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Volume 29 Issue 5
January/February 2024

A Talk with Hersch Wilson: Author of Dog Lessons: Learning the Important Stuff from Our Best Friends

Planning Your Open-Pollinated Garden For Seed Saving, Part 1

Garlic: Superfood and Super Delicious

Lineage: The Indigenous Roots of Osteopathy

It’s Not How Much. It’s How: Banish Cravings and Eat Abundantly

Embracing Sacred Feminine Wisdom:
A 52-Card Wisdom Deck

Veteran Yogis Share Balance Boosting Postures to Reduce the Risk of Falling


Planning Your Open-Pollinated Garden For Seed Saving, Part 1
Shannon Hiltonby Shanon Hilton

In the title, planning your open-pollinated garden for seed saving, “planning” is the key word—especially when seed saving on a small, home scale basis. When planning what to grow for the upcoming garden season, for both food and seed, there are many additional factors to be considered, and strategies to be employed to ensure both diversity in genetics, as well as continuing a true-to-type variety.

The next important word, is “open-pollinated.” Seeds that are open-pollinated will produce true-to-type when saved (assuming they are not crossed with another variety during the growing season), and the characteristics that make that particular plant unique are preserved. Hybrids, on the other hand, are crosses of (usually) two open-pollinated varieties, and when saving seed from these, will not produce predictable offspring—sometimes, seed from hybrids will be sterile.

At a recent trade show, I had a question about why the long storage tomato the lady was saving seed from, gradually stored no longer than any other tomato the following year. The answer? She was saving seed from a hybrid and the seed reverted back to one of the parent varieties.

When saving seed, growers generally want to avoid hybrids. Commercially, hybrids have gained in popularity for many reasons: they often display “hybrid vigour” in the year they are grown, have desirable traits for commercial growers, including mechanical harvesting and shipping, and they produce uniform, consistent results and disease resistance. Seed companies like hybrids because they are proprietary—the parentage is kept secret, and in order to have that seed, you have to go back to that seed company for it.

Large seed companies maintain the seeds that commercial growers want, moreso than what the individual gardener wants, so maintaining the diversity of open-pollinated seeds falls to seed companies dedicated to preserving open-pollinated varieties, organizations such as Seeds for Diversity and you, the individual gardener.

Many people ask if our seeds are heirloom. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated by definition, Non-GMO (genetically modified organism), have been stable for at least 50 years (1970s), and often have unique stories of origin. It is a common assumption that “heirloom” means much older varieties (early 1900s, late 1800s or earlier), and there is debate over whether the length of time should be shorter or longer. I’m really not sure who got to decide on the definition either! The key is that heirlooms are stable, have stood the test of time, are reliable, produce true to type, and you can save seed from them.

All of the seeds at 4 Acre Farm are open-pollinated—most are heirloom; however, some are newer “open-pollinated” varieties that have been developed more recently by enthusiastic breeders. So, not all are “heirloom” in the strict definition of the word. Dwarf Worry Beefsteak, Blushed Butter Oak Lettuce, and Sugar Rush Peach Hot Pepper are a few examples of really amazing “newer” open-pollinated varieties.

As far as hybrids go, sweet corn is an area where hybrids really do shine. Open-pollinated corn immediately wants to convert its sugars into starch to become a seed, so if you aren’t careful to eat your corn as it becomes ripe, it will become tough and starchy and inedible very quickly, whereas hybrid corn remains sweet on the cob for longer stretches of time. The first open-pollinated corn variety I grew 10 years ago was Simonet Corn, and I thought I had accidentally ordered something for livestock—not realizing I just needed to monitor it to harvest it at the right time. Choosing whether to grow a hybrid or open-pollinated variety, really just depends on what you want out of your growing season.

If your goal is to save seed, or at least have the option to save seed, open-pollinated varieties are the way to go. When looking at seed packages, look for the words open-pollinated or OP. If it is a hybrid, it will often say F1—first filial, which refers to first generation hybrid.

There are lots of reasons to save your own seed, and I’ve mentioned one already—to preserve diversity. But, a more practical one is simply, flavour. If you want to be sure that the tomato you loved this year is one you can grow forever, save some seed and it will always be available to you—regardless of whether seed companies decide to grow it or not. There is a freedom and sense of resiliency associated with saving your own seed. And it saves you money.

Just like hybrids, open-pollinated seeds can be selected for desirable traits. At 4 Acre Farm, we’re particularly interested in hardiness, drought tolerance, and early maturity. Southern Saskatchewan has a tough climate, with a short growing season and from a practical standpoint, we want to know our food will grow in hard conditions. We don’t pamper plants to increase yield and where applicable, we save seed in particular from those that produce early. 

It is a common afterthought for people to save their tomato seeds at the end of the season, when they are all done with harvesting and canning tomatoes, but when you select tomatoes at the end of the season, you are inadvertently also selecting for a later ripening tomato. This can be hard, especially when those first tomatoes are finally ready to eat! But, this is also the balancing act between growing food with an eye towards saving seed as well. A few other traits to select for would be appearance, crack resistance, disease resistance, root size, storability, or slowness to bolt.

Probably the most amazing thing about saving seed is planting it year after year and watching the plants learn and adapt, and apply the lessons from the previous season to the next year’s growth. Plants really do learn, and saving your own seed means that your seed is adapted to your very specific niche environment. For example, seeds grown in British Columbia or Ontario come from a much different climate than the prairies! Many times, you might find they don’t do well. But, if you save your seed, assuming they mature in time—the next year you might be surprised at how much better it goes.

In Part 2, we will discuss the strategy around planning for your open-pollinated garden.

Shanon Hilton owns and operates 4 Acre Farm with her family in Southern Saskatchewan—a small, artisan seed and botanical product business. She is a grower, wildcrafter, seed saver, plant enthusiast, and herbalist. You can find her at www.4acrefarm.ca or on instagram @4acrefarmca. Also see the display ad on page 12 of the 29.5 January/February issue of the WHOLifE Journal).


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