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How many plants do I need to save vegetable seeds?

Ferment tomato seedsAs I slowly work my way beyond the seed-saving basics, I'm starting to realize that saving the seeds from the lone kale plant that overwintered in my garden might not be a good idea.  To understand how many individuals you need to save healthy seeds, first you have to delve into a bit of pollination biology.

All plants fit somewhere on the spectrum between strong inbreeders and strong outbreeders.  At the far inbreeding extreme lie plants like tomato-leaved tomatoes, peas, and green beans, all of which have flowers that make it extremely unlikely that an insect can get inside to move pollen from one plant to another.  These vegetables breed with themselves as a matter of course, so they've worked the bad recessive traits out of their populations.  The pros recommend saving seeds from at least 20 plants for strong inbreeder species, but at the backyard scale, you can get away with just a few parent plants (or sometimes even one.)

Seed savingAt the opposite end of the spectrum, strong outbreeders (like most crucifers, swiss chard, spinach, and beets) depend on getting pollen from another plant to keep those recessive genes in check.  You'll need around 80 to 100 individuals of these species in your garden to keep your seed vigorous.  If you save seeds from just a few individuals, next year's plants will tend to be weaker and you'll eventually need to buy seeds to reset your gene pool.

Most plants, of course, lie somewhere in the middle, and there are also outbreeders (like most cucurbits) that don't seem to show many problems even if you inbreed them.  You can download a free pdf here that gives recommended population sizes for most common vegetables.  (The website asks for your email address before download, but they haven't sent me any spam.  The file you want is A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers.)  Alternatively, if you want to become a real seed-saving pro, I can't recommend Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth highly enough.  This text made the very short list of book purchases in our household for 2012 and has turned my dabbling in seed-saving into a scientific endeavor.

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock happy and healthy.


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Hello Anna and Mark!

I commented somewhere on here a couple months ago - I think it was regarding your tranquility post. I've bought your e-books (need to post reviews) and look forward to every new blog post. I think I'm a Walden Effect addict.

Anyway, I mentioned that my husband (Justin) and I were looking at property that I thought might be near you - we closed on our land in Oscar Nichols Road in Kyles Ford, TN on July 20! It is 60 acres and has a creek, 2 springs, old barn, a couple sheds, and two cabins. We won't be moving to it for a few more years - we both have good jobs that we enjoy and are not quite ready to disembark from life here yet. But we are so incredibly excited to have made this major step in establishing our future homestead.

Justin visited the property back in May - my mother-in-law and I finally got to see it at the end of July. We were floored by the friendliness of the locals, scenic beauty of Appalachia, and personal freedom we felt while on our land. Justin and I going to try to get out there again sometime in October. Anyway, just wanted to give you a heads up that you have new (future) neighbors that are very much looking forward to applying your wisdom and know-how to our homesteading aspirations.

Cheers, Sarah Noce Boulder Creek, CA

Comment by Sarah Tue Aug 2 19:17:41 2011
Welcome to the area! We're always excited to meet new, like-minded neighbors, and hope you move down here soon!
Comment by anna Wed Aug 3 07:34:59 2011

Just followed your seed saving links to end up here and was able to download that resource from seedalliance. Thanks so much for that link.

And I second the recommendation of Seed to Seed. It's a great book. Now I just have to figure out how to do the seed saving thing well.

Comment by Robin Sat Mar 29 09:25:46 2014

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime