Seed Stewardship

“To save seeds is to complete the circle. When we save seeds, we are plant breeders, choosing which germplasm to perpetuate.” --Carol Deppe

What You Will Do

  • Learn why seed stewardship is a vital component within an ecological farm or garden.
  • Learn how to identify good seeds and source seeds ethically.
  • Become acquainted with basic seed saving skills.
Calendula seeds

Restoring relationships, demystifying seeds

This section by Rowen White

Seed is a precious common heritage, and an essential component to the future sustainability of our food. Our ancestors have faithfully passed us this incredible gift of life over countless generations. Join us as we talk about the creative ways of re-integrating seed stewardship back into our local community food systems, and how we can deepen our understanding of the nourishing cycles of life. Locally adapted seeds are at the foundation of any durable and resilient food system. This class will present a holistic, indigenous approach to seed stewardship that honors the many layers of seed culture, from practical hands-on skills to cultural memory.

The diversity of indigenous crop plants from all over the world is indeed remarkable. The numerous colors, textures, and flavors of indigenous corns, beans, squash, peppers, potatoes, millet, sunflowers and all manner of different foods paint a rainbow of genetic wealth. Purple corn, zebra striped beans, bright orange squash; food for all needs and occasions. Such a plethora of varieties evolved with the help of human hands over many millennia, and has involved thousands upon thousands of generations of human seed stewardship. It has been a great joy to see the awakening of seeds in the hearts and minds of the people. 

Across the world, there are the rumblings of a peaceful grassroots revolution to reclaim the seeds into the hands of the people. People are remembering our responsibility to care for the seeds. Farmers and gardeners are, once again, exercising our inherent birthright to save and swap seeds. Since the dawn of agriculture, people have been passing seeds down from generation to generation. All seeds that grace our fields, gardens and tables descend from the collective efforts of countless ancestors, carefully selecting the right seeds that meet the needs of the family, the village, the land, the watershed, and the bioregion.

WOPDC Intro Video; Holistic Seed Stewardship; Rowen White

Which seeds are the right ones to keep?

​First we must begin to understand the difference between seed types: Open pollinated, landrace, heirloom, hybrid, etc.

As a lover of diversity, my curiosity is always piqued by looking through seed catalogs and going to seed swaps, finding new seeds to get to know. As I scour the pages of seed catalogs from other vibrant seed collectives and companies across the country, I realize what a modern convenience these seed catalogs really are. Up until 150 years ago, having access to a seed catalog was a luxury. 200 years ago, on this soil, there were virtually no commercial seed companies to speak of. All seeds were traded, swapped and shared between farmers and gardeners. 

To be a farmer or a gardener was to be a seed keeper. The two roles were inherently linked.

My indigenous feminine approach to holistic seed stewardship is to first begin to cultivate a relationship with the seeds, and the stories that they carry with them. This is the fertile foundation of holistic seed stewardship. All over Turtle Island, and across the world, we see stories of seeds and corn and their intimate relationships to humans showing up in: cultural stories, songs, mythologies, art and craft, and all manner of aspects of cultural memory. 

For each person and community that has their boxes, baskets and jars full of abundance of their regionally adapted seed, we are seeing a magical homeopathic distillation of the seasonal cycles of the land where they dwell and grow. Seeds that have come into being in a grand interplay between soil and sun, blossom and bee, wind and pollen, seed and chaff. 

There are places where Green Revolution style imperialism has devastated local agricultural biodiversity. Yet there are still places where so much diversity remains in daily use. We also see a movement afoot to reclaim food and seed sovereignty. We see so many of these heritage varieties being revitalized and finding their way back into kitchen tables and pantries. It is imperative that seed stewardship be a part of every local ecosystem. 

Each garden can be a vital ark of diversity for generations to come. In this module, we invite you to take the first steps to become a seed keeper yourself, and to share that passion with others.

Seed stewardship is a vital part of the restoration of a whole indigenous food system. As a continued layering of this teaching, we must begin this teaching with another profound introspection into the nature of our relationship to seeds and plants, and how that has changed over time in the face of colonialism and displacement.

As an indigenous seed keeper, the stories and cultural memory of the seeds is just as important to keep alive as the genetics. Indigenous peoples around the world have continually refined their understanding of how to live in balance with the Earth throughout the ages. Their understanding of the physical universe is codified in such beautiful ways in their indigenous knowledge systems.


Ethnobotany is a cumulative body of traditional knowledge that encompasses the complex and dynamic interaction between humans and their plant kin. Much of this ethnobotanical cultural memory is held in the oral tradition, and is a vital component to any sustainable agricultural system.

Everywhere you go on this good Earth, you will find peoples whose understanding of who they are through complex and beautiful cosmogeneologies and stories is intimately intertwined with the plant kin they have been stewarding in their gardens. 

I grew up hearing stories of the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash emerging from the body of the original Sky Woman’s daughter in our creation story. 

The Yuma Indians of the Sonoran Desert tell a different yet equally compelling story:

“Near the beginning of time, Kakh, Brother Crown, brought to the people seeds of all sorts, especially corn, to nourish and replenish them. And the people cultivated their gardens so that when game was scarce they did not go hungry. Because Sister Corn gives of herself so that they might live, the people return thanks in song and ceremonies at planting time and harvest.” -Gregory Cajete

For Hawaiians, the food taro (Colocasia esculenta) or kalo is the major staple food of the Pacific. Hawaiians know this food as an elder brother in their origin stories, and they value him as a sacred ancestor. He represents a type of mytho-genealogy common among native peoples globally.

We all descend from people who held seed as a part of their familial constellation. Part of this work is to restore this right relationship to seed in our everyday lives. All over the good Earth, people see these seeds as their relatives. They came into agreements a long time ago to care for each other in this beautiful, reciprocal dance of stewardship. 

During this process of gathering the seeds that you will be stewarding throughout the season, I would like you to take this opportunity to follow threads of connection and relationship that flow in your bloodlines. This is an opportunity to renew these covenants and agreements that your own ancestors made with the very culturally specific foods that they relied upon for sustenance. In this way, you will be honoring your own origins of life, and honoring the seeds who fed your ancestors and made life for you even possible.

In this modern time many of us descend from a blend and mix of traditions and cultures, so it is up to you and your deep listening, and the clues that present themselves along your path, to find the seeds and the crops that are wanting to invite you into relationship in a deeper way.

In light of understanding the intimate relationships that traditional land-based communities have with their precious seeds, it is important to approach the sourcing of seeds with an authentic and integral place of respect and honoring of these origins. It is of the utmost importance to maintain the provenance of the seeds and the associated cultural memory that they evolved within.

Seed provenance refers to the specified area in which plants that produced seed are located or were derived. So often I see heirloom varieties being offered by seed companies with very little information written about the people of origin who stewarded these seeds. Often you will see physical characteristics noted (unique flavor, color, plant habit, culinary use) but very little connection or description of the culture of origin.

So, where do you source the seeds to start with?

​Here is an image of all the ways in which seed flows in our lives:

Let’s unpack these:

Seed swaps.

If you attend a seed swap, I always encourage people to not play into the feeding frenzy chaos that can sometimes ensue at these community seed celebrations. Please remember that someone took a whole season and sometimes two to bring these seeds into fruition. Honor their passion and dedication and actions with a gift in reciprocity for the gift of life that they are granting you. In addition, take time to talk to them. Seed keepers love to share stories of their seeds; how to cook them, where they were grown, how they received the seeds. 

Good questions to ask:

Where are your seeds sourced from?

Which community have they been carried within?

Are these seeds locally grown?

What is their seed story?

How are they prepared?

Any other details of how they like to be grown?

Are your seeds organic?

Is your seed treated?

Is your seed GMO-free?

What are you offering your farmers for these seeds? (Fair trade seeds!)

If you’re interested in organizing a community seed swap, which is an excellent way to build a local knowledge base, accumulate genetic resources, and improve your bioregional food security, check out this article to learn how.

Seed swappers

Gathering directly from farmers/gardeners.

Seed keepers are always excited to meet other people who share their love and passion for seeds.

If you are traveling, and find yourself in an agricultural village or community, please respect and honor their rights to stewarding their seed. If you are offered seeds to carry with you, please always give a gift in return. If you don’t have seeds to offer, give something of value to not only honor the giver, but also to honor the gift.

I was speaking with an Arikara woman, Amy Mosset from North Dakota last fall about this very subject of the gifting of seeds. I gave her a small packet of White Buffalo Calf Woman tobacco, which was a seed that I have been carrying from a gift given to me a few years ago. She said that in receiving the gift of the seeds, she was culturally obligated to give me seeds or something of equal value in return. She said that this was because it honored the seeds themselves, that if seeds were given freely it dishonored and devalued them in her community’s understanding of indigenous economics. She ended up sending me some red corn from her community, and I was thrilled to make such a connection with her and our mutual love of seeds and the Earth. In this way, we are feeding and maintaining respectful seed culture.

I will speak honestly about my displeasure of the current culture within the heirloom seed movement for botanical exploration. I feel that there are certain behaviors that exist within that movement that are very disrespectful of the origins of the seeds, and are outgrowths of biocolonialism and biopiracy.

What I would offer as a solution to this feeding frenzy of excitement is to make the approach of gathering seeds like a courtship. It’s a slow and steady relationship building between not only you and the seed variety, but also the humans and communities who lovingly stewarded that seed from beyond living memory. 

There are ways we can offer support of caring for these beautifully diverse foods in a way that honors the lineage and tradition they were birthed from. As part of our Seed Seva guidelines of respectful approach, we honor the human hands that brought these diverse seed varieties into being, and we know that we are not entitled to stewardship of these varieties unless granted the gift by the people themselves.

a fun seed processing party means everyone goes home with some seeds

Public access seed banks.

There are a number of public access seed banks that exist both nationally and internationally.

Did you know that up until the turn of the 20th century, the US government had a free seed program as part of their national seed bank? Specifically, beginning in the 1850s, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) and congressional representatives saw to the collection, propagation and distribution of varieties to their constituents throughout the states and territories. The program grew quickly so that, by 1861, the PTO had annual distribution of more than 2.4 million packages of seed (containing five packets of different varieties). The flow of seed reached its highest volume in 1897 (under USDA management), with more than 1.1 billion packets of seed distributed. Unfortunately, that era of free seed distribution ended, but you can still make requests from the USDA Seed Bank system here at this GRIN site. I have successfully requested seeds that had ancestral Mohawk origins from this system.

Seed Savers Exchange also has a robust collection of over 20,000 varieties of heirloom seeds that have been gathered all over the country and the world. I have also had immense success finding varieties through their Membership Exchange and Yearbook. I have met some of the most genuine and friendly seed savers through this grassroots network. 

The foundation of the exchange is the Yearbook, where listed members offered a list of all the varieties that they had to share and swap, and then you would make requests of these seed keepers by writing a letter to request seeds. I have received some of the most heartfelt handwritten letters from this exchange! 

They are in the process of updating the exchange to include a robust online exchange for the next generation. Imagine that this innovative exchange existed before the internet, and was a mycelial grassroots network for the revitalization of seed. You can learn more about seed curation efforts here.

Native SEED SEARCH is also another public access seed bank that focuses on the stewardship of dryland and desert adapted varieties from the Southwest. You can learn more about their work here.

Seed libraries.

A seed library is a place where community members can get seeds for free or for a nominal fee, and is run for the public benefit. Many seed libraries are open in public libraries and community centers. For some communities, getting folks to garden and grow some of their own food is the focus. If you would like to go and network with others about this beautiful model, check out the Seed Library Network to find a seed library near you.

A seed library in Massachusetts

Seed companies.

In the course of the last couple of centuries, seed stewardship has gone from being an integrative part of every farm and home system to becoming increasingly specialized and commodified. It is commonly believed that only about 100 species of crops and livestock provide most of the food in the world, because industrialized agriculture and national grocery store chains have reduced the food biodiversity available to shoppers. This has had nutritional consequences, especially for youth and the elderly.

Seeds stewardship is a vital and fundamental practice towards the sustainability of the whole farm organism. In this age of specialization and fragmentation of whole systems, we have seen on-farm seed stewardship become nearly extinct, most farmers instead relying on a small handful of seed companies to steward the seeds on their behalf. 

With this trend, we have seen the diverse and regionally adapted heritage seeds of the past replaced with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ seeds from national and international seed houses. It is important to note here that it has only been in the last 150 years that seed companies have existed here on Turtle Island. Prior to that, all farmers and gardeners shared and traded their seeds.

A recent Mother Earth News survey stated that nearly 70 percent of gardeners said they buy most of their seeds from mail-order vegetable seed companies. Most gardeners were quick to heap praise on their favorite seed companies and their catalogs. Of Fedco, one gardener said, “Their catalog makes wonderful, entertaining, laugh-out-loud reading, and all of the vintage graphics are wonderful.”

There are some incredibly authentic and integral seed companies out there, but there are also plenty who seek to simply capitalize on the seed sales and offer no real integral connection or compensation to communities of origin. I have personally had to mediate and advise tribal communities in their communication between some of these new heirloom seed companies who were asked by indigenous communities to not sell their sacred seeds. The company declined to honor their request. 

In an ideal world, these communities of origin wouldn’t have an issue freely sharing seeds with others. But in a world that is now fraught with clashing paradigms and proprietary seed systems, where traditional seeds can now be patented and stolen, many indigenous communities are very protective of their precious seeds.

With the rise of the internet and online e-commerce seed shops, the speed at which we are able to order seeds and have them delivered to us in a way that is outside of a familiar and healthy relationship is astounding to me! With a click of a button we can have seeds shipped to us without ever having a human interaction!

Becoming seed keepers

Seed has been commodified, and so becoming seed-keepers is a process of re-orienting ourselves to understand a new way of reweaving seed culture. This will ensure continued expression of healthy and integral stewardship of seeds in a community context.

I will say with an open heart and mind, that the last ten years we have seen a heartfelt swelling of farmers and gardeners remembering the call of the seeds. They are reminded that seeds are our connection to adaptation and evolution, to the plant’s own storehouse of creativity and fertility. To forget our relationship with them is to damage ourselves, and diminishes our creative capacity to continue to evolve as the face of our Mother Earth changes. 

Seeds lay at the very center of our own human spiritual ecology. Because the domestication of plants has woven us into a reciprocal and co-evolutionary dance with our plant relatives, this fundamental and interdependent relationship provides a very powerful vessel of expression of kinship.

Some of you may be coming into this course with a collection of seeds that you are already caring for and maintaining. Some of you may be stepping onto this path of seed keeper anew. There is a wonderful diverse spectrum of experience held here in our community. In regards to respectfully gathering together your initial seed collection, I feel inspired to share with you a few things that will help shape some of your decisions.

How many of you have spread out all the seed catalogs that come in the mailbox in January and February and get that exhilarating feeling reading through all the descriptions and colorful pictures? I know that I am not alone in my great awe of the incredible wealth of diversity that the seed catalogs offer us in this time. It is remarkable!

That said, it’s also easy to get overzealous, and order 40 different types of corn and 30 different varieties of tomatoes! I will offer a bit of caution here: It is very important to only acquire as much seed as you can reasonably manage. Through my work with Seed Savers Exchange, I have met some of the most inspiring seed stewards, and I have also met folks who are completely inundated with the task of maintaining seed collections that have grown in scale beyond their capacity to manage.

The beauty of agricultural biodiversity is that it can be adequately managed and maintained, ideally on a community level. In our seed cooperative, each grower maintains 20-100 varieties of various crop types. But each person only grows one cucumber variety and three corn varieties, etc. But when we pool together the 20 growers in the cooperative, we have 20 different varieties of cucumber and 60 different corns that are held in trust in the public seed commons in our watershed. We have to begin to think differently about how we sustainably steward diversity. It doesn’t need to be on the back of one or two people in a community.

Living relationships.

As seed keepers, we went through an era of emergency triage. Agricultural biodiversity was eroding at such a rapid rate, that there was a significant urgency for individuals to build and gather these arks of protection for seed varieties.

Organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seed/SEARCH, (founded decades ago in response to the erosion of seed diversity), have made great headway in creating a movement of peaceful warriors of the seed. These people have found creative, community-oriented solutions to the problems brought on by the industrialization of the food system.

The word curation has an interesting meaning in relation to how we speak about seed collections. To curate comes from a museum process of sifting, organizing and preserving the state of artifacts or art pieces. Oftentimes we refer to curation in relationship to seeds. This implies a museum-like perspective i.e. that seeds are static, when indeed they are quite the opposite: Seeds are alive, dynamic and ever-changing. During the triage era, many seed banks were established as repositories of diversity, arks of genetic wealth for future generations.

The best way to steward your collection is to grow a small and versatile collection out frequently, to ensure continued adaptation and resilience.

It’s important to remember that this seedkeeper path is about restoration of relationships. When you receive the gift of seed, you meet this living handful of beings for the first time, and you make renewed commitment to care for this seed. It’s the beginning of a long-term relationship, and it’s not something to take lightly. It is an honor to carry and grow every seed variety that we gather and source, and we must not take this responsibility with irreverence.

Look to gather together a nice and small little seed collection from a wide and diverse range of sources. Seek to find the human and cultural connection in the gathering of these seeds, for in this search to uncover the seeds of your ancestry, you will find many more beautiful blessings along the way. This is the way that we will reweave the seed culture that will elevate our food systems to the next level of sustainability.

If you go to your local farmers market, ask your local growers where they source their seed from, and if they engage in seed stewardship on the farm. From my adventures in working with local community systems, I am still amazed at how many small farmers still don’t save their own seed. In my larger distance learning course, I fully unpack all the ways in which we can begin to re-integrate seed stewardship back into our farms and gardens. For now, you are invited to go and chat with your local farmers about where they source their seeds from.

The praxis (morally informed and committed action oriented by tradition, and history‐making action) of this is to go outside the imperial cultural norms to seek seeds that have cultural origins that connect to your bloodlines.

Through the seasonal seed stewardship cycles, seek to embody a different approach to how we have been trained to obtain seed. Use it as a practice of reweaving seed culture, of connecting with people again.

We are repatterning.

We are going against the grain of the dominant narrative that says that seeds can be owned, that they are dead, inanimate commodities.

The seeds are alive.

They are our relatives.

They deserve our respect and reverence.

How many different types of seed can you count in this mix?

Basics of seed keeping

Download this seed garden plan worksheet.​

The aim of this section is to pick a plant variety, and learn to map out the information and the actions needed to follow that variety from seed to seed in the course of a growing season. Many of you have gardens that you will be planting this spring as you move your way through this course. If you do not have access to your own garden or land, you can connect with a local community garden, botanical conservatory or public garden, or team up and volunteer on a local farm to learn from the plants.

Start with brainstorming a list of plants that interest you and that you might already be growing. Then narrow it down and pick one variety to focus on for this year’s seed crop.

If you are a beginner on this seed keeper path, it is best to keep it simple and make the commitment to grow one or two varieties of seed in the season. I will be offering guidelines today and throughout this process on how to steward varieties with care from seed to seed. 

Integrating seed stewardship into an existing garden isn’t difficult or complicated, but it does take a bit of foresight and planning. Seed stewardship has always been an integral part of a diversified garden. There are some basic guidelines and principles that will ensure success, and seeds that are true to type for sowing and sharing the following season.

Some seed crops are grown in the same manner as their food components. These are crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and dry beans. With these crops that double as food crops, the only considerations that you need to make is the timing of planting, to ensure that the seeds ripen in the fruit. You also need to consider isolation strategies that may be needed to ensure varietal purity.

From these sorts of crops you can double dip: You can still eat the fruit and flesh of the vegetable, and you have the added benefit of the seeds you can save.

Other types of crops go an extra cycle beyond their edible stage to create seeds. These are crops such as all the brassica greens, lettuces, spinach, cucumbers, snap beans, and sugar snap peas. The main considerations with these sorts of seed crops is that you plant early enough in the season to ensure that the plants will have time to develop mature seed. Some of these crop types even need to overwinter and go into a second season to develop seed. These are called biennial crops. If you discover that the seed crop variety that you were hoping to steward was a biennial crop, I would encourage you to go back to your original brainstorm list and pick another. 

To assist you, I have gifted each one of you a free copy of my e-book, Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step by Step Guide for Growers. In Appendix C (pages 73-76), you will find a handy chart which gives details for all the life-cycles of each type of plant. It will also be an informative resource to reference when filling out the Seed Garden Plan worksheet. ​

Seed work is about restoring relationships, and the process of following a seed crop through the cycle will deepen your connection and relationship to these plants.

Part of drawing out the map of intentions for following a plant through the life cycles is to begin to learn what I call plant midwifery. You will be learning the many layers of the plant’s reproductive cycles, as you work with and help steward life from one generation to the next through the stewardship of seed. You will only touch the surface of these reproductive cycles today. As you plant and move into the sprouting and flowering phases of the season, you will learn more about the diversity of ways in which seeds create seeds from their blossoms, and how we can learn from such expressions and patterns.

We started off learning what seeds we must begin with. The key is to start with good seed! By the time you place your beloved little seeds into the ground this Spring, you already have huge hopes and dreams for the success of the season. You’ve spent hours planning, weeks waiting and singing to your sprouts and seedlings, and your soil may reflect years of hard work spent building its fertility. Next, we will go into greater depth on how to find the good seeds to start your seed garden with.

But first, I want to walk you through my own process of planning my seed stewardship projects.

This is a good time to remind you that there is a lot to learn in this path of seed keeper. I have been stewarding seeds for 19 years and I still learn every single season. Don’t let the abundance of information overwhelm you. Allow it to seep in slowly, like water on thirsty soil. You may find yourself going back over these lessons and books in years to come, to find new perspective and insight. Be patient with yourself.

Things that may be helpful for you to have as we begin to fill out the seed garden plan are maps or layouts of your current site. If you are just beginning, just sketch out a dream garden map, as a visual that we will use for this exercise. Get out your garden journal and begin to make a map of your current garden, and where you intend to plant different crops. It’s also helpful at this point if you have maps of your garden from the last year to refer to so that you can take into account crop rotation. You will want to plant heavy feeding crops in areas where legumes or light feeders were grown last year. Ensure that you don’t plant the same crop type in the same bed or soil the next year to prevent disease and viral buildup.

I have blank templates of my garden layout that I can fill in for each year. I have the original blank outline that I make a photocopy of, and I can use that to make my garden map.

I have three seed gardens on our land which are separated by thick forest or distance. Our farm sits on ten acres at the end of a dirt road with no close neighbors, so we are in an ideal isolated location for seed stewardship. Some of you may find yourself growing in close proximity to other farmers and gardeners, or even in a community garden, so you will have to take all these things into consideration when you begin to decide which seeds you will be stewarding this season.

The key is to start slow and steady, and to make sure you are always set up to handle stewardship of the varieties you have been given. This is a long-term relationship that you are beginning with these plants, and it’s better to be more focused than to have more than you can handle.

When I am charting out my seed garden plan, I follow the list of questions that are detailed on your seed garden plan worksheet. For the coming season, for each crop type, I begin to list out the varieties that I will be growing. For cross-pollinated species I will only choose one variety of each species, unless I have a strategy to isolate them.

This image shows the spectrum of plant reproductive habits. In nature, there are no hard and fast lines or boundaries, and everything exists on a spectrum. As you can see, there are plants that tend towards the extreme cross-pollinated side of reproductive expression, and there are plants that are on the extreme self-pollinating end. 

My recommendation for beginners is to start with crops that are self-pollinated. You will learn that this simplifies variables that lead to cross-pollination, which causes your varieties to make natural hybrids which don’t come true to type the following season.

There may be some fun adventures in this type of natural and organic cross-pollination. I always begin my planning with my field map, my inventory sheet, and the seed garden plan worksheet. I start with sketching things out, but innovative digital garden planning software is available.​

Here’s a crop record you could use.

Growing for seed and growing for food is sometimes very different. You will be thinking through a number of different variables to assess if there is anything different you will need to do for your specific seed crop varieties. Plants for seed often require more space than for food production.

The seed garden plan outlines a “choose your own adventure” of seed stewardship. Each question is a crossroads, and the answer will determine the next course of action.

Is my seed crop a selfer or a crosser?

If you refer to your chart in the back of that Breeding Organic Vegetables e-book, it will tell you simply if your seed crop is a selfer or a crosser. In the seed garden chart it says either Self, Insect or Wind. Insect and Wind are cross-pollinated.

​What is a good population size for healthy seed?

There are a couple rules of thumb for figuring out how many plants of each variety you need for good healthy seed. For seed varieties that are self-pollinated, you need less plants, usually between 1-20 for good varietal maintenance. For cross-pollinated varieties, you need usually between 15-500+ for healthy seed. Again, you don’t need to worry too much about this at this very moment, and you can see how it’s much easier to begin with self-pollinated crops, depending on the size and scale of your garden or farm. With selfers, you simplify and decrease the number of variables that affect your seed.

That said, some of my most treasured seed relatives are cross-pollinated, and they are not much more difficult, they just require a little bit more planning. You can see in the seed garden chart that they have two columns for population size, one for home varietal maintenance, and a higher number of genetic preservation. I would in most cases be guided by the home varietal maintenance numbers.

Do I need to consider varietal isolation?

If your seed variety is a cross-pollinated species, you will need to consider isolation. The simplest form of isolation is to make sure that no other variety of the same crop type is grown in close proximity. For instance, if I am growing a sunflower or a corn variety, I want to make sure they are grown far enough away from another variety of the same crop type. You will also see guidelines for isolation distance in the chart.

I will note here that these charts are rough guidelines. I can grow two varieties of corn much closer in distance because of tall tree hedgerows which block the pollen drift and also taking into consideration the hillside and the way that the wind blows consistently. I have had great success growing corn only 1000 feet apart, but there are trees and a prevailing wind that goes away from the corn crops and not between them. Over the seasons you will begin to read the lay of the land and see what works well within your landscape.

​Another strategy that we use is to space out the planting timing of each variety. We do this with corn, and it works wonderfully.

Ask yourself, how much space will each mature seed plant need?

Some plants produce edible fruit and vegetable at the same time the seed is ready. Things like watermelon, tomato, dry bean, pepper, etc. These don’t require different spacing for food and seed.

But other seed crops extend beyond the normal stage of edibility, and you may need to increase spacing and make sure you’re prepared to trellis and add extra support, as needed. For lettuce, I normally plant four heads 4-6 inches between plants, but for the seed phase they need more like 12-14 inches. In this case, I simply harvest every other one, and allow the remaining heads to go for seed. Suggested spacing is noted in each seed crop profile overview in the seed garden book, so you can look up this information easily there.

How long is my seed crop going to take to make mature seed?

You will need to be mindful that you plant your seeds with good timing for seed maturity. This is for those crops that need an extended time beyond edible stage. Normally lettuce is ready to eat in 20-30 days, but you may have to let the lettuce mature for seed for 60-70 days.

In regards to how much to plant, I would always advise planting more than you think you will need. If you have a few extra seed plants, that gives you more wiggle room when it comes to the selection you will be doing later in the season, when it comes to picking the most healthy and robust of the plants to continue on for seed. Typically, the rule of thumb is that you must double the length of time listed in garden manuals and seed catalogs for variety maturity to understand how long that plant will take to make seed. If you have a lettuce that has a maturity length listed of 30 days, you can expect the variety will take 60+ days to mature seed.

One other aspect I would like to share about planning an integrated seed garden into your existing garden, is to remember that you can always stack functions with the plants you have been growing for food. Plan to grow cilantro for food and seed, and eat from the herb patch until the plants begin to bolt. Then allow the plants to go to seed. Plant lettuces thickly and then thin for the salad bowls, and allow the biggest healthiest ones to go for seed. Sometimes it’s hard for people to leave the biggest and most vibrant and healthy lettuce head in the ground for seed, but well maintained seed only increases in value over time.

If you consistently leave behind the best plants for seed, in a few short seasons all of your plants will be vigorous and healthy, and will increase in health and vigor over time. If you do due diligence to start, you will be working in tandem with these plants to ensure that they are healthy and that you have lots of good food for years to come. Sometimes it takes a little bit of sacrifice at first, but over time it really pays off.

Another thing I would like you to consider as you map out your garden plans is to remember to plant lots of flowers that draw in the pollinators. I always plant lots of flowering herbs and ornamentals to draw in and feed the honeybees, as well as all the other native pollinators throughout the season. They are our allies in ensuring good seed set on cross-pollinated species, and it also helps in decreasing unwanted crosses in even self-pollinated species.

What characteristics do I love about this variety?

Which characteristics could use some improvement in my bioclimate? (This question you may not be able to answer quite yet, this is something you will fill out as you follow the seed crop through the life-cycles and note the ways in which it responds to your local conditions.)

​Fill out as much of the logistical and practical information as you can in both the seed garden plan and the seed crop record, and so that you can easily copy and share any pertinent information with whomever you might pass the seed along to.

The tiny seed library Heather Jo took to 100+ seed swaps


Questions for Review

  1. What is your biggest excitement when you contemplate seed stewardship?
  2. What is one food or seed that reminds you of home?What are five places you can source seeds from?
  3. How does diversity in seed varieties help us in creating responsive and adaptive landscapes?
  4. What is a good question to ask when receiving a gift of seed from someone?
  5. Make a list of your regional and organic seed organizations, companies and seed projects. This can include entities at the local, regional or national level. 
  6. What will you grow and steward? Why?

Recommended Hands-On

  • Design seed stewardship activities into your project, and create a map that represents them. Designate spaces on your site that you will use for seed growing, processing and storage.
  • Include seed-saver relationships in the social layers of your design, and reflect deeply on what that means, for you, your family, and the land.
  • Gather seed catalogs and find ethical seed companies that are in your region. Identify if there are local seed saving organizations where you live, and ask farmer and gardener friends which seed companies they like to get seeds from.
  • Pick one food crop of your own ancestral origins, and learn as much as you can about the unique heirloom varieties of this plant.
  • Keep a garden journal, noting observations of which plants in your garden or farm are thriving. Tag these plants using yarn or flagging for saving seed from these well-adapted plants as the summer turns to Autumn.