Planning a Seed Saving Garden with Cathy Christie

Cathy is a Master Gardener in training and Chair of the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) . She trained as a freshwater biologist and currently teaches Science Education at the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University.

This week, Cathy introduced us to the goals of KASSI , the concept of seed saving , some seed terminology and some examples of seeds to save. This was followed by the usual sharing of knowledge  by Master Gardeners and questions from participants. I have included many links if you want to learn more and  at the end of this blog there are also links to volunteer opportunities.

What is the Kingston Area Seed System- KASSI?

KASSI is a small non-profit organization founded by local farmers, backyard and market gardeners, and community members. Its focus; supporting the development of a vibrant sustainable network of local ecological growers producing local food and local seeds. The organization’s aim is “to increase seed and thereby food sovereignty for the Kingston region”. 

Why seeds?

Did you know that 9/10 bits of food we eat start with seeds. Have you ever thought where seeds come from or what they are all about? Cathy highlighted some challenges we are facing. The world has lost 75% of its seed diversity over the past hundred years . In addition 60 to 80% of the commercial seed market is controlled by a few multinational organizations. This narrowly focussed seed production does not bode well for biodiversity and resilience especially in the light of changing and uncertain climate conditions. Cathy drew a link between seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and the impact on human kind’s ability to feed itself.

The joy of seed saving and Cathy’s personal journey

In 2017 Cathy grew her first seed garden with the help of Michelle Thomas and Bob Chambers at Edible Forest Farm. They grew out twenty varieties for seed. After a bountiful harvest Cathy had a living room full of seeds. Since then she has done lots of reading and  a little backyard seed saving.

Types of seeds

There are three different kinds of seeds, open pollinated, hybrids and patented varieties.

So bottom line, save open pollinated seeds. If you choose seeds from healthy strong plants your future produce is likely to be healthy and well adapted to your garden. From Cathy’s perspective, not only is it prudent  but it can also be addictive, from one plant you get so many seeds and awesome tasting produce.

Local sources for open pollinated seeds:

Kingston Area Seed System Initiative-KASSI

KitchenTable Seed House on Wolfe Island,

Bear Root Gardens in Verona.

Sources for those gardening in other parts of Canada are:

Seeds of Diversity and Seed Savers Exchange . These have excellent information about saving seeds and gardening including gardening in small spaces and planting pollinator gardens.

What does the label heirloom mean?

There is no legal definition for heirloom seeds in Canada. KASSI defines heirloom seeds as a variety worthy of being saved. This definition does not exclude successful hybrids.  Note that heirloom does not necessary guarantee the seed is open pollinated.

Some examples of how to save seeds

  • Tomatoes: are one of the easiest to grow and harvest.  Collect a few of the best looking tomatoes from each plant, squeeze the seeds into a jar, allow them to ferment for a few days then remove, rinse and dry on plate or wax paper. (paper towel not recommended as they will bet stuck) 
  • Beans and Peas:  Grow a row of beans or peas as usual. Identify and tie string or yarn around a few beans or peas to save for seed. Harvest as you usually would, but leave those with string on the plant until they dry up and crack open. Collect these, let them dry out further  and you have seed for next year’s crop.
  • Winter Squash: Leave at least one squash out for as long as possible. After you bring it inside, let it sit for a few days before processing. It is always better to collect seeds from as many plants as possible to increase the genetic diversity. Squash often gets sweeter the longer it is stored. You can harvest the seeds every time you eat a squash over the winter months.
  • Summer squash (e.g. cucumber, zucchini): Allow the fruit to go a little past its prime. As the fruit ripens the seeds fill out, “stocking up” with nutrients for the next crop of squash.
  • Lettuce plant for eating will look very different than a lettuce plant grown for seed.  Allow one plant to go to seed. You will end up with florets. Roll these florets between your fingers – you will be pleasantly surprised by how many seeds are in that little floret! You can harvest 30,000 seeds from one lettuce plant. How awesome is that!

When growing for seed saving, isolation distance between varieties is important. There should be 10 to 20 feet separating one variety from another of same plant for beans, peas, tomatoes and lettuce If you don’t have that much room in your garden you could plant one variety in the front of your house and one at the back or using physical barriers like blossom bags or tunnels.

There’s a lot more information about seed saving on KASSI’s website – Meet the Seeds.

Some garden planning tips

Intensive vegetable gardening requires planning and timeliness. List the crops you plan to grow on paper and draw a map showing the spacing and location of crops. Develop spring, summer and fall maps if you plan to practice succession gardening (growing 2-3 crops in each bed or garden area).

Important considerations:

  • Place tall crops on the north and west sides of the garden so they won’t shade lower-growing plants.
  • Group plants by their “days to maturity”. For example, plant spring crops together and re-plant the area after harvest.
  • Place perennial crops to the side of the garden where they will not be disturbed.
  • Vegetable plant roots mine the soil for nutrients at varying depths. They also have different fertilizer needs.
  • Rotating crop location can help even out nutrient removal from the soil.
  • Rotation is helpful in decreasing insect and disease pressure when the vegetable garden is small
  • Avoid planting vegetables near trees and shrubs. They compete for water and nutrients, and may cause excessive shading. Buildings and other structures may also shade sun-loving vegetable plants.
  • The daily sunlight requirement of garden crops can be generalized as follows:

            – 6-8 hours (prefer 8-10 hours): “warm-season“ crops – tomato, pepper, eggplant, squash, bean

            – 6 hours: root crops – carrots, potato, turnip

            – 4-5 hours: leafy greens – spinach, lettuce

  • Avoid sites next to buildings with lead paint. Soil lead may be present in toxic amounts.

Questions That Were Asked This Week

Can I start my beans outdoors?

Best to wait until after this weekend. Lots of rain is expected and the nights are still cold. Astrid suggests it’s best to wait a little longer rather than stress your plants by planting them out too early. It’s important to monitor the soil temperature. Ideally it should be 10ºCelsius. To measure soil temperature, push your thermometer down into the first inch of soil.

Is it important to rotate crops each year in a small garden?

An organic gardener’s key to maintaining soil health is crop rotation every 3 to 4 years. In a vegetable garden there are heavy (e.g. tomatoes), moderate and light feeders as well as some soil builders (e.g. peas and beans in the legume family). So peas are a wonderful crop to follow tomatoes. Each crop also requires different amounts of different nutrients. Rotating the crops allows the soil to replenish itself. There are many online resources to guide your crop rotations.

Root care when transplanting potted plants outdoors

Seedlings started indoors tend to be grown in a light material. When transplanted outdoors the soil is denser, heavier and cooler . It is best to remove as much of the potting mix as you can to encourage the seedlings to establish well in the soil. One way to do this is to remove the plant from the pot, dip the root ball in water and swish gently to remove potting material. Then plant. You can also gently tease out the roots from the root ball a little with your fingers Water all seedlings well before transplanting.

Planting cucumber and squash

Cucumber and squash are easy to plant out directly, so do so if you can. Astrid has experimented planting some seed directly outside and starting some indoors. After three weeks of both being in the garden, there was no difference in the plants. You may want to start the seeds indoors to protect them from birds. Cucumber and squash seeds germinate and grow very quickly and Astrid plans to start hers indoors this weekend.

Protecting seedlings from pests?

To protect from rodents , rabbits and deer a fence of wire mesh helps. If you are struggling with cut worm (these can infest soil if you don’t rotate crops) plant a barrier around the seedling. You can use a toilet paper roll inserted one to two inches into the soil.

How to check if seed is viable

Place 10 seeds on a hot mat which you keep warm and damp and see how many germinate. You can do this with seeds collected or saved from a previous year. Viability of seeds from commercial sellers is very high. In more local informal seed exchange programs there is a greater chance of less that 100% viability. KASSI will let those who use their seeds know of the germination rate and also add more seeds to the packet as needed. They sell their seeds on a sliding scale/donation basis.

Saving potato seeds

When growing potatoes in the garden, allow a plant to flower. You will see  round grape size growths emerging. These are the seeds. They can be saved and planted and you can grow many different varieties of potato.

Did you know that the seed potato is actually the stem of the plant not the root? Also, growing from seed potatoes is asexual reproduction, so you are growing clones. Collecting seeds helps boost the genetic diversity.

Interesting factoid: The Irish famine occurred because of the few varieties of potatoes that were grown in that time. Cathy highlighted how monocultures create vulnerabilities with regard to food security.

If not starting from seed, use organic seed potatoes to start your crop. Potatoes sold for the table commercially are treated to prevent sprouting. 

Potato Greensprouting – an insider tip from a professional potato breeder in Ontario: When potatoes are starting to sprout and sprouts are about 1″, put them in milk crates or on a tray in light at room temperature. This stops the sprouts growing and they green up and start to differentiate buds, roots, etc. Enzymes are catalyzed but not activated. They can then be planted out safely as long as 1 to 1 ½ months earlier – and they are ready to grow right away. This gives you at least a 2- week head start. Also, don’ cut seed potatoes, they are best at golf-ball size).

Also, when the spuds break dormancy early in storage, greenspouting helps keep the sprouts from elongating and makes them very tough so that they don’t break off when you handle them, and they don’t dessicate when you plant them.  

After harvesting, the best storage temp. is 2°C.

Saving asparagus seeds

Astrid has saved a variety called “purple passion”. This plant is dioecious, i.e. there are both  male and female plants. At end of the fall pick asparagus, then allow the plants to grow and leaf out to produce seed. The plant will grow 6 to 8 feet tall. The female produces red berries, and thus the seeds. Seeds can be planted directly back in the soil, or Astrid says, you can allow birds to eat them and plant them all over your garden.

Recommended books/resources

The Seed Garden by Seed Savers Exchange and Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for vegetable gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth,  You can order them through Novel Idea Kingston.

Also visit KASSI’s website

Volunteer Opportunities

To help KASSI distribute local seeds or grow out and harvest local seeds (Lakeside Community Garden)  email Cathy at

Join Kingston’s “Gardening for Good Campaign”  or see Facebook group

Upcoming events

If you’d like to learn more about vegetable gardening from Janette Haase, author of From Seed to Table: A Practical Guide to Eating and Growing Green,  register for her Monday afternoon coaching sessions on Zoom.

If you’re not already registered, join our next Master Gardener Zoom Q & A on Eventbrite

Thought for the day:

Grow it….Don’t mow it 😊

And plant vegetables instead of flowers this year.

Happy gardening!

Reporting by Colette McKinnon, Master Gardener in Training, Rideau 1000 Island Master Gardeners