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Saving Seed on the US/Canadian Border

For the last three years, the best-performing seeds in my garden have come from a little local outfit called Heart of the Highlands LLC. It helps that they’re locally grown: adapted to the same arid, frosty-hot climate that my garden struggles with.

Now that I’ve learned a little more about the proprietor and her farm, however, I recognize there’s also extensive experience, expertise, and attention to quality involved in producing my favorite seeds.

HOH proprietor Mariah Cornwoman agreed to be interviewed for this article. She also shared an 8-page information packet that she created for local garden clubs, permaculture groups, and school classes. Quoted text below is all from Mariah, written or verbal, unless otherwise noted.

Our valley is just south of the US-Canadian border. For US food production, it’s “the end of the road” not so much because of the shorter northern growing season, but because well-adapted orchard fruits must be shipped an extra 100 to 150 miles past hundreds of equally-productive, closer-to-transport growers. Could we ship north to Canada? The Canadian Okanagan is very similar in climate, extensively planted with vineyards, orchards, crop and tourist facilities as the southern ‘beach-front’ vacation-land for western Canada. Customs regulations plus competitors means most growers don’t bother with that, either.

Mariah spins this situation with a wry grin: “It’s a great place to be self-sufficient.” Our local population includes a lot of back-to-the-landers, retirees, service veterans, summer vacationers, and others who enjoy the beautiful quiet countryside and are willing to get creative about seasonal income or subsistence gardening.

Prior to falling in love with the Okanogan Highlands, Mariah studied at UC Davis, worked for the Davis experimental farm for several years, then served as an organic certification inspector. She’s seen “how it’s done” commercially, and has an endless supply of big-Ag anecdotes from ironic to useful to terrifying. While passionate about accurate data, research, and testing, she applies this knowledge within strict personal ethics, seeking her livelihood in support of sustainable local food production.

An episode of scarlet fever left her liver damaged, increasing her sensitivity and difficulty metabolizing certain chemicals. “I can usually smell if it’s organophosphates, nitrates, organochlorines, or whatever. I’d go test these sites for over-spray, to protect the organic customers like me, and then be sick for weeks afterward.”

She regales me with cautionary tales about modern commercial agriculture – scrupulously accurate, from what I can tell on further research. I knew that worldwide food commodities are heavily based on about 20 main crops, with far fewer regional specialties or dietary variety than a century ago. I’d heard of crop failures following donated “high-production” seed in the developing world, where locally-adapted varieties cultivated for thousands of years may be lost in as few as three or four years of local farmers switching to exotic hybrids.

I hadn’t considered the risk of what happens if a “terminator” (sterile seed) gene goes feral, hybridizing with local wild stocks, for example. Though they have patented it in over 77 countries, Monsanto has chosen not to introduce ‘terminator’ genes into the marketplace, so far. But Mariah has seen enough mishaps and mapping errors on university experimental plots to remain concerned about accidental release of experimental genetics.

I also hadn’t heard of the Southern Corn Leaf Blight plague of 1970 — it was before my time. In Mariah’s summary, 66 million acres of corn production were fathered by the same, unfortunately blight-susceptible Texas male sterile parent, resulting in an 89% crop failure of one of the USA’s most important food crops in one year.

Over the past three years she’s shared the latest gossip: the near-loss of heirloom Bloomsdale Spinach — most seed catalogs bought this seed from the same grower, and had no other sources the year he retired. Mariah pulled her remaining seed packets that year to cultivate a seed crop; several other small growers have done the same. A few years ago California put a 3-year moratorium on GMO beets, in response to a complaint (beets are wind-pollinated, so it’s very difficult to keep GMO pollen out of organic and non-GMO farmers’ crops); only to be told that the commercial growers and seed-producers no longer had sufficient non-GMO seed to grow anything else.

Mariah Cornwoman, like many small farmers, follows the news in her field as closely as a sailor follows the weather, or a stockbroker the market. She’s as current on the science and politics of sustainable food production as other friends might be about their favorite TV drama or sports team.

Mariah calls her current farm “The Heartland.” It’s located at an elevation of about 2600 feet, on a plateau east of Tonasket, WA. A creek bisects the property, winding through a steep, wooded ravine below the farm. Heart of the Highlands grows over 70 varieties of medicinal and culinary herbs, native plants, and a regular stock of reliable vegetable, fruit, and grain crops.


I arrived on a sunny spring morning. The property has a tidy, well-organized appearance, with a mowed fire-break between buildings and gardens and the adjacent, wooded ravine. An elegant circle in the middle of the drive turns out to be a mix of experimental, recently-collected, and wildlife-friendly species, including some local variations of echinacea, rare fruit trees such as paw-paw and medlar, and dozens of other herbs and ornamentals. A medicine wheel / compass rose in the center orients me to north.

The property lies toward the sunny end of a north-facing mountain bowl, trimming a few hours of sunlight off our long northern summers (but as Mariah points out, “We’re maxed out on sun most of the summer anyway.”) Her solar panels are permanently oriented to the optimal winter collection angle, as that’s the only time she needs to be concerned about adequate collection.

The main garden extends for about an acre, behind one of the most robust deer fences I’ve seen yet. The garden includes mixed annual and perennial plantings, with plans to expand the perennials over time. Our most recent winter had a record deep, dry freeze, with no significant snow on the ground to insulate tender roots until well past mid-winter. She shows me some surviving rows and partial rows of winter-proven perennial candidates, including thyme and horseradish, berries, fruit trees, and border plantings for soil-building and beneficial insect attraction. Two guardian dogs are currently restricted to a fenced yard behind the house, as they have an eternal feud with the neighbor’s dog.

We tour the property, getting into farm details like plumbing and water rights, ingress and egress, planning and elements for a legal commercial kitchen, and the robust system design required for teaching visitors and interns. Local seed sales are the lion’s share of the Heartland Farm’s current income, supplemented by farm produce, nursery starts, and small quantities of preserved herbs and tinctures. I admire the nursery – a collection of very healthy-looking plants in pots, some of which I recognize, and some I don’t. The office and farmhouse have extensive reference libraries, organized by topic.

Mariah points out various elements that support seed-saving: in addition to racks of sturdy containers, the cool, shady store-room has a corner near the vehicle-bay door for farmers’ market supplies (tent, baskets, crates), an under-construction commercial kitchen and cool storage and an equipment room. In the office, there are files, computer, and binders with this year’s garden map. Throughout our interview Mariah keeps an eye on sprouting sunflowers arranged on tables in front of the house, driving off a curious bird at one point, and watering while we talk.

We settle in the shade of a porch overhang, and get into the detailed questions.

I don’t need convincing to save seed. The excellent results I’ve gotten from Mariah’s seeds over the past three years are argument enough. What I want to know is how she does it.

First, she reassures me you don’t need advanced techniques. “I tend to avoid the ‘cut blossom, shake out pollen’ or ‘use a paint brush to apply to a bloom that’s covered with a bag’ scenario,” explains Mariah. This kind of effort can produce unique hybrid varieties, and job security, for commercial seed sellers, but “it’s a bit tedious for the home setting. I also don’t think it’s very sustainable.”

Hybrid varieties rely on useful, dominant traits from two parent varieties. Both parents must be hand-bred to ensure a successful hybrid seed crop. And the offspring won’t breed true – they may have either dominant or recessive traits of either parent. Most hybrid seeds are now cultivated in the developing world on account of the labor costs of the whole process. I did not realize until reading this article that my hybrid seeds almost all come from sub-tropical growers. No wonder they don’t love frost!

Mariah favors open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, that allow her customers to save seed as easily as she does, and re-plant successful varieties year after year.

Open-pollinated plants will produce fertile seed without special treatment, but they can cross-breed with related plants. Most are either wind-pollinated (like corn and most grains) or insect-pollinated (most flowering fruits and vegetables). Some are self-fertile and don’t cross much (peppers); others cross-pollinate with a wide range of cousins (squash). That means that to cultivate true seed, the grower needs awareness of what plants will cross-breed.

For the beginner seed-saver, Mariah distinguishes plants as “easy,” “moderate,” and “finicky” varieties.

Bean, pea, and pepper seeds are easy to save

“Easy vegetable seeds include bean, pea, and pepper … they produce seed the same season as planted, and are mostly self-pollinating, minimizing the need to prevent cross-pollination.” (Peppers can cross-pollinate if the bees are desperate enough to visit them, but in a diverse garden there are usually more attractive flowers available at the same time.)

Moderately difficult seeds may need extra care, or they may pollinate with less-desirable cousins

Moderately difficult seeds include “corn, melon, cucumber, radish, lettuce or greens, tomato, and squash or pumpkin. The experienced seed-saver’s vegetables produce seed the same season they are planted, but require some separation to prevent unwanted cross-pollination.”

Mariah describes three of the many species of cucurbitae: maxima (giant pumpkins), moschata (butternut, some field pumpkins), and pepo (many choice varieties including summer squashes like zucchini, winter squashes like delicata and pie pumpkins). A giant pumpkin, a butternut squash, and a sugar-pie can grow in the same garden without cross-pollination, but the sugar-pie pumpkin might cross with squash cousins like delicata, zucchini, or patty-pan. All cucumber varieties are yet another species, and two other species include most melons. Here’s an extensive list of cucurbitae species that can cross-pollinate.

(Note to our Southern Hemisphere and European readers: ‘Pumpkins’ in North America come in a huge range of sizes, textures, and flavors, with extensive culinary and cultural uses.)

Finicky or difficult seeds may need two years, frost protection, and/or special attention

Finicky seeds include “beet, chard, carrot, cabbage family, escarole, radicchio/endive, onion, turnip or mustards – the expert gardener’s vegetables normally require more than one year for seed production, and need to maintain separation to prevent cross-pollination.” In cold climates it can be a challenge to over-winter biennials, which require two full growing seasons to produce seed. Cross-pollination in these species may include wild cousins; and longer distances may be needed to maintain a reliable pure strain.

Not all accidental hybrids are bad. All squash varieties are edible; all mustards and brassicas are edible, and can be cooked in similar ways. Classic heirlooms and hybrids are just more choice. If you suspect your favorite vegetable has had a love affair “over the fence,” you can grow out the seeds anyway, and cull anything with undesirable traits. First-generation hybrids are often tasty and prolific. Second-generation hybrids (F2) show a lot of variety, not all of it desirable. After 6 or 7 generations of active culling, you may be able to develop a new, reliable variety to suit your taste and climate.

Mariah remembers a sugar-pie pumpkin / delicata squash cross that she dubbed ‘punkadeli’ and preferred to the parent squash. “Delicata has like a quarter inch of flesh inside the rind. Sure it’s tasty, but it seems like a lot of effort for not much meat. But a lot of customers like it, so I grow it. This ‘punkadeli’ had almost an inch of flesh, with the same lovely flavor as delicata. A winner in my book.” But like any hybrid, its seeds would not breed true; so it hasn’t become a production mainstay until such time as someone wants to hand-pollinate it.

My garden experience supports this general categorization: saving seed for peas, fava beans, and tomatoes is pretty easy, but my radishes and greens are usually degenerate (hairy, not much radish development, and not very tasty). I mostly use them for mulch, or sprout the seeds for winter sandwiches. Mariah’s impressive compost piles testify to the regular disposal of weeds, brush, and culled plants.

To cultivate reliable producers for your garden conditions and climate, don’t give them special care. Water may be a necessity in climates like ours, with a 2- to 3-month summer dry period (we don’t call it a drought, just “summer,” a.k.a. “fire season”). Most popular, tender annuals are grown in warm summer months with plenty of water. But if you want plants that thrive without fertilizer, for example, give them the level of mulch, compost, or manure that you’re willing to offer, and watch for plants that thrive better than others under your conditions. Cull the weaker plants (remove them) before pollination, or at least don’t save their seed.

To maintain a pure heirloom variety takes a little care to avoid cross-pollination, and plenty of plants of the same variety. Some gardeners just grow one favorite variety, or let their favorite varieties interbreed indiscriminately and cull as needed. Commercial seed growers need to produce relatively pure, reliable strains of popular named varieties, so they may be more careful about distance and timing.

At the Heartland, the team relies on three main methods to separate compatible cousins:

  • space (recommendations range from over 100 feet apart, to ½ mile to prevent cross-pollination between bee-pollinated species (wind-pollinated plants require more space). Garden club members might coordinate to grow choice varieties in different gardens a few miles apart, then swap seeds and produce.
  • time (planting favorite varieties alternate years, or several weeks apart; for example planting an early corn early and a late corn late so they pollinate with over two week’s separation.)
  • physical barriers: For popular varieties that are known to cross-pollinate, like squash or mustards, Mariah may plant two varieties in adjacent rows, with wire hoops over each row. At the first sign of blooming, she uses a row-cover to exclude the bees from one side per day, allowing pollination on the other. “Most blooms last a couple of days if they’re not pollinated. The bees clean themselves off at night, so we flip the cover to the other side late in the evening after they’ve gone home. If we alternate days, we get pretty much full pollination without crossing.” Growing one variety in a greenhouse and the other at the far end of a garden might also combine physical separation with a slight seasonal time separation, though you might have to shake the greenhouse blossoms if you don’t have in-house pollinators.

More detail on specific varieties, crosses, and seed-collection tips may be found in the Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook, or the book Seed to Seed.

Once you have selected your favorite varieties, and grown them as best you can without unwanted cross-pollination, you wait.

Let the seed mature on the plant. Viable seed ripens well after we would normally pick the fruit or vegetable. Cucumber and fruits generally need to be ‘over-ripe’ to mature the seed. For delicate seed-pods, a little ‘skirt’ or bag around the seed-heads can catch any seeds it tries to fling away (broccoli, lettuces, etc; any pod that shatters if left on the plant). Pods that don’t shatter, like radishes or wheat, can be dried on the plant, or at the end of a season they may be brought indoors and dried hanging or in open paper bags. Fleshy fruits are probably easiest to collect; simply allow the fruit to get over-ripe and then scoop out, clean, and dry the seeds.

“Post-harvest handling varies widely between species.” The general goal is to get the seed separated from the plant, clean and dormant, and into protected storage.

“Wet or fleshy fruits produce seeds that need to be rinsed clean of debris and then dried.” Mariah explains that tomatoes’ and other fleshy fruits’ seeds have a germination-preventing gel coat. It can be removed by fermenting (rotting) the fruit in a plastic bag until the flesh liquifies, then cleaning and saving the seed. “Commercial growers use strong acids to speed the process, which I don’t recommend.” From personal experience I know that tomatoes can sprout despite skipping this step – the biota in hot, moist, active soils presumably break down this gel-coat to allow germination – but results are less consistent. Germination may take longer for a ‘feral’ crop than when the seed is properly prepared, which can be a real disappointment in a short highland growing season.

“A small slant board (e.g. shoebox or Rubbermaid container) works well for round seeds that roll to the bottom. Winnowing takes considerable practice to be successful, but can be done to save grains or grasses.” (Gently crush or break up the seed pods, then blow across the box to separate light chaff from heavy viable seeds; some commercial winnowers use mill or belt and fan systems.)

Some small or odd-shaped seeds may need to be separated by hand, especially if they are light enough to blow away with chaff, or won’t go through screens without damage. Developing efficient ways to separate your favorite seeds, and sorting the best ones for next year’s garden, can be a pleasant winter chore.

Seeds need to be dried thoroughly. A fan-only dehydrator, or a sunny windowsill, will dry seeds effectively. Avoid heating above ordinary room temperatures, or freezing, unless you know the seed will survive this treatment (many kinds won’t). Once you think the seed is dry, place a handful in a sealed jar or plastic bag in the sun, and watch for condensation (fog or dew). Dry seeds won’t fog up the container; if fog appears, rescue the seeds and keep drying.

Store in a cool, dry, dark place, protected from freezing and from vermin. Some varieties of seed can be safely frozen, but this can kill tender annuals. Mariah generally uses “a heavy plastic or metal box with a lid that closes securely. For the home garden, baby food jars are great.”

“Be sure to mark the variety and date on the container,” along with any other notes like collection conditions, who you traded with, or where the seed was grown on the garden map. “Lettuce” is not sufficient; “2014 Red Lettuce” is better; “Bibb lettuce from Joan, bed 2, picked Aug. 2013” is better yet.

Dry, cool conditions help all plant materials remain dormant through the winter. If your climate doesn’t include a frosty winter, consider yourself lucky; many annuals can be grown as perennials in warm, mild climates, and allowed to self-seed directly into the ground. But the same cool, dry, dormant conditions can allow you to store a collection of seed for rotation over several years, maintaining pure strains of more than one variety, and having a fall-back in case of accidents to a single year’s crop.

Plants that are not propagated from seed but from roots (potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke, etc) may also be kept dormant over winter. Most roots, crowns, rhizomes, and tubers will keep best in a cool, dark, mostly dry place, layered in straw or sawdust, and protected from freezing. Some ventilation is helpful to prevent mold. Slightly dehydrated, withered, floppy tubers may survive freezing incidents better than their plump companions, but remove any that show signs of rot, mold, or blight. The traditional ‘root cellar’ is an earth-sheltered, dry storage, ideally under the house for frost protection. Like many commercial growers, Mariah uses an insulated building, with heavy slab floor, and is building a dedicated cold storage room for a Cool-Bot-controlled air conditioner.

My own seed stock tend to live in the cool pantry, on the shady side of the house; it’s not perfect, and they usually sprout too early, but it beats freezing them to death in the field or barn. Most “keeper” roots will last for several months in proper storage, but should be grown out as soon as conditions are suitable; they rarely stay viable for more than a year.

Sort for the best seeds. “Seeds should look big and fat, with a sturdy, dry seed coat. Don’t be tempted to save those that appear marginal; either they won’t make it at all, or they will produce weak plants.” Mariah describes high-grading the strain from the beginning of the process: in the field, you can tag the most promising, largest, juiciest, healthiest plants, or those with selected traits like an early bloomer, frost-hardy plants, disease survivors, or plants that are late to bolt. Plants or seeds that appear withered, susceptible to disease, and small, broken, or shrunken seeds should be discarded. “The exceptions are peas and corn; the seeds may be shriveled due to their large size and thin seed coat. In this case pay close attention to the “germ” where the root will emerge. It should be well-formed, plump, and no sign of off-color or mold.”

“Do your best to remove chaff and plant parts; these can be a source of mold or disease when planting the seeds. They can also make you think you have a lot more seed than you actually do.” There’s nothing wrong with collecting a lot of extra seed; you can save half the batch for the following year, or swap seeds with interested neighbors to bring home more locally-adapted prize varieties.

Keep a garden journal and map. All of the information above is easy to lose if you try to write it on seed packets or row labels. Instead, map the garden, and name or number the planting areas. It’s the simplest way to keep track of what varieties were planted where, the dates, and the conditions that affected success (such as a drought, early rain, frost, cross-pollination, etc). Seed saved from a particular year can be marked with plot number only, and all notes about weather, sprouting rates, accidents, and other growing conditions can be kept in the journal.

Many growers rotate related crops around the garden. Planting a completely different species in a given annual plot from year to year not only reduces crop parasites and blights, but it makes it easier to distinguish a volunteer from last year’s stray seed.

However, in most home gardens there’s limited space. If you only have a few dozen feet of space, crop rotation won’t make a huge difference for parasites, and you may prefer to keep the same plants in established places (e.g. fruit-tree guilds) unless a problem actually occurs.

Consider coordinating favorite varieties with friends or a local organic farmer. You might each grow two or three unrelated squashes, for a total of five or six varieties with pure seed, instead of trying to make space for too many varieties in one small garden. A space-limited gardener might concentrate on a few rare heirloom varieties, knowing that other local growers are keeping the common varieties viable from year to year, and you can always swap seed or starts later on.

Mariah keeps a master list of seed collected by date, in a binder and on the computer, to track the rotation of older seed that might get lost in storage. Seed can be stored for varying lengths of time; little lettuce seeds don’t last as long as, say, beets or peas.

Germination testing

Germination testing helps confirm your seed-saving methods, test questionable batches (seeds that were left in poor conditions), and estimate how many seeds you’ll need to keep in order to grow your garden and save seed next year. (Surplus can be swapped.)

The Float Test: Seeds like tomato, cucumber, or squash often have nice-looking but hollow, non-viable seeds. The whole batch of seed can be shaken in water; the viable ones will generally sink thanks to their dense, heavy germ; hollow non-viable seeds will float. Seeds must be re-dried promptly after this method of sorting, unless they are to be sprouted right away.

The Rag-Doll Test: A sampling of seeds can be sprouted on a damp paper towel or rag, coiled up and wrapped in plastic. Testing at least a few dozen seeds from each large batch will help you know what germination rates to expect, and therefore how much seed to save for planting time and a buffer for next year. In case you have lower success rates in the field, germination testing helps you know whether to troubleshoot the field planting conditions (drought, frost, pests), or the seed and storage.

Working with Saved Seed

Attend or host a local seed swap in winter or early spring. If you have already tested your varieties, you can indicate germination percentages and time to germination / maturity.

For any seed which did not germinate, go hunting for replacements and answers. Seek local advice about seed treatments, such as:

  • stratification (cold or heat treatment to ‘prime’ the seed for seasonal action),
  • scarification (abrasion or acid to weaken tough seed coats), or
  • conditions that might affect a particular seed type during collection or storage.

Saved seed is started and planted the same way as seed from any other source. With abundant saved seed, I also like to plant early and late crops, hedging my bets for this year’s frost-free growing window. (An early planting in a lucky year gives seeds longer to mature; a late planting avoids late frosts.) If you want to sell seed or rate it like commercial varieties, keep track of your planting, germination, and first harvest dates, so you can describe the average growth season.

Label seeds with variety, grower’s name, date collected, and any special notes or plot numbers. If selling or trading with beginner gardeners, consider including average days to germination and maturation, planting instructions, and even a little drawing of the expected seedling shape.

Seed-saving helps maintain food diversity and regionally-adapted hardy varieties. It can also save gardeners a lot of money if you can avoid the annual spring ‘seed fever’ binge. (I confess I binge anyway, especially with such a nice source of excellent local seeds.)

When Not to Save Seed

If you originally obtained the plant as a cutting, runner, or tuber (rather than from seed), it may be easiest to propagate it the same way. Plants that are often propagated from cuttings or vegetative parts rather than seed include many berries and shrubs; rhizominous plants like Jerusalem artichoke or iris; bulbs like tulip, garlic, and onion; tubers like potato, dahlia, and yam; and crowns or roots of rhubarb, jicama, and horseradish.

Frost-tender tubers, rhizomes, and crowns are often stored, dry but not desiccated, in bins of sawdust or straw in a root cellar. Darkness and cool, dry conditions help keep the plant from sprouting too early. (Don’t scrub the plants, as this can break the skin and encourage decay.)

For moderately hardy varieties, a greenhouse or sheltered nursery can protect your prize stock and propagate more offshoots for planting out. Mulch or row-covers can protect plants right in the field; and the hardiest plants need little or no protection.

If I’m not sure about hardiness, I split the difference, bringing some specimens into shelter and leaving one or two in the field. It’s worth the loss of a plant or two to discover hardy survivors, that can be field-grown and not transplanted back and forth every year.


Nature is prolific

A thrifty mentor (and excellent gardener) argues for thrift in permaculture, on the basis that “nature is parsimonious.” I disagree. Just consider the spring pollen counts as wind-pollinated species fill the air; hardly any of it lands on the target plant. Most plants produce far more seed than is needed for annual replacement — at least, it would be excessive if all seeds survived. But nature doesn’t nurse every seed. Some never germinate, or wait for unusual germination conditions that may never come. Some are culled or eaten before maturity. Some are “squirreled away” by insects and rodents, creating a seed bank that can be released by unusual flooding or forgetful proprietors.

Farmers are parsimonious, begrudging weeds a foothold in any row. And they even save and plant more seed than they ‘need’, knowing that a bad year can cause some crops to fail and you’ll need others to survive. Saving plenty of seed and propagating plenty of starts offers much greater freedom to ‘waste’ seeds on experiments.

Appreciating tough survivors

While I have tremendous respect for reliable farmers, I am not always home through the entire garden and harvest season. So I’m especially interested in foods that grow with less care.

Some of my favorite seeds are those that volunteer — including plants many people would consider ‘weeds.’ Edible, palatable ‘weeds’ like chickweed (tasty salad), nettle and lamb’s quarters (best cooked) are routine additions to our diet, freezer, and pantry. Since many people don’t appreciate these weeds, I don’t save seed or plant them, but watch for harvest opportunities. I get dried nettle from friends who already have it on their land, and I get a lot of my chickweed while clearing my in-laws’ strawberry beds (which means they share strawberries with us, too… a very nice dual function!).

I actively seek out choice plants that can over-winter. For example, if I find ‘volunteers’ from last year’s dropped seed in the ‘wrong’ bed this year, I save it if possible (if it won’t conflict with what’s there this year). Over-wintered volunteers are hardy survivors; they are valuable plants for my seed-saving efforts.

My mother-in-law’s snow peas have become more and more robust each year, and in the last few years (5 and 6 years after she started growing them on site) a few wintered-over peas have sprouted in the field the following spring, despite winter temperatures as low as -20°F (-29°C). A hardy, home-grown variety like this is less likely to fail, but is a tragic loss if it does. Saving seed from the hardiest plants on a 2- or 3-year rotation gives us insurance against crop failure, unplanned chicken invasions, or any other accidents.


At the Heartland, I enjoyed seeing Mariah’s rows of hardy perennial herbs and vegetables. Like me, she viewed our recent hard winter as a useful test of hardy varieties, despite losses of 60 to 100% of certain plantings. The soil froze hard as iron all over our region, up to 3 feet below ground level, in temperatures dipping below -10°F (-20°C) for months on end without insulating snow.

Climate can be a barrier to growing certain foods, but there are others that are well-adapted to climate and might be suitable for cultivation. One place to look for such varieties is in the indigenous community’s traditional food stuffs, including edible berries, roots, nuts, and herbs.

A number of my local permie friends actively scout edible and medicinal native plants, and some like to try the more promising varieties in cultivation. Local wild plants are mostly frost-impervious, thanks to the last ice age, and sprout much earlier in the spring than tender garden annuals. I would love to have tasty cultivars with those resilient frost-hardy traits. I often let volunteers sprout to a foot or taller, looking for a combination of hardy wild and tasty cultivar traits that might occur by accident some lucky spring. It’s a low-cost experiment; I cull most of them before they set seed, using them to mulch beds for frost-tender annuals at their later planting times.

This year I planted a number of things at the ‘wrong’ time — potatoes a month early, in mulch over a pile of snow, for example. A freak frost-hardy potato would be a genetic treasure that could vastly expand food production in this climate. (Unlikely, I realize; but even a slight improvement in cold-tolerance would be an advantage in our climate, allowing growth in spring rains instead of summer irrigation.)

Sustainable efforts

I love researching and learning “how the experts do it,” but I can’t afford to let a vision of perfection stand in the way of my blundering garden progress. I encourage every gardener: give yourself permission to experiment, and to work within your ability and resources. The ‘standard’ method may be calibrated to different conditions or goals; some steps may be unnecessary in your home garden.

Accidents are rarely fatal, and often produce new discoveries. If you accidentally dump a seed batch in the compost pile, plant too early, or seeds get damp in storage … just keep track of what happened, do your best to salvage something from the experience.

I use my ultimate goal of reliable, low-input food production as a great excuse to stress the plants, not myself. The varieties that will tolerate my local conditions — including my personal, somewhat-erratic standard of care — are the seeds that will perform for me, year after year.

Sharing the surplus

Share your favorite seeds with avid gardener neighbors and family; swap them back; try breeding for favorite colors, textures, and traits. You can sell or barter your reliable producers with neighbors, or share experiments with friends and family who’ll give you a reliable report on their results. Get interesting heirlooms from the Seed Saver’s Exchange, along with tips and resources.

A treasured variety is much harder to lose if it’s growing in dozens of local gardens. Nobody can avoid all risk of personal disaster; some of the most successful people have ‘lost everything’ more than once. When all is lost, the things that are restored fastest are those we gave away.


Further Reading:


  1. Great article! Thanks for all this wonderful information. Wow, just checked the author’s name, and recognized her as the Rocket Mass Heater Lady! Erica’s articles and videos are always loaded with detail. So much to learn, but luckily there are more and more people sharing homesteading/ and permaculture knowledge.

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