Planning a garden involves deciding what crops to plant, how to efficiently use your space, and correctly timing of planting each crop. With a little extra planning, you can have a garden that provides a bountiful harvest of both produce and seeds. Whether you are planning a large backyard garden or have only a small garden plot, these tips and strategies will get your planting efforts off on the right foot.
Know Where to Start
Planning a seed garden does not have to be overwhelming and can be done to your ability and interest level. Just as a new gardener is told not to take on more than can be managed when planting a vegetable or flower garden, starting small and knowing just what species to begin with when growing a variety for seed will help ensure success. And by growing familiar varieties, it is simpler to measure one’s success at collecting seed that is true to type when that seed is planted and grown the following year.
Know Your Space
Mapping out the garden for efficient use of space to produce both vegetables and seeds should also be considered when planning a seed garden. In addition, a gardener needs to determine what the primary goal is in saving seeds: Are seeds being collected simply for sowing in the garden the following season, or for the conservation of a rare variety? A careful consideration of these factors (bearing in mind how much effort you want to invest) is the starting point of planning a seed garden, whether you are a new seed saver or a practiced veteran.
Know Your Region
Some regions tout the benefit of a long growing season, others boast sufficient precipitation, while others aren’t prone to temperature extremes. Each region has its benefits and challenges, and understanding which ones you face is crucial for gardening success. Research what species and varieties grow well as food crops in your area and then you can determine what can be grown for seed. Be sure to note when the seeds reach harvest maturity and calculate out whether your growing season is long enough. Some seeds aren’t at harvest maturity when the fruit reaches market maturity (when it is ready for consumption) and need a longer growing season.
Know What Crops to Select
A general rule of thumb for beginners is to select annuals that are primarily self-pollinating as starter seed crops. Species that require vernalization or have larger isolation distance requirements take more planning and care than self-pollinating annuals. For this reason, open-pollinated varieties of lettuce, peas, and beans are ideal choices for anyone new to seed saving. Peas and beans have another advantage in that they take up the same space in the garden when being grown for seed as they do when being grown for eating, making it simpler for a new seed saver to plan out a garden without having to reconsider spacing considerations. Endive, which requires a little more space when grown for seed, can still be grown at its regular spacing and simply be thinned to desired spacing for seed maturation. The plants in between can be harvested as the season progresses, making room for the selected seed plants to fill out and flower.
Other vegetables with perfect flowers, such as tomatoes, can be successfully grown for seed by bagging individual flowers and collecting seeds from these fruits, or by meeting the modest recommended isolation distance between varieties when growing more than one cultivar. Cucumbers, okra, and melons can also be good crops for beginner seed savers as long as nearby neighbors are not growing a different variety of them. Although these three crops are insect-pollinated and outcross to varying degrees, planting only one variety allows for the production of true-to-type seeds when adequately isolated from other gardens. More adventurous beginners may wish to try hand-pollinating a squash or pumpkin variety, and in areas where the climate allows for in-ground vernalization, they may even attempt to grow leeks, beets or collards and collect their seeds in the second season.
Know the Seed’s Characteristics
Gardeners tend to want to collect seeds from the crops they grow most, but it is essential to determine first if it is feasible to cultivate seeds from a particular species. Seed savers must examine whether they can grow a species to seed given its spatial and cultural requirements. And, because varieties of the same species can differ dramatically in the time it takes them to reach maturity, seed savers must also ask whether or not seeds can be collected from a specific variety.
It is critical to remember that while seeds produced by a hybrid, or F1, variety are occasionally grown out by breeders and advanced seed savers in an effort to stabilize the traits of the variety, such seeds are highly unlikely to develop into plants that closely resemble the original variety. Open-pollinated varieties, on the other hand, will produce seeds that are true to type and maintain the desired characteristics of their variety provided a seed saver takes care to prevent unwanted cross-pollination between cultivars.
Whether you decide to take on more complex seed crops over time or to simply collect seeds from easy-to-manage crop varieties is a matter of choice. And whether you collect seeds from many varieties of vegetables or only a select few, there is a growing satisfaction that comes along with being an active member of the seed-saving community.
This text is adapted from The Seed Garden: The Art & Practice of Seed Saving by Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel, published by Seed Savers Exchange. The award-winning book is a go-to resource and includes in-depth instructions, information, and advice, including crop-by-crop growing guides on the art and practice of seed saving.