Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Seeds, Sex, and an Offer

Lettuce seed on the stem

Every year I try to save seeds. Mostly I save seeds that are easy to save. To know which ones they are you have to know a bit about the plants. Plants tend to come in two types. Inbreeders and outbreeders.

Lettuce seed getting separated

Outbreeders (like brasscas, corn, and onions) don't like to breed with plants too closely related to them. They like to be heterozygus, which means they like to be promiscuous. They don't want to breed with themselves and they don't want to breed with a plant like them. They like a wild sex life. I think all wind pollinated plants (corn, spinach, and any of the grasses come to mind) are outbreeders. The wind can carry pollen for long distances. It is a great way to mix up the gene pool. Other outbreeders are insect pollinated. You may not get your pollen out as far as with the wind, but those bees do get around.

Outbreeders have something called inbreeding depression. If they inbreed too much the seed will become less and less viable over the years. So if you save seed from brassicas, and you don't have enough plants for them to cross, you might not get viable seed. The first year might be just fine if you only have a few plants, but as you collect in future years, you might not even get any seed. I've heard from 40-100 plants or more are necessary to maintain a diverse enough gene pool for the outbreeders.

Since letting that many go to seed is often hard. And isolating that many plants is also hard. I save seed from inbreeders. This means I don't have to maintain quite as large of a gene pool. It is good to collect from more than one plant, but you don't have to. Inbreeders have sex two ways. They use insect pollination and they can self pollinate. If they can pollinate by insects and you (or your neighbors) are growing more than one variety, you have to isolate it in some way. I've done this in the past. But this year I just used the ones that self pollinate.

Beans to be shelled

I have saved seed from beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce this year. All self pollinate. All have a possibility that they can cross. Tomatoes usually don't. Most modern tomatoes have short styles, but if the style sticks out past the anther cone then they can cross. With beans and peas whether they cross or not is dependent on where you live. Some insects can get into flowers and pollinate them, but if the insects aren't in your neighborhood you are safe (BTW runner beans are an exception, their flowers are open and can cross readily). Lettuce is almost always self pollinated before the flower opens. I saved both white and black seeded lettuce. The black seeded trait is dominant. So if I had any black seeds in my white seeded varieties, I would know that crossing occurred. It didn't.

Now for the offer. Some people trade seeds every year, but I much prefer just to give them away. Some years I ask for things. Like last year I asked people to send me seeds to trial for dried pole beans if they had ones they liked. But there is no quid pro quo here. And this year I have nothing I can think of that I want to trial. So as long as I don't run out if you ask for them I'll mail them to you. I'll mail the smaller seeds worldwide, but the larger seeds are more expensive to ship so I only mail them to the US or Canada. I tend to put in enough so you can try them, but not enough so you can grow a whole garden's worth of them.

So if you are interested, don't make a comment here. Email me at daphne@alum.mit.edu. Include the following things:

  • your name
  • your address
  • which seeds you want

I'll mail them all at once, and a few varieties of bean seeds haven't been frozen (to kill pests) yet so it might be a week or two.

Please note that I'm not taking any more requests.

Pole Beans

I've been offering Cherokee Trail of Tears bean for a few years now. The Cherokees carried this bean on their long march that the bean was named for. Personally I first got this bean from the Ottawa Gardener and have grown it every year since. This bean has world domination on its mind when it grows. It can probably grow 12' high with ease if given something that high to grow on. This summer it was one of the more productive beans at 0.37 pounds per sqft of garden space. The bean is a fairly early bean and can produce every year here even in a bad year.

The Ottawa Cranberry bean was also given to me by the Ottawa Gardener. It is also a very productive bean at 0.33 lbs/sqft. It however stays in bounds. It will grow to 6' but not much more. It is a fairly early bean.

The Tarbais Alaric bean came to me through the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook. It is the classic French bean. It is usually picked as a shelling bean. Sadly the productivity I can't tell. I have in my hand 0.37 lbs/sqft, but some were given away as shelling beans and not dried beans and those are not in the total. So this was my most prolific bean. Like Trail of Tears the vines could grow very tall if given a chance. However it is a later bean than the proceeding beans. By August 5th only two pods had set so far. It really ramped up later on though. Since it is usually picked as a shelling bean, the lateness wouldn't be an issue for eating. But it might not be long enough to save seed every year.

Mexican Pinto was offered through the SSE yearbook by SSE (SSE BEAN 1025). They keep a large variety of seed in storage and occasionally grow it out. This was seven year old seed. They asked that anyone that grew it offer it up. So I'm doing that. The vines were fairly in control. So maybe 6'-7' tall at the most. About half the plants died early on. It was still fairly productive at 0.30 lbs/sqft even with the missing plants.

Rattlesnake was given to me by Mike H. Early on it looked like it would produce well. But what happened was that it produced one quick flush than stopped. So it was early enough but only came in at 0.28 lbs/sqft. Which isn't bad. And all the beans were early which is good in a bad year. The vines got to the top of the trellis, but didn't start taking over its neighbors. So it plays well with others.

Turkey Craw came to me from Michelle. It is a really beautiful bean. It is however later than most of the other beans I grew. Not late enough to keep it from producing though as I got 0.33 lbs/sqft. The vines were the most aggressive in the garden. They will take over their neighbors. So be warned.

Apache Red came from the SSE Yearbook. It is a very vigorous vine and the pods set very late. I could see this not producing in my area in bad years. I don't have the yield figures because not all the beans have been removed from their pods. I still have a bag left to do. I find the beans a little ugly. They are not in the least a smooth color. They have a lot of bumps and ridges and a lot of not bred out weirdness to them. I would love to know their history.


Market Miracle (70) is a tomato that seems to be able to handle some adversity. I gave a plant to a friend who put it in a spot with about 5 hours of sunlight a day. It still produced about 20 tomatoes. I've found it produces better in shade than other tomatoes I've grown. It makes 6-8oz perfectly round red tomatoes. The tomatoes do have a tendency to fall of the vine prematurely.

Cherokee Purple (80) is a delicious tomato. Black, round, beefsteak type.

Not quite ripe Amish on left, Heinz on right

Amish Paste (75) is a very good tasting paste tomato, but is one of the few pastes that is good raw. It is heart shaped and red.

Heinz 2653 (68) is a very early determinant paste type with an elongated shape. It produces a lot over a 2-3 week period then it succumbs to disease.


Redsails and Paris Island

I have three types of lettuce seed to offer. I have Red Sails, a red leaf lettuce. Paris Island is the typical romaine. And Little Gem is a mini romaine.


I have a few other seeds left that don't fit a category:

  • Caribe cilantro - slow bolter
  • Borage
  • Ground Control Marigold (2010 seed)


  1. Excellent post. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on seed saving and the bean trials. Were the Cherokee beans the largest of the bunch?

  2. Great post Daphne! Both the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the CP seeds that I received from you last year did very well.

  3. Mr H, no the photos are not true to size by any means.The largest are the Tarbais. Then comes Ottawa Cranberry and Mexican pinto.

  4. Thanks for the short primer on plant sex! We try to save our own "easy" seeds as well (beans and peas, mostly. We saved some pepper varieties last year and got different peppers from the seeds this year. Research showed that peppers cross easily (we did a short post on it 2-3 months ago).

  5. foodgardenkitchen, Yes peppers can cross easily, but they do have perfect flowers and can self pollinate. I've used screen cages in the past to save pepper seeds. It isn't hard to make a screen cage. It is just screening sewn up along the edges. Make sure you strip off any flowers that have opened or have set before you put it on. So I still rank peppers in the pretty easy category. I didn't save any pepper seed this year though as I had bacterial spot in my pepper patch and it is transmitted by seed.

  6. Lovely idea a seed swap.
    I am sure you will have a lot people wanting some.

  7. I was surprised to hear you describe the Cherokee bean as having world domination on its mind, because the ones I grew this year were very mild-mannered and not very vigorous at all!
    Your seed-swap plan is great, but is it legal? Are we allowed to send seeds through the post - internationally, I mean?

  8. Mark, no clue. I'm sure every country has different laws. I've never had them returned to me. I know I can do it to Canada because I have to fill out those pesky import forms (provided there is so much that I can't just throw it into a card). It says quite clearly that they are seeds. Customs lets them through.

  9. I am so amazed at your knowledge of plants. You should be teaching gardening classes!

  10. Gorgeous photos! What a great idea!

  11. I'm puzzled about saving seeds. Should they be in air tight packets, like the ones you seem to have, or are they supposed to be able to breathe to prevent mold? in plastic? in paper? Do you save them in the fridge or freezer or at room temperature?

    Item I learned this year: Butternut squash keeps better at room temp than in the fridge. The ones on my kitchen counter are okay, the ones I stored on the bottom shelf of the fridge got mold? mildew? on the skin.

  12. We've never saved seeds and had no idea that some are easier than others. Thanks for posting the information. Now we know.

  13. Lots of great information! :) I haven't tried saving seed yet, so I really appreciate the info that you have here. Thanks!


  14. Rattlesnake beans do great as green beans. Mine bloom and bloom until October. If you stop picking them though, they stop blooming and put all their energy into seed production.