Monday, December 28, 2015

Criteria for Saving The BEST Seed

Make that saving the 'best' seed.

It came to my attention recently that we have had a lot of talk about how to save seeds and how to store them and all sorts of hard data like that, but we have totally ignored any criteria for saving seeds, like which seeds from which plant versus a different plant. How do you decide which is the best plant to save seed from?

Luther Burbank's safe in his green house.
He was serious about saving his seeds!
This has been made all the more nerve-wracking when combined with a multitude of exhortations that all seed savers are plant breeders based on their selection of which seed to save. This needs to be demystified.

Yes, all seed savers are seed 'breeders.'  It is true that by saving any given seed over this other seed, you are choosing the pattern of the plants of the future  But this is not a one-shot deal, if you select for a specific trait – the criteria that is the basis for selection in one year will not make a difference in the big picture.

Selecting for one trait must occur over many generations in order to breed for that trait. Plants grown in Southern California and selected year after year for the biggest producer will become, after years of selecting, will become the variety of "bigger producers in Southern California."  But this is not a single year phenomenon.  It takes many generations to achieve this.  If you're not a patient sort, I might suggest a different hobby or vocation.

If you are just trying to keep a stable variety and not select for this or that, you need to save seed from a population of plants that will express many different genetic variations to gather as much of the natural diversity of the variety.  Population sizes (of different individual plants) differ according to species.  If you are saving seeds for the seed library, you don't have to be rigorous because we will combine your seeds with others of the same variety increasing the population size.  

For example, in broccoli, a minimum of thirty plants is supposed to be the absolute lowest number of plants to choose your seeds from.  But if you save seeds from 9 plants and someone else saves seeds from 8 plants and someone else saves seed from 13, you have the 30 plant minimum.  (Ideally we will go beyond the minimum population size.)  

This is one reason we think we'll always be buying in corn seed.  The minimum population for maintaining corn vigor is 200 plants.  If you have to grow 200 plants to save seed, how many must you grow to have something to eat????  In our urban gardens, that doesn't make sense. Unless SLOLA finds a field where we can plant corn and harvest from 200 plants (that's just for ONE variety - what if we want a popcorn, a yellow corn, a white corn and a grinding corn?  That would be 800 plants at the MINIMUM! Frowny face.)  

Most plants are somewhere in the middle as far as population size goes.  Don't worry about most of them too much - corn is the extreme example of a plant that absolutely goes bonkers if the population sizes are too low.  

Saving seeds from the self-pollinating plants (beans, tomatoes, lettuce, peas) is always very easy. You know, because they pollinated themselves, who 'mommy' and 'daddy' both are. In plants that are not self-pollinated you do not have the assurance who 'daddy' is. The squash you eat will come with Mom's genetics, but the seed in that squash will be a cross between the mother and the father plants.

That's why non-selfing plants are a bit harder, taking a bit more patience and some more observation.  However, it is not difficult or arduous.  The key is patience and observation and you can breed all kinds of plants - SLOLA, by the way, hopes to have a lot of one day workshops to show how to save seeds from diverse gardens - one plant, or one pollination method at a time - easy bite sized pieces.

Carrots, beets, chard, radishes and turnips are easy to save seeds from because they go to seed in their second year (now there's a drawback for you!).  They are biennials (take two years).  It's uncommonly rare that a plant stays alive to the second year in a cared-for garden; they form their roots in the first year and that's what we eat so a second year carrot or beet is a rare thing indeed. With carrots, the only drawback one must be concerned with is flowering Queen Anne's Lace which is also called 'wild carrot.' But without one of those around, you can save your carrot seed with abandon.

Which plants would you choose for seed or would you just try to save a bunch?

On a tour of Luther Burbank's garden, we were shown varieties of wheat.  He had one named Prolific and another named Delicious.  One produced a lot of wheat - and if that was your goal, you had your wheat - but if you were looking for quality over quantity, you took Delicious.  So you CAN select for more than one trait, just not in the same field!

What is the BEST seed?  You decide. There are some guidelines and you'll get them from a SLOLA member or a book; with some plants the first seeds are the most vigorous, in others not so much.  Do you want it to be an early or a late?  Of big beefy and juicy?  Or a  small and succulent edible part that holds for a long time?  

I'll repeat, when saving a variety save some seed from a bunch of different specimens that show the range of variation in the plants.  And for most of us, this is the point of our saving seeds - to keep a variety that we know and love and to preserve it for future generations.

The most important thing is to learn to save seeds.  If you save some seeds, no matter how you selected them, you have taken a gigantic step towards freedom for you, your family and your friends on what they eat and how it's grown.

There is nothing more important than that.