Home gardeners share how to identify the best seeds when saving improved seed from your garden.
Plants are far more variable than most of us realize. If you observe your garden crops closely, you will notice some plants are growing slightly better or maybe tasting better than others. Spotting these plants and saving their seeds can be really exciting.
David Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Farm in Fullerton, North Dakota, had grown seeds of 'Crimson Sprinter,' a slicing tomato well-adapted to his short Northern Plains summers, for a number of years. Several years ago, he discovered a single, unusual fruit among his 'Crimson Sprinter' crop. It had "absolutely unblemished, shiny skin and an intense bright color that was more pink than red." The fruit had excellent flavor, too, so Podoll saved seed from this plant and the next year, grew 10 plants from his cache. All turned out exactly like the original, so Podoll knew his new plant probably was a "sport" or mutant, and not a cross with another tomato variety in his garden. Sports are caused by a specific genetic change in just the right place in the plant's DNA. "Discovering something like this is quite thrilling," Podoll says.
Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Oregon, was growing the Austrian heirloom lettuce 'Forellenschluss' (which in German means "speckled like a trout") because of the beautiful reddish leaf speckles. He noticed the degree of "speckle-ness" varied dramatically from plant to plant and decided he wanted to isolate "the flashier end of the spectrum." Out of 200 plants, he selected 20 of the splotchiest and healthiest, transplanted them to a separate plot and saved their seed. After repeating this process for two generations, he had 80 percent showing the degree of red speckles he wanted; after four generations, he had his new creation (see photo above), which he named 'Flashy Trout Back.'
David Cavagnaro, a veteran gardener who lives near Decorah, Iowa, had great success in improving the Mitla black bean to better fit his needs when he lived in California. (Mitla has been grown for more than eight centuries in Oaxaca, Mexico.)
The Mitla bean was highly variable; a few plants were bush-like in stature but most were rambling with semi-runners. Cavagnaro began saving seed from only the most upright bush plants most heavily laden with pods. Within "no more than three years," he says, "I had a very consistent population of plants of the bush type."
Jeremy Barker Plotkin of Lampson Brook Farm, Belchertown, Massachusetts, found a plant among his 'Green Zebra' tomatoes that had fruit with red stripes instead of green. "We saved its seed," he says, "and the following year got tomatoes with yellow, red and black stripes." Earlier, Barker Plotkin had trialed a number of red-striped tomatoes; he thought they might look nice packed into a box with the 'Green Zebras,' but none merited a place alongside the 'Greens.' "'Tigerella' and 'Mr. Stripey' come to mind as particularly lousy," he says, "but now I am excited to pursue these three new zebra-striped lines."
John Navazio, Ph.D., is director of seed grower development at the Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington, and owner of his own company, Seed Movement, in Bellingham, Washington.
Read more about growing and saving seeds: Grow Your Own Seeds.
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