Seed saving is either a simple activity or an elaborate fight against nature. It all comes down to cross-pollination and whether it will affect the plants progeny in an adverse way.
First we must discard any consideration of propagating hybrid plants. They are manipulated by the grower who uses two different parents to produce a plant that many times doesn’t even resemble mom and pop. Then there are the plants that are sterile and need to be propagated by cuttings, division, tissue culture, tip layering, or grafting.
So now we’re down to heirloom plants that can be open-pollinated. Are you following me here? We’re talking about old-timey plants that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s not to say they are exactly the same year after year. Soil condition, weather, location, mutation, and evolution all play a role in a plants changing and developing unique characteristics. Growers and gardeners will select desirable mutations and develop new varieties. That’s when you’ll get tomato plants named Mortgage-Lifter (visualize that farmer happily paying off the last installment to the bank for their farm). Or Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, and Mamie Brown’s Pink Tomato.
Were not up to the easy part quite yet. Most vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, corn, eggplant, leek, onion, melon, okra, Brussel sprouts, beets, and Swiss chard are easily cross-pollinated by bugs or wind and need to either be covered during flowering or separated from any other variety by one mile to ensure the next year’s plants will come true to seed. If you like building projects, simple structures can be made with wood and netting to exclude any pollen being carried from one variety to another. Another challenge is that most of them are biennial and must be left to grow until the following year when they will finally set seed. Most home gardeners are reluctant to give up such high value square footage for two years for something they can purchase for $2.95. One must truly be into seed saving for such commitment.
Finally we’re up to the annuals that do not easily cross-pollinate. We may be sad with the paucity of vegetable choices, but the flowers and herbs will reward us in kind. Separate your beans, peas (50′ please), garden huckleberries, lettuce, and tomatoes by 25′ from their brothers and sisters to prevent any incest. Go wild with your herbs: dill, black cumin, cilantro, lavender hyssop, chives, garlic chives, catnip, borage, lovage, sorrel, sage, tansy, arnica, teasel, feverfew, and sweet annie. The flower seed you can collect when the heads are dried out are zinnias, California poppy, hollyhocks, coneflower, Amish cockscomb, salvias, catmint, cleome, painted tongue, sweet peas, marigolds, tobacco plant, lambs ear, giant spotted foxglove, hyacinth bean, Johnny-jump-ups, kiss me over the garden gate, and love-in-a-mist.
The photos depict some seed heads still in the garden (I’m always behind with everything). They are from my White Garden and Herb Garden. From top left to bottom right they are as follows: White Cleome, Flag Iris, Arnica, Mealy Cup Sage, Tansy, Teasel, White Ironweed, Sweet Annie (I’m going to regret letting this go to seed), Senna with Praying Mantis Egg Case, and Lamb’s Ear.
Not enough for you? Then go to Seed Savers Exchange where the high priests and priestesses of seed saving will provide everything you ever wanted to know about seed saving, seed starting, storing seeds, and purchasing heirloom varieties. There’s even an exchange for when you’ve collected your zillions of sweet annie seeds and are at a loss as to what to do with all of them. Maybe you can pawn them off on some unsuspecting newbie seed saver!