Summer 1998
Drawing by Toki Oshima
Drawing by Toki Oshima

By Roberta Bailey

When we plant a seed, we create a direct link between our ancestral past and our potential future. The seed we plant has traveled around the world, from farmer to farmer, from native populations to traders and conquerors to royalty and eventually back to farmers. The carrot seed that we plant originated in Afghanistan, tomatoes and peppers in South America, potatoes in the Peruvian Andes, eggplant in central Asia, watermelon in tropical Africa. Most of our Brassicas originated in the Mediterranean basin. Lettuce was first noted in Greek and Roman times. (The word ‘romaine’ is an adulteration of the word ‘Roman.’) Peas are quite ancient: the oldest saved seed found at the Spirit Cave site on the Thai-Burmese border, dates back to 9750 B.C. Peas were also prevalent throughout the Mediterranean region to the Near East and central Africa. Their paths have led them in and out of popularity and through a long culinary history.

North America, the cultural melting pot, is also a wealth of genetic diversity. Seed traveled northward from Central and South America, carried along footpaths by native populations. It came with early European settlers, and later treasured seed from the old country came sewn into the hems, hat bands, and suitcase linings of generations of immigrants, a piece of their culture. More recently, seed has come with the Vietnamese, Laotian and Haitian immigrants as well as from the former Soviet Union.

Over the last century, our increased dependence on seed companies has drastically reduced our direct links to our seed heritage. Small, regionally based seed companies can offer varieties that perform well in the surrounding climate, but even they can’t maintain every family heirloom in their area. Of greater concern are the immense multinational seed-chemical-pharmaceutical corporations that buy up the biggest companies that have bought out the mid-size seed houses that have bought out the small regional companies. They control what seed gets grown and who can buy it. Local varieties that do thrive in our little frost pockets draw no attention from the corporate eye unless they have genetic traits of value to research.

We have all lamented the loss of a favorite variety, no longer available in any seed catalog. Even as self-sufficient home gardeners, our food supply is in the hands of the multi-nationals. One can only start to save the seed from those important varieties, or start to seek varieties that never were in a seed catalog. (Commercial availability is not always the measure of quality.)

Interest in saving seed is rising. This year Seed Savers Exchange had 991 of its members listing 19,622 varieties of seed, including 11,044 unique listings. Members are offering nearly twice the number of open pollinated varieties as the entire mail order garden seed industry in the United States and Canada. Once again, home gardeners are the stewards of our genetic heritage.

Many of us start to save a few beans or tomato seed, and learn as we need more information. A few basics are helpful. Every plant has a botanical classification. Each vegetable belongs to a family: carrots, parsnips and parsley to the Umbelliferae; tomatoes, peppers, eggplant to Solanaceae; etc. Families are divided into genera with subdivisions being species. Lettuce, Lactuca sativa, is in the Compositae family, the Lactuca genus and sativa species. Plants of the same genus and species can potentially pollinate each other.

Plants are either self pollinating or cross pollinating. A self pollinating plant has flowers that pollinate themselves, often before opening, or they pollinate another flower on the same plant. Insects are not strongly attracted to them. Crosspollinating plants transfer pollen from one plant to another, by insect or wind. Male and female flowers form on the same plant or plants are entirely male or female. If growing two or more cross­pollinating plants of the same species, they need to be isolated from each other by specific distances. Isolation distances are listed in Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. A simple solution is to grow only one variety of each species.

Cross-pollinated   Self-pollinated
asparagus pumpkin barley
beet radish flax
broccoli rutabaga millet
Brussels sprouts
spinach oats
cabbage squash wheat
cauliflower sunflower common bean
celeriac Swiss chard
fava bean
celery turnip lima bean
Chinese cabbage
watermelon pea
cucumber cilantro runner bean
kale dill sweet pea
kohlrabi fennel chicory
leeks mustard eggplant
lettuce parsley endive
melon corn lettuce
onion   okra
orach   pepper
parsnip   tomato

Know your goals. Are you trying to adapt a variety to mature in your climate, or selecting for disease resistance or some specific traits, trying to preserve a vegetable to specific historical accuracy, or simply maintaining a genetically diverse, healthy variety. Observation is important. Save seed from strong healthy plants that display the desired traits.

Save seed from as many plants as possible. With self-pollinating plants, a minimum of six to 10 plants is necessary to maintain a wide genetic representation. Seed saved from just one plant will grow well, but you may be losing some background genetic material. Cross-pollinating plants rely on larger populations to sustain their integrity. A minimum of 16 plants is necessary for some, while 64 is the minimum for others. Corn needs a minimum of 200 plants, while 1000 plants will give you a complete genetic picture. Fewer numbers of crosspollinating plants compounds the presence of deleterious genes in their systems, thus weakening them in many ways and causing ‘inbreeding depression.’

Easiest Species

Tomatoes and beans are two easy, self-pollinating plants from which to start saving seed. With tomatoes, all of the fruit on the plant is genetically identical. If you want specific traits, such as early ripening, choose the plants that ripen earliest, not just the first fruit. Select very ripe to overripe fruit. Squeeze the seed into a container and label it. The pulp can be eaten. Let the seed ferment for two to four days, or until the gel sack around the seed dissolves. This gel is a sprout inhibitor. Once it dissolves, the seed can sprout in the watery slurry. Add more water and rinse the seed by pouring off the pulp and immature floating seed. The good seed sinks. Repeat this process until only clean seed remains, then spread the seed on newspaper or a dish and dry it. Avoid direct sunlight or excessive heat. Stirring the seed while it dries lessens clumping. Rub clumped seed against a screen to free it. The seed will be fuzzier than commercial seed. Regular leaf varieties will not cross at all. Potato leaf varieties will cross a little if other potato leaf varieties are nearby. Currant tomatoes (Lycopersicon pimpinellifolium) will also cross with each other. Avoid saving seed from the fruit of those large double blossom: Their flower structure is somewhat different and can be insect pollinated. Save seed from a minimum of six plants of one variety and mix the seed together, a process called ‘bulking.’ Store it in paper, plastic, metal or glass containers. All seed should be protected from rodents. Tomato seed remains viable for five to 10 years.

Beans are grown as usual, with care taken to plant each variety in a block or separate area. Reports vary on the amount of cross pollination that occurs in bean varieties. Crossing is usually visible in the seed coat or shape. Odd beans can be culled. I space my varieties at least 10 feet apart, planting dissimilar varieties next to each other. Green bean varieties seem to cross some, pole and dry beans very little. The beans should be left to mature in their pods until dry but not shattering. Entire plants are pulled and dried in a well ventilated, dry area. Seeds are thrashed out and separated from their chaff by winnowing or screen cleaning. Allow beans to dry until they shatter when struck with a hammer or are brittle to the tooth. Store Store them in a cool, dry place.

Peas are similar to beans. I save all the peas on the plants, figuring that early pods will be better than those left after I had eaten the first few batches. Stringing off a section of the pea row has been a simple solution. Once the pods are drying, I pick them and spread them in an airy place to fully dry. Once dry they can be shelled or stored in pods until you have time to thrash them. A minimum of 24 plants is acceptable, more is much better. Seed remains viable for at least four years.

Lettuce requires a little more attention. Most of us have had the odd lettuce plant go to seed. Saving seed from these early bolting specimens selects for early bolting lettuce. Better to set out lettuce seedlings and not pick off any of their leaves for your salads. Let them devote all of their energy to their task. They will send up a 3 to 5-foot stalk with daisy-like yellow flowers. Sixteen plants is a healthy population. Although flowers do self pollinate, some crossing by insects can occur as the flowers open for a few hours, so different varieties should be separated by 20 to 25 feet. Once the flower petals turn to fluff, the seed is mature. Ripening occurs over a few weeks. Seed from individual flowers can be harvested, or stalks can be bent into a paper bag and shaken once a week or so. If entire plants are harvested and thrashed, a lot of detritus mixes with the seed. This can be separated by passing the seed through screens of various sizes and by fan winnowing. Careful harvesting is less time consuming. Store seed as described under tomatoes. Lettuce seed holds a high germination rate for about three years, then drops to 50 percent or less with poor vigor.

Peppers are self pollinating and have perfect flowers, but can be cross pollinated by some insects. Isolation distances of 500 feet are required to ensure purity. When growing more than one variety of pepper, I build a screen house around the plants that I am saving for seed. A simple row covered frame will do; anything to prevent insects from flying to the plants and contaminating them with pollen from neighboring peppers. I use 3′ x 8′ frames with screen on them, which I then screw together, and cover with more panels or row cover. A minimum of 10 plants is ideal. Once fruit has formed, screens can be removed. Harvest the fruit when it is dead ripe. Remove the seed and dry it until the seed breaks when folded. Pulp can be eaten. Store seed as described under tomatoes. Seed will remain viable for three to four years.

Labeling your varieties in the seedling flat, the garden, the drying rack, and in their storage containers is critical. Avoid contaminating your varieties by going from one to the next without cleaning your equipment and checking your hands and clothing for clinging seed. If you get varieties that cross with each other, look at it as an opportunity to experiment and learn. That’s how we got the vegetable varieties we have now. You may have just bred the next ‘Brandywine’ tomato.

For more detailed information on saving seed from many vegetable crops, refer to Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.


Suzanne Ashworth, Seed to Seed, Seed Saver Publications, Inc., 1991.

Rebecca Rupp, Blue Corn and Square Tomatoes, Storey Publications, 1987.

Seed Savers Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange 1998 Seed Yearbook.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samut, A History of Food, Blackwell Publishers, 1992.


Maine Seed Saving Network, P.O. Box 126, Penobscot, ME 04476

Seed Savers Exchange, RR 3 Box 239, Decorah, Iowa 52101

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