November 30, 2013


Black Heirloom Corn, or Green Aztec corn might be worth saving for planting next year, but I needed to make sure that the seed was bone dry - 2 hours in a 110 degree oven did the trick. I only save a couple of vegetables from seed, opting to focus my seed saving on other plants in the garden which cannot be found elsewhere.

As the Holiday season sweeps in, and we are bombarded with Black Friday and "Week of Black Friday' deals for everything ranging from automobiles to underwear, so too come the seed catalogs. Like most everything else, they too seem to arrive earlier and earlier each year. My personal rule? I try to save them until the week after Christmas, resisting any temptation to peek at what All America Winners made the cover, or what amazing 'new' heirloom tomato is suddenly the 'it' tomato of the year. Aside from Pelargoniums, geraniums and a few seeds which much be sown before the New Year, I too stay away from any seed sites until the last week of December. I've noticed  an abundance of blog posts and Google+ groups talking about seed saving, and like many gardening tasks, there are as many false truths being passed around, far too many to comment on here. Instead of stepping upon my soapbox, I am just going to share with you what I bother to save, when it comes to seed in my garden, and, a few secret sources for seed really worth seeking out, and bothering to save.

Click below for more:

Last year, I received a precious gift from Panayoti Kelaidis, when I spoke at the Denver Botanic Gardens. A 2 inch pot with a tiny poppy in it, which he had collected on an expedition to western China and the Caucus' - this poppy, known as Papaver triniifolium has delicate apricot orange-sherbet colored blossoms, floating on top of tall, wiry wands that wave in the slightest breeze. A true biennial, if I want more of this species, I will need to save seed. Surely, some of it will self seed, and it has, but if I want it in a certain location, I will need to start my own plants, in the greenhouse with great care, as it is tap rooted, and set them out next year.

Like make poppy species, Papaver triniifolium produces exceptionally tiny seed.

Papaver triniifolium blooming in my garden this past summer. The seedlings came from an expedition sponsored by the Denver Botanic Garden, where this plant originated from.

My single plant of Papaver triniifolium from the Caucus' needs company - I am not certain that the seeds are fertile, but I saved many anyway. Clearly, this is a plant that needs to be sown in drifts, perhaps in the alpine garden, and not in a trough, as this one made its home.

I too make mistakes. I loved, loved loved my giant 6 foot tall "heirloom" marigolds this year, so I saved the seed, only to discover that it too is an F1 hybrid by Burpee, just an old variety that they reintroduced. Still, out of curiosity more than anything else, I will sow some, to show you next year what they will grow into. Most likely, I will get a single, Mexican species, but then again, you never really know, do you?
Next year, these super-tall Marigolds, which are F1 hyrbids, may revert back to their parents, which most likely were inferior, but surely, they will be tall.

Only a few seeds are making it into my seed storage containers this year.

But when it comes to seed exchanges - those long, typeset seed lists on paper which one is invited to participate in, when one is a member of a rare plant or alpine plant society such as the North American Rock Garden Society, The Alpine Garden Society, the Scottish Rock Garden Club or even the choice Stonecrop Garden's Seminum and Rarium - one of the greatest garden secrets available for fine seed, one must order early, or run the risk of not getting any seed at all.

I save only a few of my own garden seeds, but this Asclepias tuberosa was one that I felt needed some major propagating - I, needing 50 or so plants for a new planting scheme, this native US species is a 'feel good' indulgence.

As for garden collected seed? Well, that's a whole other story. I am often asked if I save my own seed, and my answer is yes - of course I do, but I am not a 'seedsaver' - you know, one of those doomsday believers with inferior seed stashed in a 5 gallon bucket in my root cellar, nor am I one of those who scrubs my rotten heirloom tomatoes onto paper towels, or who collects random flower and vegetable seeds from my garden to save in some silly retaliatory effort to 'stick it' to those 'evil' non GMO - 'corporate monsters', if you beleive in such things.  Politics aside, responsible seed saving and plant breeding is important business, and strong, vigorous varieties, hyrbids as well as non-hybrid plants are both essential to the success of our own species.

I generally save my own Tricyris hirta, or Toad Lily seed, yet Rodgersia, on the right, is a perennial which I prefer to start from seed given their cost, but from seed purchased from Germany ( Jelitto Seeds) because they prechill them.

Saving ones own vegetable seed does little to promote good agriculture and does even more damage to good horticulture. There are two or more sides to every story, and this is one which frankly is far too complex - the story of suppling an ever-growing human population with food - for most any of us to effect in a positive way.  I prefer to focus on the propagation of rare and unusual plants, to support horticultural diversity where it really matters, not complaining about how (Cornell's) Marketmore 76 cucumbers from 1976 and whether it should be considered a true 'heirloom' variety or not. (what about Marketmore 80? Or 89 or 90?). Please seedsavers - be informed first, think before you post.

Arisaema ( Jack in the Pulpit) seed, of an unknown and perhaps new species to science, was collected on an expedition to remote Tibet might be something more worth growing, if you want to 'save the world' or only a little, tiny part of it.

I know many of you are very curious if not excited about saving your own garden seed, but please do it for the right reason, and do it for the results, not as a political statement. Be informed before you collect, all may not be as you imagine. Many bloggers are posting images of saving seeds, which is fine, but some are offering advice which is misinformed - just today I read three posts about saving F1 hyrbid marigolds, which will result in either a plant that will not bloom, or a single flowered, weedy plant that may not be the result you are looking for - but here is an idea - if you really care about the future of our planet, then do something really helpful - contribute to a fund that sponsors an expedition to save some of the worlds rarest plants, or buy a share in an expedition seeking undiscovered medicinal plants, or one where the seeds are shared not only with you but with some of the worlds most respected botanical gardens -  such as one of the Chris Chadewell trips to Western Tibet or China?  Or check with your local university. Then, grow THOSE seeds, and share ( it's what I do).  Many private collectors contribute important plants worth saving to their respective plant societies. In the back of the catalogs, they often list the collector, the scientist, the botanist or the amateur collector who make the trek to Tibet or to the Andes - Then, you may truly have contributed to something worth while. You may have helped contributed to major advancements in science, maybe even a cure for a dreaded human disease.

Try these:
(Even though they are mostly alpine plant societies, they offer much more than alpine plants, as such things go - these are more about societies for people who love plants, so expect ferns, trees, shrubs, garden perennials, bulbs, greenhouse plants and more on these seed lists. Mostly, expect pure species and not crosses on these lists. That is important, plants as they appear in the wild.

NARGS Seed Exhange ( mention to them how nice their new site design looks - just sayin'!)
Alpine Garden Society (Like many of these exchanges you will need to become a member)
Chris Chadell Contribute to one of his expeditions, and mention my name, we are good friends.
Scottish Rock Garden Club (they have a great on-line community, and their list is on-line)
Royal Horticultural Society Seed scheme ( Don't you love how the Brit's use the word 'scheme?)
The American Primrose Society Seed Exchange often the only place to obtain many primula species.
Mediterranean Garden Society Seed List ( If you live in California, or..um, in the Mediterranean)
The Cottage Garden Society Seed List ( In the UK - they may ship overseas)
The Hardy Plant Society Seed Distribution
The American Horticultural Society Seed Program
The Cyclamen Society seed exchange
The North American Lily Society Seed Exchange
The American Penstemon Society Seed Exchange
American Rhododendron Society Seed List

Primula denticulata, from Tibet and Western China, is another plant that if I had good seed set, I would start from my own seed, but often the seed is not fertile. Other Primula species however, are worth saving, if you get seed, as most species are too difficult to find, and when one does, the seed is often not fresh. Fresh seed is always better - another blog fact that you may see argued on other gardening blogs, the real truth is the fresh seed is not only often best, with many plants, it is essential - such as with most ephemerals wildflowers, hellebores, cyclamen and many alpines and bulbs.

I  fully support commercial seed growers, plant breeders and and I believe in good horticulture. I will save some open pollinated annuals if they are hard to find, but beyond that, it's just not worth my time, and definitely not worth the effort, given the results. Honestly, I am pretty sick of reading about other bloggers who advise the uninformed to save their own marigold or vegetable seed ( even pear seeds! As I read today). Unless you are certain that your plants are open-pollinated, you most likely will be disappointed with your results. This year I saved some heirloom corn, a few dry bean varieties which are truly heirloom, and some seed from plants that have produced seed in my garden, but which were collected on expeditions to Western China and Tibet, as those are plants which must be propagated and saved, or they can be lost here in the West. But my own carrot and lettuce seed? Not so much. Don't even get me started ( but if you have a raised be or two and you are saving your own seed beyond heirloom tomatoes? Please do so only because you are curious to see what you will get, or because it makes you feel good, but for no other reason than that - and please -share your results with me.

 I rarely save any vegetable seed, even if it is open pollinated, unless I am curious. I am not living off of my garden, and my garden is not large enough to impact any corporation or major grower, and the way I view the current seed-saver trend, is that my few hundred square feet needs to supply a respectable crop to make my time worth while, so I want my seed to be superior. I may save some of my more unusual perennial, biennial or annual seed, but I am doing so only because they are rarer plant species which are either difficult to find, or simple too rare to loose. I often save my own bulb seed in the greenhouse ( not my Dutch bulb seed such as tulips or crocus, unless they are true, fertile wild forms).  I collect only the choicest alpine seeds, especially primula and androsace species, both from of my own garden collections as well as from in the wild, which I share with a few select plant society seed exchanges.


  1. I have started saving some of my veggie seeds with a thought to developing a bit of local provenance because I live in an area with extremes in climate and sometime a difficult germination climate. Surprisingly, I have found the seed saved originally from the best F1 California Wonder peppers has gotten better each year over the last 3 years. The heirloom Early Glow sweet corn (I think that was the name) which was an heirloom and would germinate in cold, wet springs (typically not good corn germinating weather) unfortunately crossed with not that nearby field corn and tasted very starchy. Saving heirloom tomatoes has worked well. The cape gooseberries and tomatillos, let's say I don't have to worry about saving seed, only thinning out to the most robust plants growing where I would like them. Saving heirloom beans has worked well, too. Saving just a few of our favorite has resulted in cutting the seed we purchase to the biennials like cole crops, carrots, and salad mixes. Hopefully as the provenance develops the tomatoes and peppers selected will be very dependable in an area where a short, and sometimes cool growing season can result in no crop of either of these staples.

    1. Hi Rachelle, It sounds like you know what you are doing. Keep at it, I am so fascinated about the F1 pepper....I wonder if any other reader has discovered that with theirs? I should have added that I do prefer seed and varieties that have been grown or bred in northern climates, such as those from Johnny's Selected Seeds, at least for me, I have noticed better performance with some of the shorter season selections. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Just yesterday collected handfuls of Asclepias tuberosa seeds in my garden here in Michigan. Both it and Asclepias incarnata have thankfully been self-seeding and spreading in this garden from the original three plants set out three years ago but I think the perennial beds in the front yard of my new building in Cambridge also desperately need some. As for tall marigolds, Tagetes erecta 'Flagstaff' is my favorite, though I have never tried growing it from seed from my own plants, so I have no idea if it would come true from seed.

  3. Not sure what you read Matt but it certainly stirred you up enough to get up on the soap box a little bit. I agree with you about there are many myths being propagated out there leading to bad horticulture; however, the story of supplying an ever growing human population with food is, these days, more driven by the pursuit of market share rather than the common good. As you say the issue is very complex, and given the size of the players individual efforts to effect it are negligible. I say do it anyways. Not just because I enjoy jousting with windmills but also because of what all gardeners know: from little things big things grow.

  4. Rachel9:31 PM

    I so appreciate all the information that you have supplied on your site....I've have learn much in just the last hour of reading. I do have to defend the seed savers, however, that you so scathingly obliterated--for I am one of them. I and my other close friend who went in together to buy heirloom seeds this year do not garden for fun (although it is a great love of mine) she and I garden to feed our families. Both of us are stay at home, homeschooling mother's whose family income is less than $19,000 a year. Yes, I have an avocado in my bathroom, a year now...at a foot and a half. I have (a travesty, I know) apple seeds and pomegranates germinating as well. I know I probably won't get avocadoes for 5 or more years, apples---crab apples most-likely....if anything. I'm not doing any of this for the curiosity. I'm doing it because I can't afford to buy these plants and sometimes I can't afford to buy the fruits for my children to enjoy. I understand your arguments, but please, some your comments came across as arrogant. Yes, saving a rare plant in a remote place can be historically and/or medically important; however, I am trying to save my family. I'm not without some means, but saving my seeds for next year might be my only means. I just pray I can do it right.

    1. Hi Rachel,
      I know sometimes I get on my soapbox, and I'l; be the first one to admit that I forget that there are people out there who need to save seeds, as yes, seeds and gardening can be expensive, but look - first, relax a little, I didn't mean to sound arrogant, yet I know sometimes I do......but your comment is exactly the sort of position I take great concern over - it even frightens me, because you are the perfect example of someone who should really be more serious about the food you raise. Rachel, you say that you know the ' it's a travisty' that you are raising apple seedlings with the goal that you will someday feed your family with those trees, yet you admit that you know that they will produce highly inferior fruit? I'm confused. Remember, I was raised in a home where we had little money, and my parents raised most of our own food, canning most everything from meat to corn 6 different ways, often hundreds of quarts. It is what my grandparents did too, and if there is one thing I learned from this heritage, is to not save seeds of most vegetables, we saved only those heirloom tomatoes which produced better fruit,, or had good flavor, and everything else, used fresh seed of disease resistant varieties. Look, if you are saving heirloom seed, or better yet, seed which is open pollinated, then you are all set. But I will add that if you are serious about feeding your family from your garden year round, then paying a few extra cents for a high producing hybrid that is more disease resistant, seems to make more sense. How are you preserving your harvest? I use the principal of Luther Burbank, and perhaps my grandfather, both born in the 1800's - a time when farmers knew that some varieties of squash or beans produced more than others - my best advice is for you to keep a record of what your are growing, and what you are harvesting. If you are successfully feeding your family from your garden already, then we don't need to have this discussion. If you would like some ideas, even sources for inexpensive or free fruit trees or plants, maybe I can help you source them - divisions from your county agricultural station, cutting to graft from local orchards, plant societies in your area, etc. Feel free to write me personally, as I think your post has inspired me to see if I can share more info for people on tight budgets with a family.

  5. Anonymous8:53 PM

    I save seeds because I like to. Some do well and some don't. Some languish in the back of the seed box and never get planted, others sustain me year after year. I save seeds for the same reasons that I cook from scratch and walk to work (sometimes) and mend my clothes and knit my socks. There are good and bad aspects to all of these activities, but they make me happy, overall, so I do them.

    Just saying,
    Ellen in Conn.

  6. Anonymous11:39 AM

    I save seeds primarily as a way to ensure that a variety I favor will be available to me in the following years, as well as to develop new varieties that are productive for my garden and are better matched to my interests.

    The single-serving melons I've been breeding are doing very well in my short-season garden. The carrots I've been breeding are more productive and healthy than those from the seed I purchased to start with. The tomatoes I've been breeding have better flavor (to our specific tastes) than varieties we can find in markets, as well as increased production over many commercial varieties in my gardens.

    I think anyone who is growing crops (at some moderate to high level) should be saving seeds, mainly so that their motivations/interests will be involved in the evolution of those crops. If we rely [exclusively] on market breeders, we get tasteless and hard tomatoes (or tasteless strawberries, or unscented roses, etc.) because it is only the market breeders' motivations that are guiding the evolution of the crops.

    I acknowledge that seed saving isn't for everyone. If someone is only growing a plant or two a year, breeding and selection will likely be outside their capacity.


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