Seed-saving savvy

Workshop series focused on growing vegetable plants to save their seeds

Redwood Seeds co-owner Kalan Redwood, holding daughter Maisie, and Heartseed farmer Elliott Proffitt check out Heartseed Farms’ hoop house in preparation for the upcoming workshop on Jan 25.

Redwood Seeds co-owner Kalan Redwood, holding daughter Maisie, and Heartseed farmer Elliott Proffitt check out Heartseed Farms’ hoop house in preparation for the upcoming workshop on Jan 25.

Photo by Claire Hutkins Seda

Saturday seed-saving series:
· Seeding Cool Season Crops, Jan. 25, 2-4 p.m.
· Transplanting into a Seed Saving Garden, Feb. 22, 2-4 p.m.
· Seeding Warm Season Crops, March 22, 2-4 p.m.
· Transplanting Warm Season Crops, April 26, 2-4 p.m.
· Harvesting & Winnowing Cool Season Crops, June 28, 10 a.m.-noon
· Harvesting & Water Processing Warm Season Crops, August 2, 10 a.m.-noon
Workshops are free for income-eligible participants, and $10 each for others. Visit for location and to register.

Latin names often cause shudders down the backs of gardeners. Many people prefer to keep Latin in the science classroom—not in their backyards. But for Redwood Seeds co-owner and seed grower Kalan Redwood, the use of Latin is essential for seed saving.

“The basic rule of thumb is that anything that [is in] the same species will cross-pollinate,” she explained recently by phone. Broccoli, which is categorized as a Brassica oleracea, is a prime example. “Things that will cross-pollinate with broccoli include kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower,” because all of those plants are also categorized as Brassica oleracea, noted Redwood, “so we can plant only one of them” for seed saving.

A cross-pollinated plant will still produce seeds, but it’s anyone’s guess what type of confused plant will grow from those seeds. Redwood, therefore, pays attention to the scientific names of plants—the genus and species—to assure herself that, at the end of the growing season, she has no unwanted cross-pollination and will have reliable seeds for the next year.

At Cultivating Community North Valley’s upcoming workshop for seeding cool-season plants, Redwood will guide participants in planting a hardy spring garden from start to finish, with seed saving in mind. At the workshop, “we’re going to plant broccoli. It’s one of the only Brassica oleracea that will go to seed in one season—it doesn’t have to go through a winter; it’s not a biennial [(like carrots or onions)],” making it a good candidate for beginning seed savers, as the wait time for seeds is abbreviated.

Gardeners can grow all the varieties of Brassica oleracea they wish—but in order to save seed, only one may be allowed to flower (which is unlike other plants, such as squashes—their flowers are needed to produce the vegetables).

CCNV’s Jan. 25 workshop is the first in a six-part series. The focus for part two (Feb. 22) will be on “transplanting the cool-season things,” Redwood said. “In March, we’ll seed the warm-season things, and then transplant the warm-season things in April. In June, we’ll be harvesting the seeds from the things that we’re seeding in this workshop.

“By June, all the lettuces and the broccoli will have gone to seed and will be dry … so we’ll harvest those seeds, and clean and process them. In August, we’ll have the last workshop, where we’ll harvest and clean and process the warm-season [seeds], like tomatoes and cucumbers.”

Plants in the <i>Brassica oleracea</i> species, like these young kale sprouts, can easily cross-pollinate.

Photo by Claire Hutkins Seda

Participants who attend all the workshops will gain a “very comprehensive idea of how to save seed,” in addition to all the basics of cool- and warm-season vegetable planting and care. They’ll go home from the first workshop with six-packs of planted seeds such as arugula, Green Wave mustard (which is Brassica juncea, not Brassica oleracea), and cilantro, for their own gardens. Redwood notes that a greenhouse is not required to grow cool-season plants; participants may choose to grow their starts from seed in a sunny window, or bring the six-packs inside on colder nights.

As with other CCNV workshops, sign-ups are first open to low-income gardeners, after which the general public may register. CCNV’s gardening workshops are funded by the California Department for Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant.

The Jan. 25 workshop will be held at Heartseed Farm’s greenhouse at the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road. Plants that participants grow from seed at that workshop will be transplanted into the seed-saving garden at the Chico Grange Hall during the February workshop. Seed collected from those plants will be used by the GRUB Education Program in community gardens across town.

The six workshops will also cover basic seeding technique and flower anatomy, pollination, and the many “quirks” of seed saving, like “isolation distances”: how far away plants must be from one another to prevent cross-pollination. The distance varies greatly, said Redwood: “For lettuce it could be 10 feet, but for these Brassicas, it can be up to a quarter mile. It definitely can be a concern,” she said. Redwood recommends collaborating with neighbors to prevent cross-pollination with plants on the other side of one’s fence.

“Once you learn these basics of not letting things cross-pollinate … it is easy to incorporate saving seeds,” Redwood said. “An obvious benefit is that it’s a real money saver,” compared to buying plant starts. Another benefit is that gardeners can also attempt to avoid GMO contamination in plants like corn and beets, Redwood said. “In some places it is getting harder and harder to find non-GMO corn,” she noted, “so I think it important that as many people as possible are saving non-GMO seed, because once it is contaminated, it is very hard to clean it up.”

The shockingly dry months of December and January, and the uncertainty in the garden that comes with climate change, point to another reason to save seed: resiliency.

“When you have a lot of different seed-producers producing the same variety, you end up with more genetic diversity within that variety. If you have more genetic diversity within a population of plants, and if drought strikes, maybe you’ll have [enough] genetic diversity within your plant population that 10 percent will survive,” Redwood said.

“You save seed from that 10 percent and replant it, and the next generation is going to be more drought tolerant, whereas if we’re all just sourcing our seed from the same corporate source, then we’re not going to have that genetic diversity that is specific to that location.

“It ultimately comes down to more food security,” she said. “We’re not dependent on larger corporations for our food” when gardeners save their seed.