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Interview with Jim Ulager, Author of Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener

Author Jim Ulager

Today's interview is with Jim Ulager, author of Beginning Seed Saving for the Home Gardener. Written by a home seed saver for the home seed saver, this is the guide for those who want to reclaim seed heritage, highlighting the importance of saving seeds for you, your neighbors, and most importantly, subsequent generations. Be sure to check out the answer to our winning giveaway question and watch our Instagram and Facebook pages for upcoming contests.

Why is it important for home gardeners to save seed. Why not just buy them.

There are so many reasons to save seed! With many seeds, it is hard NOT to save them. If you don’t harvest your sunflower seeds, birds will eat them and knock a good number to the ground, where they will likely become the beginning of next spring’s crop. Growing black beans or kidney beans? Well, there’s your seed right there. Why buy again?

Being able to save your own seed also gives you access to a lot more types of seeds. Chances are your corner store has 5 or 6 different tomato choices. The seed catalog will have a lot more to be sure. My favorite slicing tomato came from my sister’s father-in-law, who has now passed. He got it from Russia. If I couldn’t save seed, that variety would be lost to me. Similarly, we grow a capucijner pea that I got from a seed saver in California. She gave me 20 seeds. It is fantastic - we use it in place of garbanzos in hummus and curry. I plant a lot more than 20 seeds every year, which I couldn't do unless I knew how to save them myself.

Ultimately, though, why do we garden? There are lots of reasons, but for many of us, we are looking for at least some element of independence. I don’t like buying my veggies from the grocery store if I can avoid it. It feels like a hand out from agrobiz. I feel the same way about my seed. It feels so much better to grow my own, trade with neighbors, and search listings on seed-saving clubs. I realize I’m not fully independent, but at least we are interdependent.  

What is the most important piece of advice you would have for a gardener wanting to start seed saving.

  1. Do it. Most people get too intimidated at the though, which doesn’t need to be the case.
  2. Start with something easy. Peas, beans, tomatoes, onions, lettuce are all very easy.
  3. If you don’t like advice #2 and want to start with something harder, do it! Don’t let me dissuade you! The chances that you might get something different than you expect are higher, which means so are the chances that you might learn something!

What are some of the hardest seed to save? Why?

Corn might be the most difficult simply because:

  1. It prefers a very large population to produce good seed, and
  2. Corn is wind pollinated, and the pollen grains can travel for miles. To that end, your ability to save corn without crossing will largely depend on what is growing around your garden (for at least a mile in each direction).

That said, there are home growers who successfully save corn from seed. I save seed for an heirloom popcorn, but I cheat by adding in some commercial seed every other year or so (to effectively increase the genetic diversity, which is important to corn).   I do this rather shamelessly, because it is what has allowed me to grow regular beautiful crops of popcorn that the kids (and, unfortunately, the raccoons) just love!

Winning Giveaway Question

I am just starting to try saving seeds from biennial root crops. I know you have to watch with carrots crossing with Queen Anne's Lace. Are there similar issues with parsnips crossing with any wild plants?

This is a great question that gets at the essence of seed saving in the home garden: what does success look like?  

Just like Queen Anne’s Lace is “wild carrot” and will cross-pollinate with your cultivated carrots, wild (or rather, ferrel) parsnip, which is rampant in many areas, will readily cross pollinate with cultivated parsnips. There is an important difference, however. Carrots grown from seed cross pollination with Queen Anne’s Lace are quite typically small, leathery, and not all that good for eating. Ferrel parsnip (that is, parsnip that was originally planted in a garden or farm but has escaped and self-propagated in the field) often retains reasonably good eating quality. This may not be apparent if you go out and pull it up (wear gloves, it can cause a rash!) because of the conditions it has grown in. There is a very good chance, however, that parsnip seeds that are crossed with ferrel parsnip will yield quite palatable results. This is an advantage if you purpose is simply to save delicious parsnip seed. It is a disadvantage, however, in that it can actually be quite difficult to tell if you indeed had a cross or not. Either way, you are going to get a long, white, sweet root. Differences are likely to be quite subtle.

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