All posts by Irena

Easy Seed Saving with Promiscuous Pollination

I’m sure many gardeners consider saving some of their own seed, but then feel like it would be too complicated. I’m guessing the main deterrent, for gardeners who have learned something about seed saving, is what we hear about isolation distances. Southern Exposure, for example, has for many years recommended that when home gardeners save their own seeds, they isolate their seed crops from other varieties in flower of the same species by at least 5 feet for lettuce, 40 feet for peppers, or 300 feet for various crops including corn, okra, and squash. For those gardeners who can’t isolate with distance, we describe methods including hand pollination, isolating in time, and isolating with physical barriers like row cover.  Without such isolation measures, it’s generally likely that pollen from one variety will reach the female flower parts of another variety, and that some offspring will have mixed characteristics of both varieties. With such isolation measures, it’s quite unlikely, but often still conceivable, that some offspring will have mixed parentage.

This photo, showing one plot of tomatoes in the foreground, and another in the background, illustrates how we separate tomato crops when producing seed for sale on the farm where I live.

This post is a rare plea to go ahead and save seed, if you want to, regardless of how close your plants are to others of the same species.  Offspring with mixed characteristics are not forbidden in your garden. It is not wrong to let them grow. You might prefer to have a more predictable garden, or you might relish the surprises.

This year demand for garden seeds has been so high that many seed companies have had to put limits on placement of orders. At Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, in 2021, we’ll still have enough supply of seeds of most of the crop types we sell. However, for large-seeded crops like beans, southern peas, and field corn,  our dehumidified, cooled storage space is generally only sufficient for a couple years’ supply.  So, next year we won’t have as many varieties of beans, southern peas, and field corns available. These are crops that you can save seed with methods very much like those you would use to harvest food. You could fill a little bit of the gap between the supply and the demand for these seeds.  If you list your seeds on Seed Savers’ Exchange, Grassroots Seed Network, Etsy, or another online platform, you could make a few dollars at it, too.

NT Half Runner beans at various stages of maturity, from the early snap stage through the seed maturity stage. Beans can be picked for seed once they reach the leathery stage, yellow in the case of this variety

Here’s a little story of how I first began to stray from the gospel of isolating varieties. Rushdat Hale, a Nigerian gardener living in the US, shared seed with us for a Molokhia (a.ka. Egyptian Spinach) from her home country.  I planted it in spring of 2018, and wrote to her that summer: “In our trial patch, the variety we got from you has two distinct leaf shapes.  As far back as you can remember, has that variety always had both types?  Do you know if it was already that way when it was brought over from Africa?  Please write back to me to tell me what you know about the variation in the Molokhia.” She wrote back: “I’m surprised you’ve noticed only two leaf patterns. Back home they don’t separate varieties.”

I wrote back, “I find it very interesting that in your home country (and maybe most of your home continent?) varieties don’t get separated even when folks are saving seed.  I wish I had a better idea of how widespread that kind of seed-saving was in countries like this one, as well, before there were many seed companies.  I think there are some significant advantages to doing it that way, including in terms of adaptability to unpredictable growing conditions.  But, it’s generally not the way varieties are stewarded at companies like ours.”

Over the course of the past two years I have thought more and more often about this conversation, and I feel increasingly confident that it has only been in recent decades, that anyone has come to have the expectation that seed-savers will isolate their varieties.

I estimate that seed-saving philosophies like Rushdat’s are still common in most rural parts of the world, and also among many Americans who learned how to save seeds from relatives who learned how to save seeds from previous relatives.  I expect that adherence to isolation distances is the norm only among people who have learned to save seeds from books, or from seed companies.  As with many other aspects of academic in relation to cultures that are more intimately dependent on land, I see a risk of unintentional disparagement if we say that things must be done the way we’ve been taught in formal settings.

I expect that the academic-style learners and teachers are, on the whole, much whiter than those who have learned to save seeds from their relatives. Race is certainly not the root cause of such differences. However,  over the years, white people overall have certainly had much greater access various resources that have made it more possible for some people to move away from dependence on the land and away from ancestral traditions. Formal education is one of the biggest of those resources. Therefore I see a risk of exacerbating racial inequities if we insist that things, such as seed-saving, be done the way we’ve been taught in formal settings.

Nigerian Molokhia

There are plenty of other examples of traditional seed-saving practices that are quite different from what’s generally recommended in modern times. Will Bonsall maintains a type of flint corn from Byron, Maine.  The people of Byron had a tradition of mixing their corn: When a farmer was on his way to visit a neighbor, he would take a pocketful of corn from his corn crib, and during the visit he would drop those kernels in the neighbor’s crib.  The neighbor’s strain of Byron Yellow Flint Corn was probably slightly different, probably a little better adapted to that neighbor’s own microclimate. As modern geneticists would say, the mixing helped ensure that the farmers’ corn did not become too inbred. (Corn is more prone than most crops to negative effects of inbreeding if seed is saved from too few plants.) I wonder how often Byron farmers dropped pocketfuls of corn into corn cribs far from Byron. I wonder how often Maine farmers — or other farmers — would mix their corn with dramatically different varieties of corn.  I wonder what kinds of conversations those farmers had about this practice.

Suzanne Ashworth decided to write Seed to Seed because, before the 1991 first edition of her book, “a comprehensive guide to saving vegetable seeds on a small scale was not to be found.” She also wrote that “The only isolation distances ever published for some crops are the recommendations made by commercial seed producers.” And so she provided those distances as guidelines in her book. She also wrote that “Isolation distances are highly site specific and depend on many factors such as plant population size, pollinator population density, presence of alternative insect forage sources, geographical barriers, vegetation barriers and other habitat-related factors. These commercial recommendations should be viewed as maximum starting points for individualized experiments to determine isolation distances that would be more appropriate for specific garden sites.”

Southern Exposure was one of the first sources to make specific recommendations about what minimum isolation distances home seed savers should use for various crops. We’re still making those recommendations, including with this very popular Basic Guide to Seed-Saving (pdf). I’m confident that the primary messages my coworkers and precessesors wanted to convey with this advice were: 1)You don’t absolutely have to isolate by very large isolation distances like those cited in Seed to Seed and 2) Isolation distances do matter, and they vary a lot from crop to crop.

However, I detect an assumption throughout Seed to Seed, and also in resources provided by my company, that the goal of the seed-saving gardener is generally to maintain varieties in their original forms, or at least fairly close to those original forms.  I also detect an assumption that when we sensibly veer off the path of simply maintaining a variety, we do so by choosing and then enacting distinct changes in the variety, such as by crossing it with a carefully chosen second variety, or by selecting for earliness, sweetness, disease resistance, or keeping quality.  This is generally considered to be more complicated than simply maintaining a variety in the form we receive it in.

For many seed savers, genetic purity is a perfectly good goal.  For example:

  • If you’re growing seed to sell to a seed company, that seed company has every reason to want to know that the description in its catalog will continue to be an accurate description of the variety.
  • If your great-aunt gave you a bean variety that her family grew for many decades, you may have personal reasons for wanting to keep it like it was when you got it.
  • Even if you don’t expect to share it with anyone, you might feel it’s quite essential to keep your corn from getting cross-pollinated with GMO corn.

There are also plenty of sensible reasons for breeders to create new, uniform varieties by carefully choosing which varieties to cross and carefully choosing which attributes to select for.

South Anna Butternut, a recently introduced variety of squash, created by our neighbor Edmund Frost, by using hand pollination to cross Waltham Butternut with Seminole pumpkin, and then selecting for qualities including disease resistance, yield, flavor, and long shelf life.

But genetic purity does not need to be a goal of every seed saver.  Some even consider crop genetic purity to be a disadvantage.

Researchers, agronomists, and others have generally used the term “landrace” to describe varieties like Rushdat’s Molokhia.

The landrace gardening movement, as in this article from Off The Grid News and on this permies forum thread , encourages gardeners to create their own highly diverse landrace varieties by planting a mixture of many different varieties, saving the seed, planting it the next year, and repeating year after year. The diversity of the resulting mixes gives them more resilience to the pressures of disease and weather.

Perhaps the foremost and most vocal of these gardeners is Joseph Lofthouse, who lives in Utah, in a climate where most commercial varieties of most crops just won’t yield a harvest at all.  As Joseph points out, “The plant, the farmer, and the society are all intimately entwined in landrace growing.”  He has developed many different landrace varieties that are available for sale, mostly through the Experimental Farm Network.

As Joseph put it on the aforementioned permies forum,

“Starting with the same seed, someone that grows in a raised bed might end up with genetics much different than someone that grows in the dirt. Growing with lots of mulch might result in different genetics than growing in plain old dirt. One time when I trialled a lot of new tomatoes, I noticed that plants from my saved seed grew differently… Because my vines tended to arch upwards to keep the tomatoes out of the dirt… Since I don’t stake tomatoes I only save seeds from tomatoes that are not touching the dirt and rotting. So I had inadvertently been selecting for genes that keep the tomatoes suspended in the air without staking. There’s so many nuances like that… The plants adapt to everything around them… Even my customers at the farmers market are influencing the genetics of my plants due to their eating preferences, and the seeds they return to me, and the seeds they gift to me.”

You don’t need to choose between these two goals – genetic purity and landrace gardening – even for one crop.  One intermediate route would be to save seeds from your favorite varieties without worrying about whether they’re cross-pollinated or not.  Of course, the more widely you share the seeds you’ve harvested, the more likely they would inadvertently get into the hands of someone who assumes that purity of plant genetics is every seed saver’s goal.  So, if you sell or trade seeds from plants are promiscuously pollinated, I’d recommend making that pollination method clear in your descriptions.

If you are going to save seeds without aiming for genetic purity, here are two situations to keep in mind where crops that we call by different names are in fact in the same species, and can cross with each other:

  • Most zucchini, most pumpkins, some other winter squash, and most small gourds are all in the species Cucurbita pepo, and can cross with one another over significant distances.
  • The species Brassica Oleracea includes broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cabbage, kohlrabi, brussel sprouts, gai lan,and some types of kale. These can cross with each other over significant distances if they flower at the same time.

In New Mexico, it is common for farmers and communities to maintain their own varieties of chili peppers, such as the Hatch Valley chilies, and to exchange seeds freely, but to tell recipients that the peppers won’t be the same if grown in a different place, and should not be called by the same name. Terroir is a prominent aspect of this line of thought.  New Mexican farmers giving away chili seeds may encourage the recipients to let those peppers cross with other peppers, save the seeds, and develop new varieties unique to their own locations.

This year I might save seeds from the section of our gardens where I’m growing and comparing 40 kinds of peppers, including sweet and mild and hot, belonging to four different pepper species.  I wonder, should we offer the mix (or part of it) for sale?

Several varieties, representing three species, of peppers in Southern Exposure’s 2019 taste test for purposes of variety assessment

So why aren’t diverse landraces more common among heirloom vegetable varieties?

It’s largely because, while those heirloom varieties were being developed, the farmers growing them didn’t have access to a whole lot of seed catalogs. So they basically just grew one variety of each of their crops, with occasional, sporadic introductions of new genetics through various means. Over many generations of plants, when new genetics don’t get introduced, a landrace variety will tend to stabilize.  The plants in it will become more similar to one another.

Also, landrace heirloom varieties might be more common than we tend to think, especially in crops that cross-pollinate over large distances. With the right pollinators, it possible for there to be at least some cross-pollination between squash varieties even at ½ mile. At Southern Exposure, we’ve heard about a few highly variable landrace varieties of squash from the Southeast – and I’m guessing there are many we haven’t heard about. We also know about landrace varieties in other crops, including Alabama Blue collards and Cherokee Cornfield pole snap beans.

A modern landrace variety of squash in the species Curcurbita maxima, on the farm of Aya Wada in the highlands of Ecuador

Nowadays, most breeders aim for uniformity.  On large commercial farms, uniformity is essential. These farms are aiming to harvest the largest possible amounts of produce with the smallest possible amount of labor, which includes the smallest possible number of harvests.  It also includes eliminating any need to pay attention to any differences between the plants. When seed companies trial varieties to decide what they want to carry, uniformity also makes it easier to develop a sense of what each variety is like.  (This is especially true when we don’t have much space for each variety in our garden.) Even in a home garden, uniformity has its advantages. But in a home garden, you probably would prefer to spread your fresh produce over the longest possible season.  And you might even prefer, when you plant one kind of squash, to get fruits that vary in flavor, shape, and size.

In future presentations about seed saving, I’ll mention landrace seed-saving philosophies, and I’ll temper the recommendations I give about isolation distances.

Holy Basil Tincture is Easy to Make and Easy to Take

Making tinctures is easy.  The basic idea is to put so much of an herb into vodka that it will become a medicine.  (A smaller quantity of the herb could be used, in many cases, to produce a flavored vodka.)  Read on to see how we make Holy basil tincture on our farm.

We start with cheap vodka of 80 or 100 proof.

We use quart jars and half-gallon jars.  To make tinctures on a home scale, you might want to use half-pint jars or baby food jars.

Many recipes call for dried herbs, but that’s largely because dried herbs are easier to purchase in stores.  I prefer to tincture fresh herbs.

To tincture fresh leaves or fresh mixed aerial parts (leaves together with flowers, stems, buds, etc) it is generally best to stuff as much plant material into the jar as possible.  Roots and dried plant material tend to have higher concentrations of the active compounds, but with fresh leaves, you’ll usually want as much of the herb as you can get into your container.

In this case, we filled our holy basil tincture jar halfway with vodka and then went to the herb garden and stuffed as much freshly cut holy basil into the jar as possible.  It was quite a few handfuls of holy basil.  This brought the liquid up to near the top of the jar.

I used a spoon to press the topmost holy basil leaves and stems under the alcohol.  Then I tasted the tincture.  It already tasted like holy basil.

If you’re working with powerful medicinal herbs, it can be important to avoid making your tincture too strong.  So I would generally recommend that beginning tincture makers start with very safe herbs.  Many of these safe herbs are common in kitchens as well a medicine cabinets.  Echinacealemon balm, valerian, thyme*****, lavender and plantain, are some examples of very safe herbs.  However, be aware that when you make a tincture, a much larger amount of active compounds is extracted and absorbed than when you make a tea or eat a fresh herb.

Holy basil is often used culinarily and as a tea; its has a broad range of benefits including ******** however it does have some contraindications, most prominently for people taking blood thinners, and women trying to conceive.

Taking tinctures is also easy.  To take a tincture, put 1-2 dropperfuls in a large spoon or small glass of water and drink.  If you have doubts about sure how much is the best amount, you can start with less and then you can work your way up.  Consult your doctor or herbalist before adding a tincture to your **********

****General safety of herbal meds*****

*****Dosage; certainty that you have the right thing; why to trust yourself more than a corporation*****

For more information on how to make tinctures, consult The Mountain Rose Herbs guidelines or the Wise Woman Herbal guidelines.

For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, so is better to use services as Test Country to do drug tests online.  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

20 enormous collections of varieties

Heirloom seed varieties are at greater risk of extinction now than ever before. While a few heirlooms have gained celebrity, thousands of others are disappearing along with the elderly seed-savers who have grown and maintained them through the years.  Grassroots Seed Network and Seed Savers Exchange are two organizations working to keep rare heirloom varieties alive.

Donald Todd Half-Runner Bean

Donald Todd began saving a variety of delicious, tender, half-runner snap beans over 50 years ago.  In the decades since then, commercially available varieties of half-runner beans have become tough.  Luckily, Donald’s son Steve still farms, and still saves seed of the bean his dad gave him.  Without Steve, this bean variety would be forgotten.

Shows okra

Texana McFarland was 98 years old when she sent a sample of the okra she’d gotten from the Shows family years before.  Many elderly gardeners like her don’t know of anyone who wants to maintain their varieties like we want to maintain Shows okra.

MacArthur Walter and his wife’s family have been growing and saving the same variety of purple-veined collards for over 100 years.  Their collard variety, now named Nancy Malone Wheat Purple Collards, is one of over 80 types of heirloom collard collected by geographers Edward H. Davis & John T. Morgan in the first decade of this century.  Among the dozens of collard seed-savers they met, the average age was 70.

Will Bonsall, founder and board member of Grassroots Seed Network. Photo credit: Broken Banjo


Most seed-savers are old.  Many, perhaps most, of them, don’t expect anyone to maintain their varieties when they can’t anymore.  Every month, several old seed-savers die or stop gardening.  If current trends continue, I estimate that in the next 20 years the U.S. will lose 20 enormous collections of varieties, on the scale of Will Bonsall’s collection, which included over 700 varieties of potatoes and now includes about 150.  We will also lose countless varieties that are not in collections, but are maintained by individuals like the Walters. Many varieties have been stewarded by individual families or communities for many decades, even centuries. Many such varieties have never made it into a seed catalog, nor been described by researchers like Davis and Morgan.

As we continue to lose varieties, we lose flavors, crop genetic diversity, and a link to our history. Often, the genes for resilience to various disease and climactic pressures are found in ancient and heirloom varieties.

The annual Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center seed swap is attended by several avid seed-savers.

Even as seed libraries and seed swaps proliferate, many young people interested in seed-saving don’t live near elderly seed-savers, and wouldn’t know where to look for the rare heirloom varieties that need new stewards.  Grassroots Seed Network has just launched a crowdfunding campaign on CrowdRise to fund our work providing that vital link. As President of Grassroots Seed Network, I’m encouraging you to share this campaign widely, to donate if you are able, and, if you’re a seed-saver, to list seeds on our site.

Seed banks conserve millions of varieties in hundreds of countries.  Many thousands of varieties are backed up in the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway.  Yet when a variety disappears from all but a few seed banks or three, you can’t just decide to grow it in your home garden.  Seeds in seed banks are generally unavailable except to researchers and sometimes seed companies.

The primary work of Grassroots Seed Network is to facilitate the trading of seeds between seed-savers and create seed stewardships. With over 100 unique listings on our site and many more to come, we aim to offer a level of diversity beyond that found in most seed catalogs — just as most seed catalogs offer a level of crop diversity far beyond that found in our supermarkets!

At Southern Exposure and in Grassroots Seed Network, we make rare and heirloom varieties available to ordinary home gardeners.  We want the choice of what varieties thrive and survive to be in the hands of all kinds of family farmers and gardeners, not only those of the Big Seed businesses.

With Grassroots Seed Network, we aim to facilitate the preservation of heirloom varieties in other ways as well.  One way we will use the funds from this campaign is to award small grants to people who are stewarding large collections, listing their varieties, and teaching seed-saving methods. We also connect aging seed stewards with enthusiastic young seed curators, botanists and farmers.

We are a democratic, lister-governed organization, and we value member feedback. Become a Member by listing seeds you’ve harvested. Seed listers vote to elect our Board and approve group Bylaws. Though founded on a model of Membership & Dues, the GSN board has decided to highly prioritize expanding our Membership. Thus we are Free, and at this time not charging membership dues, so do Join Us!