Usually, Seedy Saturday (or Sunday) is in March in our nearest town. Seedy Saturday is a really cool event – in our town, there are speakers, seed and garden vendors, a few activities for the kids, and some information tables about permaculture, composting, local environmental initiatives, and such. It’s held in the basement of our local library, and one of the neat offshoots of the event is that our book library now also has a seed library – a filing cabinet full of donated seeds that people can take, grow out, and later replace with seeds they’ve saved.
With the kids being little, and not very patient, our ventures into Seedy Saturday have been brief, and we haven’t been able to stay for the speakers or activities. This year, the kids are a bit bigger, and have more of an attention span. We hummed and hawed about whether or not to go, though, since I’ve already ordered more garden seeds than we really need, and it’s a long drive into town, plus it’s -30 today, which saps everyone’s motivation to leave the house!
…but there is the Parsnip Lady.
Last year, one of the vendors (Prairie Garden Seeds) talked us into trying parsnips. We followed her advice, and the parsnips did very well in our garden. We had a good harvest, and found several ways to cook them that we really enjoy – even the kids enjoy their ‘parsnippitys’ (as our youngest has dubbed them).
Unfortunately, parsnip seeds don’t last
very well. From what I’ve read, germination goes way down even after
just one year. I want to grow a lot of parsnips this year, since we
enjoyed them so much, and they should keep for a while in the root
cellar. We weren’t able to save seeds from the parsnips last year,
because parsnips are biennial – they grow big roots the first year,
then flower and set seed the second year.
The lady from Prairie Garden Seeds told us that one of her varieties of parsnip (the Short Thick) can be overwintered right in the garden, even in zone 2, with a bit of protection. We dumped a couple of bales of straw over the end of the parsnip row last fall, and hopefully, they will have survived the brutal cold, and will grow and flower for us this summer. Meanwhile, we needed to buy seed if we are going to plant the Short Thick parsnips again this year, as I haven’t been able to find them anywhere else.
So, we packed up and headed in to Seedy Saturday. One $4 packet of parsnip seed later, we were ready to go…except there is no such thing as just buying one packet of seed. The Prairie Garden Seeds lady talked us into trying melons this year…so we’ll see how that goes! I also picked up a couple of books, bringing the total up significantly. I’m glad we went, though, and now I’ve got parsnip seeds to overwinter again, to tide us over until this year’s seed crop is ready (which will hopefully work out okay!)
The actual saving of seeds, for us, is mostly happening in February and March, as we want to select for squash that is long-keeping, which means not saving the seeds from squashes that go soft early in the year. We do save seeds from named varieties that are known long-keepers, even if we eat them in, say, November; however, we weight our seed saving efforts towards the survivors that are still hanging in there by this time of year.
If you want your saved seeds to produce squash that resemble the parent plants, it is important to choose varieties that will come true from seed. Hybrids, which are crosses between different squashes from the same species, do not come true from seed – your seeds might grow something similar to one or the other parent, but won’t necessarily be the same as the squash you saved your seeds from. Hybrids often have more disease resistance, or bear heavier crops, so lots of gardeners like them; they just don’t make the best choice for saving seeds from.
Heirloom varieties typically come true
from seed. That means that if you grow a particular type of
pumpkin, for instance, and save the seeds, your seeds will grow
pumpkins that are the same as the original plant…as long as those
pumpkins were not cross-pollenated by a different variety of the same
You can learn more about the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds here.
In order to keep varieties pure, you
need to pay attention to what sorts of squash you are planting in
your garden. There are four species of garden squash: curcurbita
pepo, curcurbita moschata, curcurbita mixta, and curcurbita maxima.
They do not cross with each other, so you could theoretically grow
four different squash varieties (one of each type) and get pure seeds
from each of them. In practice, it is more complicated, at least for
us, as three of our favorite squashes (pie pumpkins, spaghetti
squash, and zucchini) are from the same species (c. pepo), meaning
they will inter-breed.
There are ways to keep your seed strains pure, even if you are growing several squashes from the same species. This involves taping the female flowers shut, so they cannot open, then carefully peeling them open and pollenating them with a male flower of your choice, before taping the female flower shut again, allowing the fruit to develop without any new pollen being added to the mix. We have not tried this yet – gardening with children makes it very difficult to deal with careful timing and delicate close work. You can find good descriptions of hand-pollenating squash here and here.
The other way to keep your seed pure,
is to plant only one type of squash from each species. We have done
this before, with great success. We always plant several types of c.
pepo, as we just can’t imagine trying to get through a year with no
pie pumpkins, or no spaghetti squash, or no zucchini. However, we
have some favorite types of long-keeping curcurbita maxima squash
that we have planted one at a time. Our current favorite heirloom c.
maxima squashes are Red Kuri and Sweet Meat.
We haven’t had any luck growing
butternut-type squash like c. moschata here, as our season is so
short; however, we’ve joined up with a breeding project that will
hopefully (eventually) produce a c. moschata that will mature fruit
in our cool 90-day season. We’ve never tried a c. mixta squash,
though it is bound to happen eventually!
We tend to alternate
years for seed saving efforts; some years, we grow only one type of
c. maxima squash, and we can then save pure seed from that. Other
years, we grow a bunch of different squash types. We still save the
seeds from the crossbreeds, and grow them out; the results usually
taste quite good, and over time, by saving seeds from the tastiest
and longest-keeping squashes, we will develop a strain of squash that
tastes good to us, keeps a long time, and grows well in our
The actual seed collection and saving is pretty straightforward for squash. When you are ready to cook the squash, cut it open and scoop out the seeds. The seeds are attached to stringy flesh; rub this between your hands to get as much flesh as possible off of the seeds. Then, put the seeds in a dish or cup of water, and let them soak / ferment for a few days.
Once the remaining flesh falls off the seeds with rinsing (or they begin to smell – usually a few days, depending on the temperature), pour them out and rinse them thoroughly, rubbing them through your fingers to clean them off as much as possible. Then dry the seeds on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, stirring them from time to time. When the seeds snap when you bend them (instead of bending), they are dry enough to store.
At that point, I pick out the plumpest,
most nicely-shaped seeds to save, and feed the rest to the chickens,
as we always end up with way more seeds than we could ever use!
Squash seeds stay viable for quite a long time – five years or more if they are kept cool and dry, so you can save seeds one year, then use them for several years. I usually store my saved seeds in plastic baggies in a box in the bottom of a cool closet in our spare room.
Spring is almost here, and for those of
us in the North, it’s time to be thinking about ordering seeds and
But which seeds to order? How do you make sure you aren’t putting genetically modified (GMO) vegetables in your garden?
A lot of people have concerns about GMO foods, and want to make sure that they are not growing GMO’s in their garden or feeding them to their kids. However, there is a lot of hysteria and misinformation floating around out there, making it hard to figure out where to shop or what is safe to buy. Here is an explanation of the differences between Heirloom, Hybrid, and Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.
Genetically Modified Organisms
First, it is important to remember that
Genetically Modified Organism (or GMO) seeds are not really available
to the general public. The majority of GMO seeds out there are
grains, such as canola and corn, or other commercial plants, like
cotton and alfalfa.
GMO’s are created in a laboratory,
often using genes from completely different species that would never
be able to breed in nature. They are usually created to be disease
resistant, or, more commonly, resistant to specific herbicides, such
as Roundup Ready canola, which will survive being sprayed with
glysophate, allowing farmers to use Roundup to control weeds in their
Farmers have to sign an agreement not to save their seeds, since the GMO producing seed companies hold patents to the seeds, and require royalties from anyone planting those seeds. While The Non-GMO Project lists corn, papaya, summer squash, and potatoes as having widely available GMO options, it is unlikely you would come across GMO garden seeds for a backyard garden or orchard. If you are curious about what plants have GMO varieties, the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database has a searchable list that is quite interesting.
The biggest threat to the home gardener
would be if your crop was cross-pollenated by a GMO crop. Given that
most home gardeners are not growing canola, soybeans, or cotton, it
is not an issue for most people. However, if you live in a rural
location, and are growing summer squash next to a field of commercial
summer squash, it might be worth speaking to the farmer about what
variety he or she has planted, or simply don’t save your summer
squash seeds that year.
There are other issues with GMO seeds,
such as herbicide use and resistance, concerns with untested genetics
getting into wild populations through cross-pollenation, and moral
issues with large international companies holding patents to the
seeds that provide our food. However, you don’t really need to worry
about finding them in your garden.
Hybrid seeds are sometimes confused with GMO’s, but they are completely different. Hybrids not created in a lab using biotechnology; rather, they are created by crossing two different plant cultivars (types) of the same species – so, for instance, a hybrid squash seed is created when one type of squash plant is intentionally pollenated using another type of squash plant. These crosses could occur naturally in people’s gardens, but seed companies create the crosses under carefully controlled conditions, so that the person who plants and grows the seeds gets a consistent and predictable end product.
Hybrid seeds often have better disease
resistance or better yield; some hybrids are bred for better flavor,
as well. Hybrids are widely available in seed catalogs, and many
gardeners grow them. Seed companies usually mark which seeds are
The one significant drawback to hybrids
is that they do not come true from seed. This means that if you save
seeds from a hybrid plant, then plant them the following year, the
plants you get will most likely resemble one of the original hybrid’s
parents, rather than resembling the hybrid plant you saved your seed
A totally fictional example would be
something like a purple squash that was created by breeding a red
squash plant with a blue squash plant (silly fictional example,
remember). If you saved seeds from your purple squash and planted
them, you might get red squash plants or blue squash plants, but you
would not be able to count on getting purple squash plants.
Hybrids are nothing to be afraid of,
and are often a good choice for a gardener looking for specific
traits such as high yield or drought tolerance. Unfortunately,
because of the confusion over GMO’s, hybrids sometimes get a bad rap,
which they really don’t deserve.
Heirloom seeds are seeds from stable
cultivars. This means that the flower or vegetable sub-type was
created through traditional breeding, by crossing various plants of
the same species, then selecting specific plants that have the traits
the gardener was looking for, and saving seeds from those for several
generations, until the offspring plants have the same traits as the
parent plants. Heirloom varieties are perfect for saving seeds from,
since the parent plants are the same as each other, so plants you
grow from saved seeds will have predictable traits.
Back to our fictional purple squash, an heirloom variety of purple squash might have started out by crossing blue squash with red squash, but over several generations, the farmer re-planted saved seed, and selected for purple squashes. This means the farmer only saved seeds from purple squashes, and any squash plants that reverted to the red or blue types of the original parents would be eliminated, and none of their seeds would be kept in the gene pool. Eventually, the saved seeds would only produce purple squash, and if you saved seeds from purple squash one year, and planted them the next year, you would end up with purple squash in the second generation (and third generation, and so on).
Which Is Best For Me?
Most homesteaders and gardeners who save their own seeds prefer heirloom varieties, because of the predictability of the offspring. Sometimes, heirloom varieties are hardier, or tolerate poor conditions better than hybrid plants, though some heirloom varieties are less productive than hybrids.
Ultimately, the choice between hybrid
and heirloom seeds comes down to your own goals. Do you want a plant
that will give you the most possible produce in the smallest space?
A hybrid might be perfect for you. Do you want to save seeds from
your garden and get away from having to buy new seed every year? An
heirloom variety is probably your best bet. You are unlikely to end
up with GMO seeds in your garden, so even if you are trying to avoid
GMO foods, luckily, you won’t have to work very hard or worry about
where you are getting your seeds from.
If you have moral concerns with
supporting any company that produces or sells GMO seeds, look for the
Safe Seed Pledge. Many smaller seed producers have pledged not to
plant or sell GMO seeds, and have signed the Pledge. The Safe Seed
Pledge reads as follows:
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.”
You can find a list of seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge here.
Remember, though, that just because a
company sells hybrid seeds, or may not have signed the Safe Seed
Pledge, doesn’t automatically mean they are selling you GMO seeds or
supporting companies who do. Contact them and see what they say!