Saving vegetable seeds: Factors to consider
David A. Bender, Ph.D.
The development of agriculture from prehistoric times to the present was built on the
selection, collection, and replanting of seeds from superior plants. Even in a time of
specialized commercial seed production, advanced plant breeding, and emerging
biotechnology, farmer-saved seed may be the least expensive alternative for producing
some crops. These techniques are of particular interest to subsistence farmers worldwide,
where economics or logistics make it difficult to buy suitable planting seed. At the same
time, a number of biological and technological factors make saving seed of many
vegetables extremely challenging.
Type of plant
Seed is most easily saved from plants where the seed itself is eaten, typically grains.
These seeds are generally harvested when mature and dry, and require relatively little
processing prior to being replanted. Dry beans, peas, and other vegetable legumes fit this
category, but most other vegetables are harvested for their fruits or vegetative parts, so
special effort is required to collect and dry seed.
A number of vegetables, including most of the root and bulb crops (carrot, beet, onion,
leek), and the crucifer family (cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower), are biennial plants
that require two years to produce seed. These plants produce only vegetative growth the
first year, and most require a period of cold weather with temperatures between 0 and
7ºC to induce seed stalks in the second year. Thus seed production is impossible in
tropical areas unless the bulbs or roots are refrigerated to simulate natural chilling. Some
tropical types may produce seed naturally, but saving seed is difficult.
Hybrids are produced by crossing two carefully selected parent lines to produce seed
combining the best characteristics of each. Hybrids often exhibit better productivity,
uniformity, vigor, and pest resistance than open pollinated varieties. However, seeds
collected from these hybrids produce plants with a variety of characteristics totally unlike
their hybrid parents. Saving seeds from hybrid plants is sure to result in disappointment,
and is not recommended.
PO Box 9163, Asheville, NC 28815