Seed-saving adventures

By Tom Read

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

Texada Island is a good place to grow carrots, once you dig the rocks out of your garden and if you’ve got enough good seeds. Given the converging economic, energy and environmental uncertainties besetting the world today, we do not take for granted our access to good vegetable seeds. So, last summer we grew a Nantes open-pollinated carrot variety from West Coast Seeds. One difference between carrots and some other vegetables is that you have to let carrots continue into their second year of life to harvest seeds. Thus, we over-wintered the best carrot plants from our 2008 garden in hope of saving seeds this year.

Meanwhile, our friend Fred gave us about 30 scarlet runner beans last fall after I made admiring noises about their colourful long seed pods in his garden in Van Anda.  After decades of saving these runner bean seeds, Fred has noticed a gradual darkening in their colour.  Before planting, I soaked all the seeds overnight in a bowl of tepid water, then the next morning I set aside for planting only the seeds that had sunk to the bottom of the bowl. I had read somewhere that if a seed floats, then it’s not as vigorous as one that sinks. This may be a mistake in regard to scarlet runner beans, but I’ve soaked other types of bean seeds before planting, with good results.

I’m no expert in plant genetics, but of the 30 scarlet runner beans I planted (some more black than brownish-red), only about half germinated, which seemed a bit low compared to the store-bought pole bean seeds we planted about two weeks earlier elsewhere in our garden.  The store-bought seeds showed an 80% germination rate and are already six feet high, while the scarlet runners are barely above knee level, so far. This is probably a result of sun exposure and weather differences in the different garden locations, and each variety’s planting time requirements. I should have tried some side-by-side same-time planting for a truer comparison. Maybe the scarlet runners will catch up by September.

My point is not that Fred’s generously donated scarlet runners are somehow deficient.  The point is that I haven’t learned how to run valid plant genetics experiments in our garden. This matters because if we don’t learn how to keep our own food plant seeds viable generation after generation, we will remain dependent on an increasingly tenuous seed supply from a shrinking number of reliable seed companies.

We’re not alone in thinking about this issue. The Powell River Farmer’s Institute co-sponsored a 2009 seed-saving venture, which was promoted on Texada by PR farmer Wendy Devlin. Last winter, Wendy visited the Texada Garden Club and handed out seed packets for several types of garden vegetables to anyone interesting in seed-saving. I took 15 Styrian pumpkin seeds provided by a volunteer in the Powell River region, which we have since grown into six rather happy pumpkin plants.  They’re perched on well-fertilized hills containing rotted chicken manure and seaweed, about five feet apart.  Growing like crazy in the mid-July heat! We’ll have Styrian pumpkin seeds to share come October, if all goes well.

But our attempt to grow pumpkins in 2008 utterly failed due to several obvious-in-hindsight errors which could have been avoided by doing more research or having guidance from an expert. Confirmed optimists like myself call that a “learning experience.”  This year we’ll make different mistakes, no doubt. I believe that you can’t truly garden successfully just from reading about it on the Internet or in gardening books; experience counts, especially hard-won experience.

Which brings me to another, somewhat sobering thought in closing.  After several years of gardening, Linda and I are still really novices. We get some pretty good crops every year, but we make lots of mistakes, too. What will happen when the global price of oil takes another sharp turn upwards, making store-bought food a lot more expensive, so that people with even less experience than us must try to grow their own? Yes, we can help each other, but that will amount to novices leading other novices. That, and sustaining vigorous seed genetics, gives us something to ponder as we continue our adventures in seed-saving.


4 Responses to “Seed-saving adventures”

  1. 1 margaret July 27, 2009 at 16:02

    Hi Tom,

    I’m now in my third year of veggie growing, second year here in Powell River, and mistakes abound. Each year I learn from previous mistakes but as you mention a new set of mistakes comes up. I have a question regarding carrots, I seem to have an ongoing issue with the carrot rust fly. I just planted a second crop and this time I covered it with float covers. I love home grown carrots and any hints you can give me is greatly appreciated.


  2. 2 Margy July 28, 2009 at 11:56

    Hey Tom (and Margaret) –

    I have been gardening off and on for many years. First it was in the urban setting since I lived in LA. Even my condos had small yards that made gardening possible in a very small way. Now that I am up the lake I have really taken to gardening, but as I think you know, my space is still very limited. For the first time I am trying pumpkins. I didn’t know if it was possible, but I would though I would try them in a large blue barrel. I have two plants in there and the vines are doing quite well, but none of the sets have remained so far. What I do notice is that they require large amounts of water when grown in a pot. Time will tell if it is successful.

    I have saved flower seeds, but never vegetable seeds. Because I do succession gardening my plants never quite get to the seed stage before coming out. My carrots, beets and potatoes stay in the ground through the fall and early winter and still are edible. They don’t seem to dry out as much as when I pull them and store them in a cool room in the cabin. Maybe I need to think about building some kind of a root cellar, but don’t want to share my crops with the critters.

    Thanks for the great posts. I always enjoy reading them. – Margy

  3. 3 Tom Read July 29, 2009 at 11:05

    Margy, so far I’ve not encountered the dreaded carrot rust fly, so I can’t speak from personal experience about how to deal with it organically. My hunch is that a combination of floating row cover securely anchored along the edges by a continuous strip of soil, plus crop rotation, might do the trick.

    If you use row cover that’s much wider than your bed, then the row cover could stay in place as the carrot tops mature. This would form a permanent shield during the months when the carrot rust fly life cycle is a threat.

    As for crop rotation, I’d avoid growing carrots anywhere near where you’ve grown them before, allowing at least a three year interval, maybe more if you have the space.

    Just my $0.02, and thanks for your comments!


    From what I was reading the other day about growing pumpkins (Gardening When It Counts, by Steve Solomon), a pumpkin plant should not be crowded. Depending on the soil type and fertility, they need about four or five feet between plants, according to Mr. Solomon. I’m trying a five-foot spacing this year based on his advice; last year I used an 18″ spacing and had similar fruit set issues as you. Gardening is just one big experiment, it seems.

    Also, I appreciate your taking time to read and comment on this blog. Thanks!


  1. 1 The bounty of the land and the fruits of our labour « Slow Coast Trackback on October 30, 2009 at 17:32
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