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Back to May 2017 Newsletter

How to Plan a Seed Saving Garden for Beginners

Bob Wildfong

It might seem that seed saving is an activity for late summer when there are actual seeds to save, but success depends upon good planning, especially at planting time. Different varieties of plants can be cross pollinated by wind or insects, and it is crucial to separate them from each other so that your saved seeds remain "true-to-type". In other words, so that pollen doesn't travel between varieties and mix up the genetics.

For beginners, we recommend starting with four kinds of vegetables that happen to be self-pollinating. They are tomatoes, beans, peas, and lettuce. Unlike most garden plants, these four tend to perform their pollination within each individual flower, so pollen is not carried between flowers, or between varieties. That means each flower will bear seeds that are true to the variety, not crossed with other nearby varieties.

Nonetheless, it is possible for a small amount of pollen to be carried by insects, on occasion, so we also recommend a fairly short isolation distance for these plants; a certain amount of separation between plants of different varieties so there is even less chance of cross-pollination. If you are saving seeds mainly for your own use or to share with friends, we use a standard for "Community seeds" that will give you good results, but not necessarily high enough for commercial seed production. If you are saving seeds for commercial sale, we use a higher standard, which means a larger isolation distance. We also set standards for the number of plants that you should save seeds from, to ensure adequate genetic integrity in the next generation of your plants.


  Community seeds Commercial seeds
Beans Save seeds from at least 20 plants, 3m away from other varieties Save seeds from at least 40 plants, 6m away from other varieties 
Peas At least 20 plants, 3m away from other varieties At least 40 plants, 12m away from other varieties
Lettuce At least 6 plants, 3m away from other varieties At least 20 plants, 8m away from other varieties
Tomatoes At least 6 plants, 5m away from other varieties At least 20 plants, 15m away from other varieties

This seems like a lot of rules, and it can be challenging to fit your planting into the right spaces. Here's a simple example of how you might develop a plan for several varieties of beans, peas, lettuce, and tomatoes.

First, let's assume you have a row garden 15 meters long with rows 2.5 meters apart. If your actual rows are farther apart than that, then this example will work even better. Also, we're going to aim for the minimum standard under Community seeds. The plan below shows three rows of the garden planted with our four self-pollinated vegetables, and each section can be a different variety (four different varieties of tomatoes, three different varieties of beans, etc) because the different varieties are spaced apart from each other by the amounts in the chart above.

Here's how we got there. Start the first row by planning to plant tomatoes. You need at least 6 plants, and if they're planted half a meter apart, that's 3 meters. Next let's plan to plant some beans. 3 meters should give you lots of seeds, easily more than the 20 plants you need for good seed saving. (You might sow more beans for eating somewhere else in the garden. Just put them at least 3m away from these so they don't cross with your saved seeds). Next do the same with peas. Lettuce can go next, and remember that it will grow larger than usual when it grows flower stalks, so space it like the tomatoes - 6 plants in 3 meters. Now notice that you've planted 9m of beans, peas, and lettuce since your last tomato plant, so you're far enough (more than 5m) to plant a different kind of tomato. First row done.

Now skip to the third row. If the rows are 2.5 meters apart, then the third row is 5m from the first row. That means you can repeat the same pattern in row 3 (and row 5, and row 7, if you have a big enough garden).

In the second row, it's more complicated. Beans, peas, and lettuce have to be 3m from other varieties of those species. Good thing we chose to make all the sections 3 meters long! The peas on each end of row 2 have a minimum of 3m to the other peas in rows 1 and 3. Remember to always look at the ends of sections that are closest to each other. In this example, the two ends of the peas in row 1 are just 3m from the closest ends of the peas in row 2. Lettuce and beans fit into row 2 in places where they're 3m away from other lettuce and beans.

Finally, we're left with a hole in the middle that's too close to anything. So let's plant some peppers. It could be anything, but peppers are fun. 

6 plants = 3m
6 plants = 3m
6 plants = 3m
Peas Lettuce Peppers Beans Peas
Tomatoes Beans Peas Lettuce Tomatoes

That's the process that seed savers think through every winter and spring, and after practicing a few times, the spacing and patterns become familiar. Graph paper is a good old-school way to start, or if you're clever with setting up a spreadsheet it can help to figure out where your plants should go. By all means, keep it simple at first, try growing a few varieties for seed, and expand as you learn.

And of course, if you grow other vegetables just for eating, keep them isolated from the seed plants in the same way, but you can mix them with each other at any spacing that's convenient because only your "seed saving" plants need to be isolated.


Bob Wildfong is Seeds of Diversity's executive director.


Back to May 2017 Newsletter

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