Tag Archives: backyard garden

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.

Pros and Cons of Gardening with Ducks

Animals are part of any natural ecosystem. Adding small livestock to your garden can provide a host of benefits. One great option is ducks. However, there are pros and cons to adding ducks to your garden.


They’re great at slug patrol.

Having a couple ducks roam through your garden is one of the easiest ways to deal with your slug problem. They love slugs! They’ll happily wander around keeping your plants or mushrooms slug-free. They’ll also eat a host of other pests. 

They don’t scratch like chickens.

Unlike chickens, ducks don’t scratch to forage for food. While chickens are helpful to turn over a plot after or before the growing season they can be destructive to plants in the garden. Their vigorous efforts tear up roots and shorter plants. Ducks on the other hand simply plod flat-footed through the garden. They’re generally not destructive. However, they may eat or trample seedlings and some greens. 

They provide fertility.

Ducks obviously produce manure which is an excellent source of fertility for the garden. If they’re allowed to roam the garden during the day they’ll add fertilizer as they go. Ducks should be kept in a coop at night and you can compost the manure/bedding from their coop.

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Contact to Pavers Guys of Fort Worth, In case you’re thinking about completing a paver installation.


They need a water source.

Ducks need a water source big enough for them to bath in. It helps keep their feathers in good condition. Muscovy ducks, native to South America, need less water than other breeds but still benefit from being able to bath.

They’re noisy.

I’ve heard some people claim that ducks are a quiet alternative to chickens but in my experience it isn’t true. Ducks quacking can rival a rooster’s crow. They may not be a great choice if you have close neighbors who wouldn’t appreciate barnyard noise.

They need a coop, space, and other care.

Ducks aren’t free. You’ll need to build or buy a sturdy coop, predator proof coop as well as feed. You’ll also need to care for them at least twice a day all year round which can make it tougher to leave for family vacations. The more space you can offer them to roam the happier they’ll be/

They can be destructive. 

They’ll dabble in wet areas adding to any mud problems you may have. As mentioned above they can also destroy small plants and won’t hesitate to sample your lettuce!

If you decide to add ducks to your garden system consider the pros and cons. They can be very helpful and rewarding but they still require money, time, and patience. 


10 Tips for Beginner Gardeners

Starting your first garden can be overwhelming. There are so many decisions to make like location, varieties, and even what tools to purchase. There’s plenty to learn and do. Any gardening book will dive into planting dates, pests, garden amenments and more. Starting with these 10 tips can help get you on track for a great first season.

Have your soil tested.

Learning as much about your soil as possible can help ensure your garden is a success. You’ll be able to add appropriate amendments and avoid wasting time and money. It can also help you select varieties. For example, carrot varieties like Chatenay Red Core Carrots perform better in heavy clay soils because they are short and have blunt ends.

Understanding Soil Tests

Amend your soil as needed.

Once you’ve tested your soil and had a look at your results it’s time to amend your soil. Certain amendments like lime or fertilizer should only be added if your soil test indicates a real need. Lime is used raise the soil’s pH. Raising it too much can make certain nutrients inaccessible to plants. Adding too much fertilizer can also be detrimental and can run off causing toxic algal blooms in your local watershed. A safe place to start is adding organic matter in the form of good quality compost. It can provide a variety of nutirents, help sandy soils hold moisture, and help heavy clay soils drain better. If you’re on a tight budget check out our post for free amendment ideas.

Choose a gardening style that works best for you.

In a recent post, we discussed the pros and cons of raised beds. While they’ve become very popular they may not be the best choice for everyone. The same goes for no-till gardening, hugelkultur beds, container gardening, and other gardening styles. Start with what’s easiest for you and experiement from there.

Start composting.

Every home should have a compost bin! Composting creates free soil for your garden and helps reduce waste. Apartment dwellers should check out vermicomposting as a small space alternative to an outdoor compost pile.

Use mulch.

Mulch helps to hold moisture, supress weeds, add organic matter, creates habitat for beneficial insects, and can even help prevent certain plant diseases. We have a number of articles about different types of mulch on the blog.

Learn about crop rotation and cover crops.

Crop rotation is key to a healthy garden. Never plant the same type of plants in the same place two years in a row. Cover crops can be used with crop rotation to decrease pest and disease pressure, reduce erosion, and add nutrients to your soil.

Start small.

It’s common advice and worth heading. You’ll get more from a well maintained small garden than a poorly cared for larger one. It can be really tough to narrow down which varieties to choose but it’s worth it. Add one or two varieties and increase your garden size a bit each year.

Consider your water source.

Lugging watering cans around is time consuming and exhausting. Put your garden as close to a water source as possible. If you can, invest in some hoses and a sprinkler or drip irrigation.

Choose varieties appropriate to your area.

When selecting your seeds and plants be sure to read carefully. For example, folks that live in zones farther north should look for varieties that mature quickly and folks in the far south should consider more heat tolerant varieties.

Knowing your hardiness zone can help you select appropriate varieties. For information about hardiness zones visit our post, Everything You Need to Know About Plant Hardiness Zones to learn more.

Start your own transplants from seed.

Starting your own transplants ensures you get the varieties you want and those that are well-suited to your area. It’s not as hard as you think. Check out Pam Dawling’s advice for starting seeds here on the blog.

Starting a garden is an incredibly rewarding experience but it can be tough. Use these tips for your first garden to make sure your garden is a success.