Posts Tagged ‘seed saving’

A Visit to ‘Seed Savers Exchange-Heritage Farm’

Monday, March 16th, 2015

After work on Friday, September 26th, 2014 I drove 6.5 hours to Decorah, Iowa so that I could attend the ‘Seed Savers Exchange’ Fall Harvest School.  It was a long drive, but very well worth it.  The one-day workshop promised lessons on seed saving, fall gardening, canning, and fermentation.

Seed Savers' Heritage Farm

Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm

         A Beautiful Drive

Lilliam Goodman Visitors' Center

Lilliam Goodman Visitors’ Center

Unfortunately darkness had descended so I was unable to fully appreciate the scenery of my drive, nor did I get to enjoy the transition from the flat plains of southeast Nebraska to the glorious rolling hills and gentle mountains that awaited near Minnesota.

Starfire Signet Marigolds

Beautiful Orange Blossoms

Beautiful Orange Blossoms

Teaching Garden at Heritage Farm

Teaching Garden at Heritage Farm

Heaven on Earth

‘Heritage Farm’ is beyond beautiful and is the headquarters of ‘Seed Savers Exchange’. Located six miles north of Decorah, Iowa, the farm sits on 890 acres and boasts itself (according to the website) a “living museum of historic varieties”.  Thousands of heirlooms are grown organically on-site in the Preservation Gardens along with a Historic Orchard home to many near-extinct apple and grape varieties.  The farm is one of only two locations in North America where Ancient White Park Cattle may be seen.  Surrounded by stately cliffs and enormous pines, the rustic red barn and accompanying gardens looks a lot like paradise.

A Full Day of Lessons  

The Fall Workshop started bright and early with visitors from all over crowded in and around the ‘Lillian Goldman Visitors Center’.  Attendees were divided into smaller groups and the day’s schedule was broken down accordingly.

The first class I attended was on fermentation, a subject I knew absolutely nothing about.  The lecturing nutritionist shared recipes for homemade coleslaw, fermented beet juice, and many tips and tricks.

The second class was on seed saving.  Attendees were taken to the nearby teaching gardens, where we were instructed on how to harvest, save, and store seeds from beans, peas, melon, squash, and tomatoes.  We were given free-reign of the teaching gardens and allowed to harvest some seeds at-will.  Despite the gardening season obviously winding down and winter soon approaching, the teaching gardens were still gorgeous and I was exposed to so many new varieties of both flower and vegetable that I had never seen nor heard of before.  I went home with a few Radish and Dill seeds, some yellow Drumstick, Hungarian Blue Breadseed Poppy, and gorgeous burgundy Amaranth seeds, which can be enjoyed as both a cereal grain and as a garden ornamental.

Following lunch were classes on canning/food preservation and preparing the fall garden for the following spring.  Visitors saw demonstrations of proper bed clean-up and division of perennials, and discussed the use of nutrient-enriching cover crops.

Seed Shopping!!!  



Following the classes, this blogger lingered to talk with fellow attendees and like-minded gardeners, and patronized the ‘Visitors Center’ where all 2014 seed packets were on sale.  I somewhat maintained restraint and stuck to my shopping list, but did allow for several added varieties (They were on sale!) that I had fallen in love with on-site, which were displayed in the gardens.  I could not leave without having purchased seeds for the brilliant, tall ‘Purple Verbena’ that I had seen covered by masses of butterflies, nor could I leave without the ‘Black-Eyed Susan Vine’ and the prolific ‘Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden Gate’, which will add an abundance of charm and cheery pink color to my front flower garden this coming season.

This blogger urges anyone able to visit the ‘Seed Savers Exchange-Heritage Farm’ to do so.  I left awed by the majestic beauty, inspired by the bountiful gardens, and determined to practice the art of seed saving as I was taught on that day.

Glorious Trees at Seed Savers


Please visit to learn more!

ALmost Wordless Wednesday: National Pi Day!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Today, on National Pi Day (The day honoring a number which seems to go on forever) let us enjoy the infinite and timeless beauty found at Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa.

Pi has been been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point… a number so large that most cannot conceive its enormity.

Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm

Seed Savers and other like-minded organizations work diligently to promote and preserve heirloom seeds and to prevent the inconceivable loss of centuries of plant genetics and gardening heritage.

Grandpa Ott's Morning Glories in full glory

Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories

The birds and the bees love these beautiful blooms!

The birds and the bees love these beautiful blooms!

Dramatic yellow blooms of the Black-Eyed Susan Vine

Morning Glories growing against the Barn

Seed Swapping and the Social Media

Friday, March 6th, 2015
A just-opened "Round Robin" seed box that traveled from State-to-State.

A just-opened “Round Robin” seed box that traveled from State-to-State.

Seed sharing has evolved…

Sharing and trading seeds has gone from neighbor-to-neighbor and from family member-to-family member to stranger-to-stranger. No longer just passing seeds over a white picket fence or bringing them with you to the next community soup supper. With the advent of the internet and the rise of social media, the way we share and trade seeds has evolved dramatically these last few years.

Google “Seed Swap” and countless entries appear in seconds. From the ‘National Gardening Association’ Seed Swap website to the ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’, hundreds of promises of seed trading and sharing beckon. Facebook itself is home to many seed trading sites.

Find it on Facebook!

The ‘Self-Sustaining Seed Swappers’ is one such nonprofit seed sharing site and is currently home to 132 members, chosen and invited to join the exclusive community of fellow gardeners and proven-worthy, reputable traders with solid trade history. The site is perhaps the “best of the best” and promotes the safest, most-welcome location for its’ members to meet online, swap stories, share seeds and so much more… Members who have joined the site looking to score a hard-sought, rare seed variety often end up not only with the longed-for seeds, but having created lasting friendships.


The amazing contents of a recent seed box that traveled a from participant-to-particpant.

The amazing contents of a recent seed box that traveled
from participant-to-particpant.

Gail Leonard started the group in mid 2014 for people living in Central Ohio, as Gail had noticed that there were no groups in her local area. Gail met Ashley Hafer on another site while trading Wisteria for Oleander. Ashley joined the group, the name changed, and the site grew larger as the group expanded to include traders that either Gail or Ashley had experienced excellent seed trades with in the past. Ashley noted that “(We) just wanted to share and trade with honest people!…” and that “Facebook is great because people are already using it; it’s free, it’s accessible from smartphones… and the benefits are numerous.  Not only are we swapping and sharing seeds to grow food and beautify our yards, but we are making amazing friendships!”


Just a few of the seeds this blogger has acquired via swapping and sharing over social media.

Just a few of the seeds this blogger has acquired via swapping and sharing over social media.

Ashley adds that since the group keeps their numbers small “it really has become a community. (We) celebrate birthdays, holidays, send get-well cards, thinking-of-you presents…” The group allows for individual trades, member-hosted contests and prize giveaways, “Round Robin” seed boxes, etc.

The ‘Great American Seed Swap/Trade Project’ is another Facebook seed trading site that has (at last count) 14,894 members and 8 administrators. All are welcome to join the group and it is a wonderful place to get started in the seed trade community. A beginner can join with no seeds to share and the generosity of fellow seed lovers will soon amount to many varieties of seed all for the price of a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope.)

For just a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope)…

If desiring to share excess seeds, it is advisable to request any interested parties to send a SASE (two stamps is the norm as any seed envelopes must be hand processed so as not to crush and damage the seeds inside.)  When mailing seeds,carefully wrap the seeds (contained in a small paper envelope or a plastic baggie) in bubblewrap and be sure to write either “hand cancel” or “hand stamp” on the envelope.

In this fashion, this blogger was able to go from having a few varieties of native perennial pollinator flower seeds to enough vegetable seeds to plant next year’s garden and share with countless others and a mind-boggling variety of annual flower seeds to experiment with.

With all that the internet and social media has to offer, sharing and trading seeds has never been so easy or fun and almost everyone can spread the gardening love with just a few clicks of the mouse!

National Seed Swap Day, January 31st, 2015

Friday, February 6th, 2015

In recognition of this year’s National Seed Swap Day, January 31st, 2015, let’s consider the time-honored tradition of sharing seeds at such events because a Seed Swap has vast benefits for gardeners everywhere. Our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, has long been known for his glorious gardens at Monticello with over three hundred varieties of more than ninety different plants. Jefferson sought plants and treasured seeds from all over the world and always shared his bounty and his seeds with his friends but thousands of those varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers have been lost in recent times to the growth, popularity and commercial availability of hybrid seeds.

                                                                                  Saving Seeds, an Ancient Tradition

seed swap poster L. Versaw

A recent Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ in Lincoln, Nebraska drew more than 75 people. (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)

Fortunately, long before organized seed exchanges were held, individuals across time and around the globe would harvest, save, and share their seeds. In some cultures, seeds were valued as if they were money, bartered with, traded, and collected. Seeds would be passed down from generation to generation, from one gardener to another. What gardener does not have at least one variety of produce or one favorite flower that he or she grows every year, having been grown by their own grandparent decades ago? Many historic varieties have been preserved in this fashion and are still grown today because someone, at some time, decided to save and share those seeds.

 Our Founding Fathers Shared Seeds…

Today, the average home gardener can share their neighbor’s great uncle’s award-winning tomato seed and have the opportunity to purchase (or share!) the very same variety of beautiful black Hollyhock that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. Today the home gardener can either choose to spend a small fortune amassing seeds or plants commercially purchased each year for that season’s garden, or with a little planning, patience and effort; can save the previous season’s seeds for planting the next year. The first seed swap days allowed local gardeners to trade their abundance of a particular seed for other kinds that other gardeners had in their own possession. Seed swaps have begun to sprout up all over the country and enable gardeners of all ages and experience-levels to meet, share seeds (and sometimes plants), advice and ideas, stories, and fellowship.

 Why Save Seeds?

Seeds to swap L. Versaw

Just a few of the variety of seeds that were available to swap and share at a recent Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ in Lincoln, Nebraska (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)

Today most organized seed swaps include seeds native to the area/zone, edibles (fruit and vegetable,) herbs, exotics, annuals, perennials and woody trees and shrubs. Seeds saved and shared are often open-pollinated and heirloom variety, which produce offspring identical to the parent plant (seed.) Seeds saved from a hybrid plant may show traits like its parents, but hybrid varieties do not always promise offspring like the parent as the hybrid is a genetic mingling of two different parent plants and may grow offspring differing in taste, color and growth habit. Bulbs and cuttings may also be shared. Gardeners are encouraged to bring their surplus, highly flavored and/or high-yielding/good-producing seeds to share and exchange with others.

 Going Green…

In an age when “Going Green!” is all the rage, seed swaps are gaining popularity for good reason. Seed swapping continues to promote biodiversity, cultural history, and, in essence, recycling. Gardeners rid themselves of excess seeds without wasting and leave the event(s) able to try many new varieties inexpensively and resourcefully. Jefferson wrote that, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” and every year the National Seed Swap Day embodies both Jefferson’s legacy of seed sharing and his promotion of gardening throughout the Country. Thinking of hosting your own seed swap event?  Find more information here:

Submitted by Lois Versaw (Extension Master Gardener Intern at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

You can search our site for more blogs on seeds by clicking the tag “Seed Saving” below.

Bad Weather didn't keep folks away

Bad weather did not keep gardeners away from a Seed Swap Event co-hosted by ‘Community Crops’ and ‘Open Harvest’ on National Seed Swap Day. (Photo courtesy Lois Versaw)


Seed Saving in the Fall

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

As the steamy summer winds down and the cool, crisp autumn nights approach, it’s time to think about next year’s garden. What? You think it is too early? Are you thinking that dealing with this year’s garden is taxing enough?

I beg to differ. There’s definitely one thing that you can do this time of year to prepare for next year’s garden — saving seeds.

As vegetables mature and flowers begin to wither, consider collecting seeds for planting next year. Once you know what to save and how to save it, saving seeds can be an easy and enjoyable activity. Plus, you have the satisfaction knowing you are harvesting the future and continuing a lineage of plants special to you and adapted to your garden.

What Types of Seed to Save?

In the world of vegetables, only seeds that are open-pollinated and “true to seed” are appropriate for saving, as we mentioned earlier this year in my Seed Saving 102: What and How to Save Your Favorite Veggie Seeds blog post.

Seed saving infographic

The seeds on the left require the least amount of work to save and maintain the same varieties. (Click to enlarge infographic)

This means that there is no cross-pollination needed to get the desired result, unlike hybrid plants that require crossing of two specific parents to get consistent fruits. There’s nothing wrong with hybrids; in fact they feed much of the world, but more and more gardeners want to save their own seeds.

Open-pollinating, self-fertile/self-pollinating plants easiest to save

Heirlooms are a special category of open-pollinated plant. Definitions differ; most people agree that heirlooms are OP plants that are at least 50 years old and have a “story.” Some plants come from families or communities that have passed the same seeds down for generations, others are “old-timey” plants that began as commercial releases.

Certain flowers can be saved as well, but there typically isn’t as much concern about saving specific varieties unless you are specifically hybridizing your own varieties.

Plants that are self-pollinating or self-fertile are easiest to save (see infographic), and result in the most consistent vegetables from year to year. This is why beans and tomatoes are the most popular seeds to save. Both beans and tomatoes are self-pollinating, meaning that different varieties can be closely spaced within the garden and not cross-pollinate. In fact, tomato and bean flowers are made to keep pollen from leaving or entering and are usually pollinated before fully open. Crossing can occur, but it is rare.

Knowing which seeds that are the hardest to save and why

Other vegetables in the garden, however,  cross-pollinate,  making it more difficult and often impractical for many home gardeners to save their seed to get the same kind of plant to grow from that seed the following year.  Saving seed which is cross-pollinated would require isolation for some species.

For example, all members of the squash family are cross-pollinated by bees, meaning that crossing is inevitable when multiple varieties are in one garden. To maintain a pure variety, each variety would have to be spaced farther apart than a bee can fly, which is 2 miles.

…And, some members of the squash family, like zucchini and pumpkin, are actually part of the same species, meaning that they can interbreed. You could end up with a “puccini” rather than a pumpkin. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my Puccini in opera form rather than pie. That is why cucurbit members show up in our ‘The What and How of Saving Seeds” infographic toward the right, labeled ‘hardest to save.’

The cole crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, kale and their ilk, are all also the same species and can cross, thus they also show up in our infographic labeled under the column ‘hardest to save’, too..

Fruits like apples, cross-pollinate and do not breed “true,” thus it’s highly unlikely that the offspring will resemble the parent.

Successful Seed Saving Tips

Are your seeds ripe enough to save?

Peppers should be fully ripe for seed saving.

Peppers should be fully ripe for seed saving. Photo: Cindy – Wikimedia Commons

Another issue to consider when saving seeds is making sure that the fruit is mature when harvested for seed saving. Most people know that tomatoes should be red-ripe for seed saving, but other fruits need to be ripe as well. Peppers should ripen fully to a color other than green, and beans should change color and dry on the vine before harvest. For flowers, seed heads or seed pods should also mature fully and dry before harvesting.

Once harvested, seeds should be allowed to dry out, then stored in an airtight container. The seeds should be kept cool to extend storage time. I prefer storing seeds in the freezer, because it is a low-moisture chill that will not encourage dampness, unlike a refrigerator. Seeds can be stored for a few years in the freezer. If you are concerned about germination, perform a germination test by placing 10 (or 100 for large plantings) seeds on a moist paper towel and check for sprouting.

Special Case:  Ensuring Tomato Success

Collect tomato seeds and ferment for best results.

Collect tomato seeds and ferment for best results. Photo – John Porter

Tomato seeds are coated with a gel that inhibits germination, which is a good thing when it is still inside the fruit, but can make starting saved seeds more difficult. While it is not absolutely necessary to do so, removing this gel can improve germination success. This is a natural process that occurs when a tomato falls to the ground and rots. The most effective way of doing this is through fermentation, which is a simpler process than you might think.

As mentioned above, save seeds only from open-pollinated heirloom or self-fertile/self-pollinating varieties, unless you’ve gone to lengthy measures to keep (or isolate) them from being cross-pollinated. This is so very true for tomatoes as well. First, slice your tomato open to reveal the chambers full of seeds; these chambers are called locules. Different varieties of tomatoes have different numbers of locules (just a little something interesting I thought that I would point out). You can use a spoon or your fingers to remove the seeds and the locular fluid into a nonreactive (plastic or ceramic) container. If you are careful, you can still eat the de-seeded tomato in a salad or other dish.

Next, add some water to thin the solution, and make sure the seeds are covered with water. Cover the container loosely with a lid, paper towel or cloth and allow it to set undisturbed in a warm location away from direct light.

You will know it is working when a whitish mold forms on top of the liquid. Scoop it out with a spoon or add more water until the mold flows out. You will want to drain all of the liquid from the container, making sure to not spill any seeds. You should notice that the seeds do not have a gel coating at this point. Allow them to settle in the container; anything that floats is a dud and can be removed. Pour the rinse water out, again making sure not to spill the seeds.

At this point, move all of the seeds out of the container and spread them out on a plate to dry. Some people use a piece of paper or paper towel, but the seeds may stick. Make sure you put a label with them so you remember what they are.

After a few days of drying, move the seeds into a sealable plastic bag or small container and store them in the freezer. As you put them away, remember that you have preserved a future harvest, and you’ll be enjoying your favorite tomatoes again next year.

And remember, it is always a good idea to save some extra seeds to share with your friends or favorite garden writer/extension agent (just kidding).

-John Porter, @wvgardenguru


This article originally appeared as a two-part series in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  John Porter writes the weekly garden column for the Sunday paper.  You can see the articles, along with others, here.  


Seed Saving 102: What and How to Save Your Favorite Veggie Seeds

Monday, May 20th, 2013

In a previous blog post you could think of as seed saving 101, we discussed the difference between heirlooms and hybrids in regards to seed saving.  Now we take a look at specific vegetables and which are most easily saved and what planning and considerations are needed for saving seeds.  Most home gardeners want to ensure that the seeds that they save will produce plants similar to, if not the same as, those from which they collected the seed.

The Genetics of Seed Saving

In order for us to discuss  seed saving of specific vegetables, we first need to learn a little terminology and plant genetics.  While you might think it is not the most interesting of subjects, there’s lots to be learned and it will ultimately make us better seed savers.  You don’t have to delve to the level of the authors plant-geekdom (and study Mendelian genetics in radishes as your high school senior project), but a little basic knowledge will help.

A tomato flower is made to promote self-pollination.  (Photo: Felagund

A tomato flower is made to promote self-pollination. (Photo: Felagund

Self-pollinated plants are self-fertile, which make them prime candidates for saving seeds that are “true to variety,” which means that the resulting seeds will have most of the characteristics of the parent.  Self-pollination is also referred to as natural inbreeding. In some cases, such as beans and tomatoes, pollination often occurs even before the flowers fully open and the flower’s shape discourages insect pollination.

Cross-pollination can also be referred to as natural outbreeding.  Cross-pollinated plants require pollen from another individual plant for successful pollination.  The most common modes of pollination are wind pollination and insect pollination.  These plants are harder to save seed from, since they are less likely to produce “true to variety” offspring.

Some cross-pollinated plants are perfectly happy crossing with individuals of the same variety.  However, some do exhibit inbreeding depression, which refers to reduced vigor and fitness in a population that arises from inbreeding.  If a species with inbreeding suppression

Hybrid vigor refers to improved vigor and fitness of individuals that rise from the crossing, or hybridization, of two genetically diverse varieties.

So What Does All this Mean?

The What and How of Saving S

Basically, this means that some seeds are easier to save than others.  In a nutshell, here are the take-away lessons:

Legumes (beans and peas) and solanaceous crops (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants)  are by far the easiest crops to save, since they
are self-pollinated.  There is the potential for cross-pollinating if you have hungry pollinators (I’ve seen bumblebees rip open bean flowers).  Peppers and eggplants also have the potential for cross-pollination, so if you want to maintain a specific variety they need to be separated by at least 500 feet or have flowers bagged.  Lettuce is also relatively easy to save.

Most of the other common garden vegetables have a high hybrid vigor and are natural outbreeders, meaning that they cross- pollinate readily.  Members of the Cucurbitaceae family (squash, pumpkins, melons, gourds), Apiaceae family (carrots, dill, fennel), Amaryllidaceae family (onions, chives, leeks), and some members of the Brassicaceae family like the cruciferous radish exhibit little inbreeding suppression, meaning that you can easily cross a variety with itself if you isolate it from other varieties.  Corn (Poaceae) and cole crops like cabbage, broccoli, and kale (Brassica oleracea) have a higher level of inbreeding depression, meaning that crosses with members of the same variety result in seeds that are less vigorous.

How do you isolate plants?

Plants that easily cross can potentially cross with other varieties in the garden or the neighbors garden.  Insect pollinated plants are typically pollinated by bees, which can have a travel range of two miles or more.  Home gardeners would have trouble separating their varieties that far, so it would be easier to isolate individual flowers or plants.  Covering a plant with fine mesh netting or bagging flowers are popular choices.


For cucurbits, flowers have only one gender, so this is easier.  Before blossoms fully open, removing male flowers and using them to pollinate female flowers is the general practice.  The female flower is then wrapped in a bag until the fruit begins to form.  For other plants, using netting and hand pollinating may be the option.

Of interesting note is the case of some of the cucurbits and cole crops.  All of the cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, etc.) are all the same species and will easily cross.  There are instances of crosses of broccoli and kale, sprouts and flowering cabbage and others.  Likewise, many members of the cucurbit family are the same species.  It is not uncommon to get crosses of pumpkins and zucchini (a puccini, anyone?) and others.

Five Seed Saving Lessons from the Ground Up

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Oh, what I’ve learned about saving seeds!  Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to garden from zone 4 to 10; from frost shortened growing seasons to endless summers; from hot and dry, to cold and dry, to cool and damp. But when I moved to North Carolina I encountered “hot and humid” – a new “climate zone” for me although, per the hardiness zone map zone, only a zone 7/8 which I’ve lived in before.

Saved seeds

Saved seeds

By the time we’d moved in and my husband prepared some raised beds for me, it was June and summer was in full swing, but I sowed all my unused/saved seeds from prior years anyway.

It’s better than wasting them and I’ve often been pleasantly surprised.

Lesson One – Know Your Seed’s Dormancy Requirements

The carrots and celery and several others didn’t come up and I just assumed that they were too old and hadn’t germinated. Then later in September I noticed some funny seedlings in my beds. They weren’t weeds but I couldn’t think what they could be – until I recognized the ferny foliage of carrots and feathery leaves of celery – then some cabbage popped up – they were the seeds I had sown in June and forgotten about when they didn’t come up. But their internal clock and thermostat were working and as days got shorter and cooler, they knew their time in the sun had arrived – a testimony to the ingenuity of seeds. Lesson on seed “stratification” learned!

Lesson Two – Where you grow is as important as what you grow…

Saying good bye to ‘old favorites’

I also enjoy growing unusual vegetable varieties. They’re like gourmet varieties because you can’t get them at the grocery store – they’re special, like lemon cucumbers. I also like to try new things like purple carrots or foot long green beans but I also have my old favorites like Early Girl tomatoes – not exotic but dependable and delicious. But here in North Carolina they just weren’t doing well. Some of my old standards, like Yolo Wonder bell peppers, weren’t as vigorous and didn’t produce well when temperatures soared over 95.

Saying hello to ‘new favorites’

Fortunately for me, I love going to the Farmer’s Market and there I can see what’s growing well for other people in my area.

That’s where I found some peppers called Cubanelles. They were delicious, so I bought some plants. While my standard variety struggled, the Cubanelles passed them by like they were standing still! I only bought three plants but I was giving peppers away and still freezing the leftovers. It dawned on me that some of my old favorites didn’t like the heat and humidity of the southeast while other plants were utterly unfazed by it!

I decided to experiment more with some of the vegetables the south is famous for like sweet potatoes. They were a super, trouble-free crop. They were not only unfazed by heat and humidity but had the added advantage of not being bothered by bugs or periods of drought. So as the light of understanding dawned, I realized that most of the seed catalogs I favored were produced in northern latitudes. I needed to find some southern sources to expand my variety of choices and also to experiment with seeds from other hot/humid locales. Valuable lesson learned!

Lesson Three – Citizen Science Opportunity

If you want to experiment and learn more about vegetables that might grow well in your area, you might be interested in participating in Cornell’s Citizen Science: Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners. It’s a web-based program that compiles information from gardeners from all over the US on what will grow well in different climates. The information collected can also help determine breeding efforts and seed availability.

Lesson Four – Saving & Sharing Seed

After getting better acquainted with our new surroundings, one of our neighbors brought over some okra seed that his wife’s grandmother had grown.

Okra seeds

Okra seeds (photo credit Connie Schultz)

Like the Cubanelles, they were unfazed by heat or bugs or humidity and grew 5 or 6 feet tall. The pods didn’t seem to get as tough as they grew larger either.

As gardeners we love to share our favorites or our new discoveries but, in order to share these treasures, the plants and their seeds need to be non-hybrid varieties (heirlooms fall in this category). Non-hybrid seedlings reliably reproduce the traits of the parent plants, the traits that made them desirable in the first place. For more information, see John Porter’s post Seed Saving: Knowing the Difference Between Hybrids, Heirlooms, and Open-Pollinated Plants

Hybrids are bred for certain traits like a short time to harvest for short season locations or for resistance to a virus or fungus but their seeds will not reliably reproduce these traits. So in order to share my new discoveries, I need to have non-hybrid seeds, something to consider when I’m buying seeds or plants. I’ve learned how saving heirloom vegetable seeds can help protect the bio-diversity of our food supply and help assure resilient plants and seeds. Another important principal learned!

Lesson Five – Finding Seeds through Organizations

Chive seeds

Chive seeds (Photo credit Sara Siegers)

One of the things I like best about gardening is that I’m always learning new things.

If you’re interested learning more about saving seeds to share or saving seeds to preserve old unnamed varieties like the okra I was given, you might want to join the Seed Savers Organization , a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. If you want to get involved, they have a program they established in 2011 called the Member-Grower-Evaluation Network that evaluates the performance of heirlooms all over the world and helps build a larger base of information on each variety.

If you already save seed, perhaps you would like to help start a seed-saver program at your local library? Seed libraries are sprouting all over the US in local libraries. You can learn more about this new phenomenon by clicking the links in this paragraph.

Do you have seed lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to share? 

By Connie Schultz, Master Gardener/Composter (’95) Cornell, now serving in Johnston County, NC

Seed Saving: Knowing the Difference Between Hybrids, Heirlooms, and Open-Pollinated Plants

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Lots of home gardeners and small farmers are interested in saving seeds.  Aside from saving money, saving seeds helps to preserve interesting varieties, diversify crop genetics and preserve cultural identity and heritage.  The question I hear the most from folks wanting to save seeds is – “What can I save?”   The next question is “How do I save them?”  In reality, the biggest decisions actually come in selecting seeds and how to plant them, and not in actual saving and storing of the seeds.  The first discussion when starting seed saving is:

 Hybrid vs Open Pollinated vs Heirloom – What’s the difference?

Punnett square

The offspring from a hybrid can have many different traits.

Hybrid plants are the result of a controlled breeding process, developed through a series of crosses where the parent plants impart the offspring with desirable traits.  The breeding process can be long and involved, especially since the process is so controlled.  The benefit to newer hybrids is that there has been a focus on disease resistance, where the plants usually have fewer diseases and thus requires fewer pest control inputs.  Hybrids also benefit from what is called “hybrid vigor,” where the plants exhibit stronger, more vital growth, higher yields and even higher survival from the seedling stage.

The big drawback with hybrids, especially for those who are interested in saving seeds, is that you really can’t do so with most hybrids.  Due to the long, involved process in developing the hybrid, the genetics of the hybrid aren’t stable enough to allow the seeds to be self-sustaining.  This means that instead of traits of the parent plant, you end up with a random mix of traits from the grandparent plants and earlier generations.

Common Misconceptions: Hybrids and GMOs are Not the Same

One misconception that I’ve seen is that folks think that hybrids are genetically modified organisms.  This isn’t true-they are developed from many generations of natural breeding that is directed by human hands.  The fact of the matter is that there are currently no genetically modified seeds or plants available to the general public.  Genetically modified organisms are developed through direct genetic modification in a lab, usually using DNA insertion or deletion.  Currently, you will only find these seeds in commodity crops, such as field corn, soy, cotton, etc. For more information, see this discussion Are GMO Seeds Available for Purchase?


Beans are a commmonly saved crop, since their self-pollination results in little crossing with other varieties. (Photo: Flickr, Jason Anfineson)

Open-pollinated plants are those who have stable genetics, where seeds can be saved with a promise that the offspring will be similar.  Due to the variability of the natural pollination process, though, there may be variations from individual to individual.   In order to save seeds, though, it is often necessary to isolate the plants to ensure that there is no cross pollination from other varieties in the garden, in the neighbors garden and sometimes as far as miles away.  (I hope to discuss this topic in a follow-up article.)

Heirlooms are simply open-pollinated varieties that have developed outside of the commercial plant trade and have a historical or cultural significance (a “backstory”).   However, not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms.  There is no hard and fast definition of “heirloom” as some also consider age a determining factor in the “heirloom” designation.  The common age is usually 50 years.  The seeds have been passed from generation-to-generation and often have a local or even familial significance.  Several smaller seed companies have found a niche in the market by exclusively selling heirloom seeds, and even large commercial seed companies are following suit.

For more information on heirloom resources, see this past blog post on Cooperative Extension heirloom vegetable resources.

You may also wish to find more information on heirlooms and hybrids at the following sources:

A Local Case Study:


The WV ’63 tomato was a hit! (Photo courtesy: West Virginia University)

Consider the WV ’63 tomato.  It was developed and released from my institution, WVU, 50 years ago in celebration of the state centennial.  It was developed through several generations of breeding, but it is an open-pollinated variety.  It was a breakthrough, since it was one of the first tomatoes developed with late blight resistance.  Since its release, it has mainly been maintained by growing it at the university farm for seeds and plants sold from the campus greenhouse and by a few small producers in the state and by local seed savers.  It is not common in general garden catalogs, though it is available through one that sells heirloom varieties.

This year, to celebrate the state’s sesquicentennial and the tomato’s 50th birthday, WVU Extension had a massive giveaway program, where an attractive “collector” seed packet was developed and citizens (and others) could request free tomato seeds.  Well over 20,000 requests were made and no more are available.  But the question that I often get is “is it an heirloom?”  What do you think?  Is it an heirloom?  You can read more about the WV ’63 here and  as well as watch a wonderful video from the man who developed it here.

   John Porter
   Extension Agent, WVU Extension Service
   Charleston, WV

You can win your very own packet of WV ’63 Tomato seeds, as well as a selection of other heirlooms by answering the following questions on the blog page or as a Facebook comment (one lucky winner will be chosen at random from those who answer the questions):

1)  Do you think that the WV ’63 an heirloom?

2) What is your favorite variety, heirloom or hybrid, to grow?