Saving seed is one of the most important things you can do as a gardener. Caroline Hsu, writing for the U.S. News and World Reports, offered this sobering assessment from the United Nations: “[A]bout 75% of the world’s garden vegetables have been lost in the past century because of consolidation of seed companies and the replacement of small, varied family farms with single-crop industrial farms.”

In America, that figure is even more staggering: “[S]ince 1900, 92% of the fruit and vegetable varieties used to feed the country have disappeared.”

Yes, you read correctly. Ninety-two percent. The genes gone. Vanished.

Monoculture farming, or relying on just one variety of one plant is a sure path to ecocide. When a culture relies on just a handful of varieties of food crops for its nourishment, as the Irish largely did with the Lumper potato, the results can be catastrophic. Michal Pollan writes, “a vast field of identical plants will always be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease.” In Ireland in 1845, ’46, and ’48, potato blight spores ravished the primary food crop to devastating effect — in those three years, one million people died of starvation while countless others went blind or insane from lack of nourishment. “Indeed,” Pollan writes, “Ireland’s was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly.”

Increasing and preserving our genetic heritage in the vegetable garden is vital to the long-term survival of the human species. As weeds and pests have adapted to the chemical potions necessary for industrial farming, proliferating a diverse gene pool becomes increasingly important to our future.

Fortunately, saving seed from most of the common vegetable-types is not that difficult, and, with a little planning, can be easily sustained from season to season.

There has been an explosion in agricultural technology over the last 70 years. Some of it has been for the better. Much of it is proving to be as many things in our lives are now: good for the immediate future, but unsustainable in the long-term.

Although agri-corps like Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont claim that we can eradicate these concerns through science, the fact is their solutions are profit-driven, often seeking to monopolize laboratory created strains of corn, rice, and other staple crops. Their “solutions” for the ills of monoculture are anything but — they are more like rickety bridges meant to get us from one unsustainable practice to the next without ever stopping to question the wisdom of growing one strain of rice, corn, or wheat.

And though it seems overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. You can make a difference simply by growing a plant in your garden, propogating its seed, and sharing that seed your friends and other gardeners.


The Brassicaceae Family — it’s all about the planning

plant profile

Within the large, extended Brassica family are many veggies that may not seem related, but that are, in fact, descended from a common ancestor. Members include many of the most popular vegetables — broccoli, kale, collards, turnips, mustards, cabbage, and radish. When you stop to consider the varieties that exist within those groups, you get a sense of this family’s enormity.

Of all the plants from which I have saved seed, cole crops are — from a labor standpoint — among the easiest to harvest. But that doesn’t mean saving their seed is easy. On the contrary, cole crops require a bit of forethought before your plants begin to flower.

The greatest challenge to the gardener is knowing which species their plant belongs to. This is crucial because plants within the same species will easily cross with one another, producing hybrid seed that will be worthless the next year. Unfortunately, most of the brassicas that gardeners like to grow come from the same species, Brassica oleracea.

Brassica oleracea includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale (excluding some types of Siberian kale), and kohlrabi. If you’re like me, then you generally plant at least two members of this species during a given season.

steps for saving seed

  1. The first step in saving brassica seeds is to decide what type of plant you want. Let’s say your garden contains broccoli, collards, and kale, and you especially want to save kale seed.  Eat from all three varieties throughout the spring, but  don’t decimate one kale plant. Rather, pick leaves from each  in order to spread the harvest among all.
  2. As temperatures increase and your plants begin to flower, remove your broccoli and collards.
  3. Unlike other species, many cole crops are self-incompatible, which means that good seed production will depend on having multiple plants available for pollination. Some resources recommend having a minimum of 6 plants. I find that 4 works well for the small gardener. If you’re growing on a larger scale, you may want to have as many (or more than) 20 plants. The more plants you have, the better the quality of your seed.
  4. Soon, your plant will put forth seed stalks and small yellow flowers (Cole plants used to be classified as Cruciferaes because the flowers form small crosses). After the plant has been pollinated, it will produce a series of elongated seedpods. You must allow the seeds to mature while the plant is alive. Mature pods will dry and turn a light brown. They are then susceptible to shattering.
  5. Once the pods are mature, carefully remove the plant from the ground and allow it to cure for a few days. I usually place a mature plant upside down in a five gallon bucket.
  6. After the plant has cured, shake it in the bucket which will shatter the pods and release the seed. You can also shatter the pods by hand. Another technique is to shatter them over a white sheet.
  7. Finally, winnow the seed from the pods, store, and save. Sometimes, if you time it right, you can plant spring’s seeds for the fall garden!

tips for cole crops

  1. I wrote the steps above for those who have limited space and/or time. If you want to grow multiple plants from the same species and save seed from each, the surest way to avoid crossing your plants is to cage them. In this scenario, you expose your kale plants for a day or two while placing your broccoli and collards inside cages with wire mesh that is small enough to prevent bees, wasps, and other pollinators from entering. Then cage your kale and collards and un-cage the broccoli. Repeat these steps until all plants have been pollinated. Although this is a more time- and labor-intensive method, it is the only workable option if you are gardening in a confined area.
  2. My Cole crops have always had problems with insects — from aphids, to cabbage loopers, to leaf miners, to cutworms, all creatures seem to find the mighty brassica tasty. One option for dealing with this problem organically is to plant a catch crop. Catch crops are those which farmers plant to draw the bad bugs away from the crops they want protected. In my experience, mustards make a great catch. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps the bugs enjoy the tang of a mustard as much as I do.
  3. Brassicas are heavy feeders. Make sure that you have a good supply of fertilizer to keep them happy.
  4. In some parts of the country, the climate is mild enough that you can overwinter certain Cole crops. When planted in the fall and allowed to get established, they will become dormant during the winter. Then, early in the spring, you will have veggies far ahead of most other people. Champion collards and Purple Sprouting broccoli were two varieties that worked well for me. Unfortunately, Kentucky winters are too harsh for overwintering without the aid of a greenhouse or other cover.
  5. Saving cabbage seed can challenging because, as with head lettuce, the seed stalk sometimes has difficulty piercing the head. Some farmers rap the head with their palm or slit the top to help the seed stalk emerge.
  6. Because the Brassica family is so large, crop rotation becomes a little trickier than with other plants. For instance, growing radishes, broccoli, and turnips in the same bed will attract the same insects and allow the for the build up of damaging bacteria in the soil. When planning your garden, be aware of the many different members of the Brassica family and try to rotate in non-Brassica crops every 2-3 years.

Tomato — Lycopersicon lycopersicon

plant profile

The humble tomato originated in Latin and South America. Brought to Europe by Columbus, it was for many years considered a death-inducing oddity. Today, many of us would consider summer to be incomplete without the flavor of a freshly picked tomato.

Though most tomatoes are red and slightly acidic to the taste, this favorite fruit has a wide variety of colors, sizes, flavors, and uses. It is also fairly easy to save tomato seed.

steps for saving tomato seed

  1. Most tomato flowers are self-pollinating. Though cross-pollination is possible, it has, in my experience, been non-existent. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it most likely won’t. Therefore, you can grow as many different types of tomatoes as you have room or desire for, often with little or no spacing issues.
  2. Pick ripe tomatoes from plants whose fruits exhibit those characteristics you most enjoy.
  3. Cut the fruit in half and squeeze the seeds into a cup or container.
  4. Once you’ve completed step #3, fill your container with a little water. Tomato seeds form inside gelatinous sacks whose purpose is to keep the seeds from germinating inside the fruit. Because of this, you must put the seeds through a very simple fermentation process.
  5. Stir your seeds 2-3 times a day. This will speed the fermentation process.
  6. Once the liquid has formed a layer of mold, or when bubbles can be seen rising to the surface, the process is complete. Note: this mixture smells noxious. If you do this inside your house, make sure to place the mixture where it can’t spill!
  7. Double or triple the liquid in the mixture with clean water, skim the mold from the surface, then pour the mixture through a strainer.
  8. Rinse the seeds and place them on a plate or metal surface. Do not use cloth or paper, as the seeds will dry and stick, becoming virtually impossible to pry loose.
  9. Stir the seeds once or twice a day to prevent sticking.
  10. Once dry, place the seed in an air tight container. I find old prescription bottles work perfectly.
  11. Properly stored tomato seed will remain viable for up to 10 years (though I usually grow mine out after 3 or 4). Seed keeps longer if stored in the freezer.


Lettuce — Latuca sativa

plant profile:

Humans have been cultivating lettuce for millenia. Though many varieties exist–crisphead (head lettuce), butterhead, cos (romaine), leaf, asparagus (not to be confused with asparagus grown from crowns), and Latin–all lettuce belongs to the same genus and species. Because lettuce flowers are perfect, they do not rely on wind or insect pollination, though both can play a role. Saving lettuce seed is easy and is a great place to start your collection.  Saving seed from just one plant can provide enough stock to last a small gardener two or three seasons.

steps for saving lettuce seed:

  1. As the days grow longer in late spring/early summer, pick a variety of lettuce you’ve particularly enjoyed. Remove those plants from your bed which exhibit off characteristics or bolt early.
  2. Each plant will send up a stalk on which heads will form up to 25 florets.
  3. To preserve the variety’s unique characteristics, remove different varieties that are flowering or about to flower. If you’re still eating on those plants, simply remove any seed stalks they send up while the plant(s) you wish to save seed from is in bloom. This will prevent cross pollination.
  4. Once mature, shake the heads in a sack or bucket to collect the seed. Rolling the heads between your fingers is another effective method for harvesting the seed.
  5. Each lettuce seed consists of the seed and a feathery chaff  (which is quite similar to a dandelion seed). To remove the chaff, spread the seed over a fine mesh screen and toss (and/or blow gently) until the chaff separates.
  6. Dry the seed for a day or two, then store in a cool, dry, dark place. Seed saved correctly will last for three years or more.

tips for lettuce seed

  1. Start with a cos or leaf variety. These plants have no trouble sending up the stalk, while head varieties may require extra attention. Drunken Woman Fringe Headed or Flashy Troutback are excellent choices!
  2. If timed right, you can save 4-6 different varieties in one season–2-3 in the spring and 2-3 in the fall.
  3. Lettuce is great because you can harvest the outer leaves of a plant before it flowers and still collect an abundance of seed. Just be careful not to pluck too many of the inner leaves!
  4. If space is an issue, try growing one or two plants in a medium-large pot.