gain comes from an increase in quality. Peas are a good example. Pea seed is fairly cheap. It can’t be turned into a fancy, expensive hybrid, so pea growers try to produce it as cheaply as possible. And it costs money to pay labor to rogue fields. So no one is pulling plants that are not true to the variety being grown – and farmers are seeing huge amounts of off-types in pea rows. The same is happening to inexpensive radish, rutabaga and carrot crops. As a result farmers lose productivity and incur added labor costs to avoid or sort out the problems. It is worth the time and money to grow your own or at least buy organic seed produced on a small scale by farmers who are roguing their fields.

If you save seed, you always have that variety. I save ‘Lutz’ beet, ‘Blizzard’ snow pea, ‘Miragreen’ shell pea, ‘Scarlet Keeper’ carrot, and ‘Beer Friend’ and ‘Sayamusume’ soybeans because I was tired of finding that they were no longer available.

In New England, it is not possible or practical to save seed for everything we like to grow. It is possible to save seed from many crops. Our short growing season and cold winters limit us to plants that can mature seed in less than 120 days. Peppers, tomatoes, peas and beans are an easy place to start.

When you save seed, it begins to adapt to your microclimate and growing techniques. Often seed that we buy has been produced using intensive chemical spraying. A conventionally grown cabbage seed crop may be have been sprayed 10 times. Plants produced from that seed know how to grow best under those conditions. A plant grown in your soil and climate and with your organic practices will adapt to that situation. The ‘Czech Black’ hot peppers I grow are now more uniform and produce more peppers per plant because I saved seed from the plants with the best yields and the fruit shape I desired. My ‘Breadseed’ poppies no longer have vents in the heads, so seed does not fall out of the heads when I harvest them. I am selecting a Russian variety of rice for early maturity in central Maine.

Growing seed as a cash crop can be profitable. The seed can be the entire goal or part of a value added system. I started saving seed from tomatoes because I was making sauce and removing the seed. I looked at all the seed and realized I could be selling it. A farmer who raises ‘Long Pie’ pumpkins removes the seed to sell, then sells the flesh to a dog biscuit maker. Hot peppers can be grown for seed and the flesh made into hot sauce, salsa or chili paste.

Value added products may fit your farm system or may add too much work. A successful farmer is always tweaking systems, trying new things and scaling up those that fit well. I grow ‘Green Doctor’ cherry tomato solely for seed, because that is the most efficient use of my time. The pulp goes to the chickens. With ‘Goldie’ tomato, a beefsteak with a solid core of pulp, I extract the seed and make golden salsa from the pulp. Some of my pepper crops get ground up and the seed extracted while the pulp is fed to the chickens. When chickens eat pepper pulp, their egg yolks turn scarlet.

Seed crops sometimes need more time in the field than food crops, so plan field rotations accordingly. Peas planted for fresh eating are done three to four weeks before seed peas. When I save seed for farm use, I usually tie off a section of the row and do not pick any of it. Once the peas are all mature and dry, I pick the entire section and save it for next year’s seed. Twenty feet of peas will usually yield at least 1 pound of seed. I plan my rows so that the seed section will not interfere with tilling and planting the next crop.

Some years I plant a long row of each variety and save it all, harvesting enough seed for three or four years. Most seeds will last three years; many, five to ten.

The Basics

The website has thorough seed saving information. Here are some of the basics.

Botanically, plants are arranged hierarchically by class, then family, genus and species. The Latin name for a plant (Daucus carota, for carrot) is the genus and species. Such classifications help identify plants and figure out if they will cross-pollinate or not.

Open-pollinated varieties grow seed that will produce the same true variety for generations. Hybrid varieties are the offspring of a cross between two parent varieties. Seed saved from a hybrid will not produce that same plant, but some genetic combination of the two original parents.

Some plants, such as peas, beans, soybeans, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce, are essentially self-pollinating. Save the seed and it will grow true the next year. All fruits on the plant, big or small, have the same genetic makeup. To maintain a full array of the plant’s genetic diversity, grow and save seed from 20 or more plants. If you save seed from one self-pollinating plant, it will grow fine, but you are narrowing the genetic diversity.

The easiest way to start saving seed is to start with self-pollinated varieties. To save tomato seed, set those plants as far from your other tomatoes as possible, or at least 25 feet, to reduce the very small chance of crossing. Potato-leaf varieties will cross with each other, and double blossom varieties can be pollinated by another variety.

Cross-pollinated plants, such as brassicas, corn, carrots, beets, squash, cukes and melons, rely on the pollen from other plants to produce viable seed. They need much larger populations – a minimum of 25 to 100 plants and at least 200 for corn – to maintain health and vigor. And they need isolation distances of 250 feet to many miles. The easiest approach is to grow only one variety of a given genus and species in one year. Tall barriers, such as a corn patch or row of trees, can break wind and insect flight patterns and help reduce distances needed between varieties that could cross. A physical barrier such as a screen cage or row cover can isolate a crop. I use wire hoops and poly row covers on some seed crops to keep them pure. I also grow one variety one year and another the next. My ‘Lutz’ beet seed crop produced enough seed for five to 10 years, leaving me free to produce other beet seed crops in the interim.

Think about spacing. A tomato or pepper plant does not need any more space as a seed crop than it does as a fruiting crop, but spinach, lettuce and carrot crops do. My beet plants take up almost 2 feet each. A lettuce plant will spread to 18 inches or 2 feet. I give my seed crops extra minerals (usually as Azomite) to help feed the seed production.

Keep good records. Label seedlings, planted rows and stored seed. Keep a map to back up records in case a critter eats a row marker or weather washes out the ink. When I harvest seed I label the harvest bucket and throw the row marker inside the container as well.

If you notice an “off-type” plant – one very different from others – rogue (pull) it. Pull any diseased plants as well. Roguing will keep seed pure and healthy. Sometimes a variety takes a few years of roguing before no off-types are found. You can save seed from an interesting off-type and grow it out the next year to see what happens. You may be on your way to creating a new variety or at least be on a little botanical adventure.

When you save seed, the plant adapts to your growing conditions. What are you selecting for? You may save from disease resistant, highest yielding or blemish free plants. Over time you can tailor varieties for your own farm. Avoid saving seed from the first lettuce plants to go to seed, as that selects for lettuce that bolts early. Try to save from plants that bolt last.

Yields vary widely with varieties. Generally 100 tomato or pepper plants yield 1 pound of seed. A 300-foot row of soup peas yields 30 to 40 pounds seed. Thirty feet of ‘Breadseed’ poppies yields 1 1/2 pounds of seed.

To grow seed for profit, try it on a small scale first to see if it fits your farm system. Some crops need little attention other than planting, weeding and harvesting. I do all my pepper seed cleaning in late October, but tomato seed is harvested throughout late summer.

Seed companies usually contract with growers early in the calendar year. Contact companies then to see if they want specific crops grown for them. Growing their crops with their seed stock is usually easier to arrange than growing a seed crop on your own and then trying to sell it. Seed companies will want to trial new varieties before picking them up, but they are often looking for farms to produce crops for them.

Some companies have a seed contract; some are far less formal. Some have specific delivery deadlines and bonuses for early delivery or penalties for late delivery. Some will clean the seed. Others expect seed to be delivered completely cleaned. Some charge for cleaning. Get these terms spelled out.

Whether for farm use or for income, seed saving connects you with generations of farmers who saved their own seed. Your farm thrives on the descendants of their work. Is it time to select a few varieties for future profits or future generations?

About the author: Roberta is a long-time writer for The MOF&G. She farms in Vassalboro, Maine.

This article is adapted from one that ran in The Natural Farmer,

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.