It’s easy to get seed from your vegetables.  Just let Nature do her thing.

It’s a little bit more challenging to be sure that you’re getting the kinds of seeds you want.  Plants (kinda like outdoor cats) make offspring quite willingly, with any other plant that will participate.

In a small garden, one really easy simple trick is to grow one variety of each species.  You’ll get lots of diversity in your food and nutrition, and you’ll get a much greater assurance of growing good seeds.

Here’s the “Seedsaving without worries” handout (pdf) that I wrote for this weekend’s talk at the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA).  It has slightly different content than this post.

A diversity of species

Those Latin names (botanic names) in high-quality seed catalogs are printed there to help you.

A botanic name has two parts: the plant’s genus and species.   Plants with the same botanic name will crossbread eagerly.

Plants with different botanic names usually won’t crossbreed (I have to say “usually” here because historically in botany, there are exceptions.  But those exceptions are extraordinary, not the normal way Nature likes to operate.)

So, as you plan your garden, select a diversity of species.  For example: grow Brassica juncea and Brassica oleracea.  As in:  Japanese Red Giant Mustard and Lacinato kale.  You can grow both, right alongside each other, and save good seed.

The Triangle of U diagram (top of post) is a great illustration of how this doesn’t “limit” your selection for your garden.  If you picked one variety from each species on the Triangle of U, you’d be growing 6 types of yummy plants.

Continuing our example, you could grow Japanese Red Giant Mustard, Lacinato kale, ‘Joan’ rutabaga, Mizuna, and Ethiopian kale right alongside each other.  That’s a lot of food, and that’s not even counting all the extended cousins within the Broccoli plant family, such as radishes, arugula, cress …

That’s quite a bounty!

One variety from each species

Open a good quality seed catalog (one that lists botanic names) and you’ll see that there are tons of varieties to choose from within a given species.  For example Brassica oleracea:  all the broccolis, cauliflowers, collards, most of the kales …

This year you get to pick one.  Only one variety of Brassica oleracea.  That means you have to choose Violetta Italia Cauliflower -OR- Lacinato kale, not both.

Remember, though, that you’ve got all those other species to choose from too.  So your garden will still have LOTS of different things growing, lots of different things to eat and enjoy.

And, while you’re choosing only one of these this year, you can always choose a different one next year!  Perhaps Violetta Italia Cauliflower this year; Lacinato kale next year.

Grow plenty of it

If you set your heart on Japanese Red Giant Mustard, grow a whole bunch of Japanese Red Giant Mustard plants.  This larger number of plants gives Nature a larger population to work with – more diversity as she sorts out all the genetic messages she builds into a seed.

If you don’t have space for many plants, plan ahead with a gardening friend.  Get Suzie to grow Japanese Red Giant Mustard at the same time as you’re growing.  Then after you each save seed, mix your Japanese Red Giant Mustard seeds together, and each take a share from the mix.  (This is really easy to accomplish within a a community like a seed library.)

Mixing seed batches creates a larger population.  It simulates, within our tight city spaces, the way Nature operates in a large open field with plenty of Japanese Red Giant Mustard parents.

Get to know your neighbors

The greater seedsaving community is beginning to realize that our cities might be a really great place to preserve heirloom varieties, because buildings and walls can help block pollen drift issues, and not that many people allow their veggies to go all the way through their lifecycles to seed.

However to grow great seed, you need to find out what might be growing over the fence.

Get to know your neighbors.  Are they growing veggies?  Anything that might cross with yours?  Are they letting theirs go to seed too (or they the kind of gardener that pulls things out before that “ugly” blossoming begins).

Nature herself may be growing something over the fence.  In Southern California, for instance, there are several varieties of Brassica that grow wild in the area: nearby wild radishes can cross with your home radish plants.

If you discover conflicts, you do have options:  caging, bagging, hand pollination.  However you might not need to go to any of those fancy things if no one around you is growing what you’re saving.

Complete lifecycles

The biggest stumbling block for seedsaving seems to be letting plants grow all the way through their complete lifecycle.

Our society has promoted a sterile, clipped aesthetic – tightly trimmed green lawns and foundation hedges – which doesn’t nurture Life.  That errant aesthetic doesn’t support birds, pollinating insects, diversity of species, or locally-grown nutrient-dense food.  Instead, we need to loosen up a bit.

Think of it as a “fluffy” look.  Plants that are going to seed sprout tall.  They sent out long stalks and towering blossom heads.  They turn tan as the seed matures.  You can plan for this aesthetic as you design your garden.

  1. Collect cool props.  In my home garden I like spiral multicolored metal poles.  At the Community Garden, we get giant tomato cages, the huge square kind that fold flat, that are enameled in bright colors.  We use these tools year-round on many different crops.  The bright colors help keep the garden looking nice.
  2. Clear pathways.  The visual contrast between a clear, single-colored pathway and a fluffy bed full of plants creates the sense that it was planned, not just an abandoned mess.
  3. Pick your placement.  You probably have some plants you’ll be growing for seed, and others which you won’t.  Also, some plants look more tidy than others.  Put the scruffy plants in the back, and the aesthetically pleasing ones out front where the neighbors see them.

Here’s the “Seedsaving without worries” handout (pdf) that I wrote for this weekend’s talk at the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA).  It has slightly different content than this post.