Many gardeners find great satisfaction planning and growing their garden using open-pollinated seeds that they saved from previous years!   In January, Cathy Christie from the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) provided an introduction to seed saving and planning a “seed garden”. 

An Introduction to Seeds

Seeds come from various sources and it helps to understand the terminology!

Open-pollinated (OP) seeds are pollinated by insects, birds, wind or other natural means. Pollen flows freely between individual plants, maintaining the genetic diversity of the plant population. Over time, these plants can slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate. OP seeds grow like, or “true”, to the parent plant. You can legally save and share OP seeds every year.  That means that you never have to buy seeds again!  And you will be increasing the biodiversity of our seed and food system.

Heirloom seeds are defined by the Seed Savers Exchange as OP seeds from a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a community. These plants have stories associated with them!  While heirloom seeds are all OP, not all OP seeds are heirlooms. In Canada there is no legal definition of an heirloom.

Hybrid (or F1) seeds are created from open pollinated varieties. Hybridization can occur naturally, but is also done commercially to create desirable characteristics such as drought tolerance or disease resistance. These seeds do not grow like their parents, and therefore new seeds need to be purchased each year. Some commercially produced hybrids have been patented – it is not legal to save, share and grow seeds with a patent.

Why Start From Seeds

  • For many gardeners, starting seeds and growing food, for ourselves or for sharing, are a way to connect with our food sources and our community. 
  • Starting from seed means there are thousands of varieties, not found in nurseries, at your fingertips. Choose based on flavour, appearance or whatever other attributes appeal to you.
  • With a little passion and the right tools, the plants you grow from locally adapted  seed will be healthier and less stressed.
  • Starting from seed is cost effective. A package containing 50-100 seeds costs about the same as a few transplants purchased from a nursery. Of course open-pollinated seeds that you grow and save yourself are free! 
  • When you’re not waiting for nursery stock, you can be planting out both earlier and later in the season, increasing your harvest by many weeks in both spring and fall.

Planning Your Seed Garden

Consider the space, sunlight and water sources you have available for your transplants, whether it is a back (or front) yard, containers on a deck or perhaps a bed in a local community garden plot. Then, plan your seed starting date for each type of plant based on information from the seed packet (e.g. start indoors x weeks prior to last frost date), or from online plant calculators such as those available at Johnnys Seeds or West Coast Seeds.

If You Are Saving Seeds

Grow the vegetables and flowers that you love! Choose open pollinated varieties from seed catalogues, local seed exchanges or trade with friends and neighbours. Where possible, select seeds that are from your own area and therefore likely to thrive under local conditions. You need to grow enough plants to both eat your produce and to save a few open-pollinated seeds for next year’s garden. Growing enough plants for a seed harvest ensures genetic diversity is maintained as the plants keep adapting and evolving in your local conditions.

You can save viable seeds from just ONE plant for many delicious vegetables, like beans, lettuce, peas and squash Yes it’s true- you only need to grow ONE plant to harvest seeds and food!

Keep your open-pollinated varieties true to type using isolation distances and physical barriers like blossom bags, hand-pollination or buildings or hedges.  For example,  if you want to save seeds from one variety of tomato you need to plant it 10-20 feet away from all other tomato varieties or use blossom bags over a few flowers on each plant to keep pollen from other tomato varieties out.  Otherwise hybrid or cross-pollinated tomatoes will grow.  They will be tasty but the seeds from those plants will likely not grow true!  More information about isolation distances for each vegetable cultivar  is available at: Seed Savers Exchange.

Understand when seeds are ready to save. For some crops, such as cucumber or squash, we eat the fruit before the seeds are fully mature. For these plants, you will need to leave a few fruits on the vine, until they are well past eating condition, and then extracting seeds from the pulp to dry. Other plants, such as beans, have seeds can be easily harvested once the seed pods are hard and dry.

Storing Seeds

Store your dried seeds in a cool, dark and dry place. Glass jars work well. Dried seeds can also be stored in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.  Remember to label your collection with the variety of seed and date collected. Some seed types such as onion and carrots tend to be viable for only a short time, while others, such as tomatoes and beans will last for many years.