Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book Review

Seed saving is not one of my strong suits. I've done a little of it over the years, but really not enough. My excuse is always a production or space issue. I never want to let my green beans go to seed since it would stop production. The same can be said for zucchini. Letting my lettuce go to seed requires more space. Right now I do succession plantings and letting some go to seed would require removing that spot from the succession.

In the past I've felt that my garden just isn't big enough to save a lot of seed. I'm not happy with my excuses anymore. Surely I can spare a little room for some seed production. So when One Green Generation put out the Seed To Seed challenge (see side bar) I joined in.

Since I haven't saved seed from very many plants, I figured I'd better educate myself a little. I bought two books. The first is Carol Deppe's "Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties". I've just finished it and I've really enjoyed it. She sprinkles science in with stories from the garden so you don't get overwhelmed with too many new long words at once (monoecious, dehiscence, pleiotropy, allopolyploids, aaarrrggghhh). More importantly she has a chapter entitled "Conversations with a Squash", and indeed actually talks to them. This is not a one way conversation mind you. She has squash that talk back to her, so you just know she is a great plant breeder . . . or is insane. Either works for me.

I learned a lot from the book. The most important and basic concept is that there are two kinds of plants in the world. Inbreeders and outbreeders. Inbreeders (tomatoes, lettuce, bean, peas) in nature usually self pollinate their own seed. Outbreeders (brassicas, onions, squash, corn) are usually pollinated by other plants.

It is very simple to collect seed from inbreeders. Since they inbreed naturally, the plants really don't care if you save seed from just one plant. You might be losing some diversity if you only grow from one line (she suggests 20 plants to maintain the diversity), but you can do it and the seed will be quite viable and the plant will be just as vigorous as its parent.

Many of these kinds of plants don't need much isolation from other varieties of its kind to keep the seed true to type. Peas and beans usually won't cross. They self pollinate before they even open up. This comes with a huge caveat though. It really depends upon your insect population and if you garden without pesticides like I do, you will have a lot of insect variety. General wisdom says you can plant peas right next to each other and 99% of them will come true. If you live in the Andes 60% of the peas will cross. They obviously have an insect that has no trouble getting into those flower before they open. So you need to figure out if plants will cross in your garden or not.

Tomatoes have their own exception. Usually tomatoes have flowers that hold the stigma inside the cone of anthers, making them self pollinating. However some varieties, usually wild varieties or very old varieties, have long styles and the stigma is out there for bees to pollinate. She suggests inspecting the flowers before saving seed to see if you need to isolate or hand pollinate. Most varieties are safe, but not all.

Outbreeders are more problematic. They don't like being inbred. They need diversity in their gene pool. Some won't set seed if the pollen is too close to its own genetics (self incompatible). Some will pollinate but the plants won't be vigorous (inbreeding depression). Some have both problems. Squash is the exception of the outbreeders and can be treated like an inbreeder for seed saving. The others however need diversity. She suggests if you want to maintain almost all of the gene pool for corn grow a thousand plants. If you want to maintain most you can grow just one hundred. That is a lot of plants and just the tip of the iceberg with respect to issues about saving corn seed. She says in general you need 40-200 plants for outbreeders. I don't grow that many of anything except onions, but they will be eaten long before they flower.

The bottom line is that I'm going to stay away from saving seed from outbreeders. I just don't have the land for that. Instead I'm going to try for most of my inbreeders. If I only have room for one plant of a variety, I can still save its seed. Some of it I may not isolate well enough and get a few crosses on occasion (like peas and beans), but if I save it just for myself it shouldn't be an issue. In future years, I'll know if it crossed so will know how true the seed really is.


  1. I must say I draw the line at talking to squash, haha. Although if you have seen my neighbors maybe it would make you want to talk to the squash instead. :-)

    Sounds like an interesting book, I will have to read it. I just ordered Uncommon Vegetables by Eleanour Sinclair Rhodes on ebay. She is actually an original seed saver that helped save many varieties when the industry was switching to hybrids in the 40's.

    My pinetree order is still not here, not sure what is taking so long, packages from the US normally get here in about 5 business days! I will keep you posted.

  2. That sounds like an interesting book too. I love the idea of some of the weirder vegetables. I really want sea kale, but am going to wait to put in any more perennials until I have a new place.

  3. This book is de rigour for veggie gardeners. Really, it is amazing. Not just the information but the stories of other plant crazies makes you feel less alone ;)

  4. Ottawa Gardener, I feel the same way about it. I especially love the stories. Only people that love plants so much are so crazy about them.