Conference highlights: ‘Speed saving’ with Suzanne Ashworth

Are you interested in the idea of seed saving but think it sounds too difficult or technical to actually try yourself? Let seed saving expert Suzanne Ashworth convince you otherwise. Suzanne led a number of workshops at this year’s Conference & Campout. I caught up with her for a few minutes between sessions—and according to Suzanne, a few minutes is all you need to get started. In fact, you could have your own seed collection started in less time than it takes to cook dinner! Check it out:

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Want to learn more? Here are a few tips from our Public Program Manager Shannon Carmody to help you get started:

If you’re interested in seed saving, understanding some basic concepts before you get started will make the process easier. It all starts in the planning stage; here are a few guidelines to get you started.

  • Who’s your daddy? Know whether your parent plant is a hybrid, heirloom or open-pollinated variety.Hybrids, which are created by crossing plants of two different varieties, generally do not produce offspring with the same traits as the parent plant. Seed saved from open-pollinated varieties, on the other hand, will produce plants identical to the parent.Heirloom seeds, which are handed down from generation to generation, can be saved and re-planted and still maintain most of their original characteristics and qualities. In other words, they remain true-to-type.
  • Become a mad scientist. Know your plants scientific name (genus and species).Cross pollination is the transfer of pollen between plants. To save pure seed, you want to prevent two different varieties in the same species from cross pollinating. Different varieties of plants within the same species will cross-pollinate, but this doesn’t usually happen between plants in different species. Planting just one variety in a species will help ensure you save pure seed.So if you know your plants scientific names, you will know which ones will cross-pollinate. For example, what we commonly refer to as squash could fall into one of four species: Cucurbita maxima, C. argyrosperma, C. moschata, and C. pepo. These four species won’t typically cross-pollinate. On the other hand, Brassica oleracea includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and kohlrabi, all plants you might think wouldn’t cross but actually do!
  • Busy bees in a squash flower

    Busy bees in a squash flower

    The birds and the bees. Know how your plants pollinate. Understanding how garden plants pollinate will help you prevent cross-pollination. For example, some plants, like beans or lettuce, will self-pollinate before the flower is even open, making them less susceptible to cross pollination. Although on occasion insects can cross pollinate. Saving seed from “selfers” is a good way to get started.On the other hand, plants that are insect-pollinated (squash or cucumbers) or wind pollinated (corn and spinach) are more likely to cross-pollinate if varieties in the same species are grown together.

  • Hey, give me some space! Plan your garden accordingly.Some fruits being saved for seed must be grown to full maturity and allowed to ripen after the fruit’s edible stage. Let’s take carrots for example. When you pull this sweet root out of the ground after about 2 months, there isn’t too much showing above ground. However when you’re harvesting seed, a carrot plant can be up to 4 feet tall!
  • Keep up with the Jones. Know what your neighbors are growing. Some varieties, especially those that are wind or insect pollinated, need a certain distance of isolation to ensure seed purity. For example, sunflowers must be isolated by ½ – 3 miles, and corn needs a distance of 2 miles. So, you may have to consider what your neighbors are growing. Others, like tomatoes, lettuce and beans might only need to be grown in different parts of your garden.
  • So, what’s the hurry? Plan on your plants being in the ground longer.Imagine your favorite lettuce plant – you love eating the fresh crisp leaves of an early summer lettuce, and then pulling it out to make room for a heat-loving plant. Harvesting lettuce seed, however, requires leaving the plant in its spot, letting it bolt, flower and go to seed. All of this will take more time. But you may be surprised, and impressed, to see your 3 foot tall lettuce plants with delicate yellow flowers.
Lettuce being grown for seed.

Lettuce being grown for seed.

Remember, some plants are easier to save seed from than others, so start simple. Doing your research in advance will save you time and energy in the garden later.

For more information on getting started with seed saving, check out Suzanne Ashworths classic book “Seed to Seed”

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