HOW to Save Seeds — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 19, 2022

Last week I shared my “why” for saving seed: I do it because it deepens my relationships with the plants that feed my family, and becoming a midwife for their next generation is the most powerful act of reciprocity I can muster. Just in case that resonates with you, today I’d like to share a little bit about the “how.” 

Plants choose their families and usher in the new generation in many diverse and beautiful ways. (So, too, with humans, but plants manage it with a whole lot less judgment, which we’d do well to emulate. As Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us, “They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”) If you want to save seeds, you need to know who you’re working with and how they usually do things. 

So, if the first step is to love plants, the next step is to learn about them. I made the following flowchart about what questions to ask. Humans and the plants who provide us food and medicine have been doing this reciprocal seed-saving dance since time immemorial, so if this feels overwhelming, rest assured: the answers are out there! Google works great, but if you share my passion for reference books, here are some of my favorites on the topic: 

This sixth item is an especially interesting point to consider. Any breeding project is a process of selection over many generations. You can do this selection by hand– for example, by removing heads of lettuce that bolt early before their pollen is added to your lettuce gene pool, thus selecting over time for slower-bolting lettuce. If you breed for taste, you have to sample many individuals before deciding which ones to keep in the gene pool. (My friend Jay works for a seed company and gets paid to travel all over the place pulling up carrots and biting off the bottom part of the root! If they taste good, he puts the rest of the carrot back into the ground so that it can make seed.) It’s always a good policy to remove sick-looking plants, or plants displaying any undesirable characteristic, by hand. 

You can also select by simply creating the conditions that you want to breed towards, planting a bunch of individuals, and saving seeds only from the individuals who survive those conditions. To give a few examples of this strategy, I’m breeding towards dry bush beans that are happy playing in the shade at the feet of my tomatoes and dahlias, because it’s unlikely in my very small space that they’ll ever get their own dedicated plot. I’m also breeding towards drought-tolerant tomatoes, because my ancestors practiced dryland farming, and as we see more and more summer droughts I think it’s important to waste as little water as possible. (Plus, dryland tomatoes taste sweeter!) To do this, I leave the tomatoes off the drip irrigation system and only water them a little by hand when it seems like they might die otherwise. Both of these projects lead to lower yields in the short run, because I’m not creating ideal conditions for my beans or tomatoes. But they’ll lead to increased yields over the long run in the conditions I’m working with.

Of course, I’m always breeding towards resilience to suboptimal conditions, because… well… I’m not a perfect gardener! But I think that’s a superpower that all less-than-perfect gardeners should embrace. In this time of climate chaos, we need resilience more than perfect uniformity in our plants, our gardens, our bodies and minds, our families, and our communities. Because of their brilliant diversity, plants are the first healers to arrive on wounded soil and start the restoration process. “Bring me with you!” I want to say. “Let me sit at your feet and watch you work. I need to learn how.” This intimacy is captured within the word midwife, which has roots in Old English meaning with woman. Becoming a midwife to plants is a good way to spend time with them. As we learn how they live, we learn more about how we should live, too.