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Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving, Part 1: Cucurbits

| 6/2/2014 2:37:00 PM

A new melon isolation plot

I just got done carving out a space for Japanese ”White Pear” melons from the weeds between a young persimmon tree and the woodshed. Its good dirt, though someone had put a small pile of rocks there years back. I dug it with a maddock and fertilized it with chicken manure and ashes. Now it’s a small melon isolation plot, big enough for about eight plants.

This is what I do in the evening, when I’m done working with the seed crops in the fields.

The Cucurbit Family: In Need of Isolation

As a seed grower I’m often thinking about how to find more isolated plots for seed growouts, and about exactly what to put in those plots. Some kinds of crops, like cucurbits, need a lot of isolation. The cucurbit plant family, which includes melons, watermelons, cucumbers, squash and gourds, is pollinated by insects. Different varieties of the same species that are planted near each other will inevitably cross because the bees transport the pollen between the flowers. Cucurbit varieties of the same species need to be isolated by at least ¼ mile to prevent crossing. For large plantings, or if there are few barriers between the crops (like trees, or flowering plants) the isolation may need to be half a mile or more.

I am up to three field-sized isolation plots and five garden-sized isolation plots for cucurbits. I live in the country and I’m a full time seed grower. I know that most people aren’t going to go for eight isolation plots. But I want to share the basics of how to plan your garden for seed saving, starting with cucurbits. Note that what I have to say here is about saving seeds from open pollinated varieties, not hybrids. It is possible to save seeds from hybrids, and this can be a good starting point for new breeding projects. But the next generation of plants will be highly variable and not like the parents.

If you have one garden that is sufficiently isolated from neighbors’ cucurbit plantings, you can grow one of each cucurbit species at a time. So one cucumber, one melon, one gourd, one watermelon, and one of each squash species. There are four major species of squash, which generally don’t cross with each other. Ideally you’ll have a handful of plants of each variety, but with cucurbits it will still work with one or two plants.

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