Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving


All gardeners and farmers should be plant breeders, says author Carol Deppe. Developing new vegetable varieties doesn't require a specialized education, a lot of land, or even a lot of time. It can be done on any scale. It's enjoyable. It's deeply rewarding. You can get useful new varieties much faster than you might suppose. And you can eat your mistakes.

Authoritative and easy-to-understand, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant ...

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All gardeners and farmers should be plant breeders, says author Carol Deppe. Developing new vegetable varieties doesn't require a specialized education, a lot of land, or even a lot of time. It can be done on any scale. It's enjoyable. It's deeply rewarding. You can get useful new varieties much faster than you might suppose. And you can eat your mistakes.

Authoritative and easy-to-understand, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving is the only guide to plant breeding and seed saving for the serious home gardener and the small-scale farmer or commercial grower. Discover:

  • how to breed for a wide range of different traits (flavor, size, shape, or color; cold or heat tolerance; pest and disease resistance; and regional adaptation)
  • how to save seed and maintain varieties
  • how to conduct your own variety trials and other farm- or garden-based research
  • how to breed for performance under organic or sustainable growing methods

In this one-size-fits-all world of multinational seed companies, plant patents, and biotech monopolies, more and more gardeners and farmers are recognizing that they need to "take back their seeds." They need to save more of their own seed, grow and maintain the best traditional and regional varieties, and develop more of their own unique new varieties. Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving shows the way, and offers an exciting introduction to a whole new gardening adventure.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Review by John F. Swenson, Volunteer—Plant Information Office, Chicago Botanic Garden

There is nothing quite like this book in the world's literature—it is the Hope diamond of horticulture. In the field of edible plants, Carol Deppe is a modest legend who has been a matchmaker and midwife to many new vegetables.

In this book, Ms. Deppe explains how she and a few other masters of plant breeding have achieved their success. She encourages the rest of us to try our hands and hearts—and patience—at producing our own culinary gems. Ms. Deppe, who combines a doctorate in plant genetics with insatiable curiosity and soil-stained hands, will continue to inspire growers to participate in a creative process as ancient as farming itself.

This book is an intense and readable exposition of the science and art of plant breeding, which will inspire and inform any reader. Even the casual reader who doesn't take up the challenge of developing unique garden specialties will become aware of humanity's debt to our predecessors, who turned wildlings into the organisms that can feed all of us. Ms. Deppe deserves a special pedestal in the company of her kindred spirits for this book, a revised version of a work originally published in 1993.

In Good Tilth-

“Every serious organic gardener and farmer needs to read this book. Even casual gardeners—in fact, anyone interested in our food supply, whether in its production or its consumption—should find it fascinating and inspiring. No one who reads it will ever look at vegetables or other plant foods in exactly the same way again. Joining Carol Deppe on her plant-breeding adventures throughout these pages is a privilege and a delight. Her mastery of genetics, far-ranging experience and contagious passion in plant-breeding, and wonderful talent for conveying it all through the written word, make her book as unique as her vegetable varieties. The food supply of the future can indeed be flavorful, nutritious, interesting, and sustainable, if we amateur plant breeders learn the lessons she shares.”

"Any gardener interested in vegetable plant breeding must have this book. It is the standard reference. But it is also much more than that. Deppe's grasp of the intricacies of plant life will enlighten food lovers as well as general readers. Thank you Carol Deppe!"—Michael MacCaskey, editor-in-chief,

"Deppe invites you on a journey of discovery to reclaim the lost lore of our ancestors, to relearn the traditions of seed-saving and seed-breeding and to take back control of the seed.

Within you will find information not available in other garden books or anywhere else. Learn how to design trials, why and how far apart to isolate varieties for purity, how to understand and appreciate the subtleties of selection and why the detailed artistry of classical plant breeding makes most genetic engineering look like the work of simpletons.

Here is a woman who knows seeds, who knows the ineffable joys working with them brings, and who has penetrated deeply into the mysteries of their inner workings. She can be your guide as you chart your own path to restore and renew a time-honored tradition one experiment at a time."—C. R. Lawn, Fedco Seeds

"The gardening book of the decade." —Ken Allen

"So new and unique that it could truly be called one of a kind . . . [it's] unlike any other book on the market . . . Certain to change the way many growers see the act of gardening."—Don Parker, Publisher, The Growing Edge

"Deppe has done Luther Burbank one better. She has bred many significant new varieties and now has provided the instructions for others to follow her lead. Great Work. Great Book."—Suzanne Ashworth, author of Seed to Seed

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781890132729
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Series: Gene Logsdon Series
  • Edition description: Revised
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 448,323
  • Product dimensions: 7.50 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Oregon plant breeder Carol Deppe, author of The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, holds a PhD in biology from Harvard University and specializes in developing public-domain crops for organic growing conditions, sustainable agriculture, and human survival for the next thousand years. Carol is author of The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (Chelsea Green, 2010),Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, 2nd ed. (Chelsea Green, 2000),Tao Te Ching: A Window to the Tao through the Words of Lao Tzu (Fertile Valley Publishing, 2010), andTaoist Stories (Fertile Valley Publishing, 2014). Visit for articles and further adventures.

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Read an Excerpt

Every gardener should be a plant breeder. Developing new vegetables doesn't require a specialized education, a lot of land, or even a lot of time. It can be done on any scale. It's enjoyable. It's deeply rewarding. You can get useful new varieties much faster than you might suppose. And you can eat your mistakes.
There has never been a better time to get involved in amateur vegetable breeding. The seed saver exchanges that have emerged during the past decade provide a rich source of raw materials for plant breeding. The smaller seed companies, many also founded recently, are eager to help perpetuate and distribute the creations of amateurs. And the professional plant breeders are all busy elsewhere. They are engaged, almost exclusively, in developing commercial varieties of vegetables-vegetables bred for uniformity and once-over picking so they can be harvested by machines, for tough skin and hard flesh so they aren't ruined by those machines, and for good storage and shipping characteristics so they can be transported long distances. These are not usually the qualities home gardeners need. Yet most of the new varieties that are released annually with such fanfare are commercial cultivars.
Gardeners buy only small amounts of seed compared to commercial growers, so seed of varieties that are best suited for gardeners is sold in only small amounts. Large seed companies often can't afford to carry it. No one can make a profit developing it. So no one is. If we gardeners want good new garden varieties, we'll have to breed them ourselves. But this is as it should be. Gardeners have been developing their own varieties for centuries. Besides, why should we let the professionals have all the fun?
This chapter is an introduction to how to breed your own vegetable varieties and focuses on three amateurs who have done it. None of them had any special education in genetics or plant breeding. Yet each has produced good new garden varieties-varieties that have been formally tested by a seed company and have been introduced or scheduled for introduction; varieties that have been found worthy of being listed and sold side by side with the best developed by anybody anywhere.
One wall of my living room is lined with shelves full of jars of my own seed. No wall decoration could provide more beauty, comfort, and security. Nothing else is such a good conversation piece. Here is a touchstone, a shrine to what is essential. Here are memories of past seasons and accomplishments, and dreams for those to come. Here is a symbol that this is, indeed, hearth and home and homestead. Here is hope for the future.
Why Save Seeds?
Saving seeds is fun. Cleaning the seed, holding the clean seed in your hands, is magical. Gaze at the seed, run your fingers through it, play with it, and you can feel the connections.
You're like a child with a gallon bucket of marbles, or a squirrel sitting on a hollow log full of acorns. Unquenchable joy arises. It is so intense it puzzles you initially. Then you recognize it. It is the joy that comes from being who you are supposed to be and doing what you are meant to do.
Seed saving is practical. If you know how to save your own seeds you can grow rare varieties. Many of the most spectacularly flavorful, unique varieties are not readily available commercially, either as fruits or seed. One of my favorite winter squash is 'Blue Banana', for example. This squash has a flavor that is superb, intense, and so different from all other squash that it is like an entirely different vegetable. But the seed is not available commercially. To grow rare varieties, you often have to get the seed when and where it is available, then maintain the variety yourself.
Many superb varieties are not readily available commercially because they have narrow adaptations to particular regions. 'Narragansett Indian Flint', for example, is said to be the corn that was given to the Pilgrims by the Indians, the corn that made the jonnycakes that were eaten at the first Thanksgiving. However, 'Narragansett Indian Flint' (also known as 'Rhode Island White Cap') has a narrow ecological adaptation. It likes the quasi-Mediterranean climate of Southern New England. It is too long-season for Northern New England, and too heat-intolerant for the Southeast or Midwest. It is not widely enough adapted nor popular enough to warrant its production as a seed crop via normal channels.
'Narragansett' makes wonderful jonnycakes -- the very best, I'm told. I don't know if they are the very best possible, but I've tried them and they are truly delicious. 'Narragansett' also makes rich, full-bodied cereal and polenta. But you can't buy the seed from commercial suppliers. If you garden in the Midwest, of course, you don't care, because you can't grow the corn anyway. But given our current system for mass-producing food and seed crops, the fact that you can't grow the corn in the Midwest now means that you can't grow it in southern New England, either-unless you can save your own seed.
Some varieties are not available because they have peculiarities with respect to production of the seed itself. If a watermelon produces few seeds, for example, it will not usually be offered commercially. It's simply too expensive to produce the seed. A home gardener, though, might be happy to save such seed. And a market garden might be able to easily produce the handful of seeds needed for a single field's planting.
Being dependent upon seed companies for your seed means being dependent upon random fads in foods as well as other people's choices and preferences. Saving your own seed means independence. It lets you make your own choices and have your own preferences.
When you save your own seed, the seed is always "available." It is common these days for all the seed of even very popular varieties to be produced by just a single grower. If that grower experiences a crop failure, the seed isn't available anywhere.
Sometimes, even if the seed is "available," you can't necessarily find it. There can be a poor correlation between variety names and the material you actually receive. Seed companies often change lines or suppliers, so that what they are selling one year and the next may be different strains, even though they are called the same thing.
I once grew a squash that the packet identified as 'Red Kuri'. It was a scarlet teardrop shape, delicious and uniquely flavored. The next time I ordered the seed the squash was orange-and-green speckled and inferior in flavor. Somewhere, somehow, the variety had been crossed up. And many companies were selling the crossed-up seed.
I ordered a packet of seed from each of a half-dozen companies, growing a few plants from a new company each year. Some companies were selling an inferior-flavored orange thing as 'Red Kuri'. I have yet to find that wonderful scarlet variety again. Maybe all the material I''ve tried in recent years is really something else, not 'Red Kuri' at all. Maybe the variety I liked so much in the first place was something else. All I can say at this point is . . . I wish I had saved the seed.
I like to produce my own seed even of varieties that are readily available commercially. My own seed is usually bigger, fatter, and more vigorous. I can plant it earlier than commercial seed. I also have much more of it, so I don't have to skimp. I can sow generously and then thin, instead of sowing thinly, then having gaps that have to be replanted later and less optimally.
And with my own seed, the price is right.
When you save seed, you become a plant breeder. You are choosing which germplasm to perpetuate. This means that you are both deliberately as well as automatically selecting for characteristics that are important to you, for plants that are fine-tuned to your needs and growing conditions and region. After you have saved seed of a variety for a few years, you have your own line of the variety that is slightly different from anyone else's, and it is usually better adapted to your needs.
Knowing how to save your own seed also means that you can take advantage of genetic accidents, ideas, and dreams. Last year, for example, I noticed one squash plant in perhaps a hundred that was resistant to powdery mildew. I saved the seed from it. Perhaps I can use it to develop new powdery-mildew-resistant varieties. Powdery mildew after the first fall rains is what ends the squash growing season in my region. Resistant varieties could be very useful. Many new varieties got their start when some gardener or farmer simply noticed something that was different and special-and saved the seeds.
We gardeners and farmers care about our direct relationship with soil, plants, and food. To grow plants from seed bought from others is one level of relationship. To grow plants from our own seed, to save seeds from our own plants, goes to a deeper level. It is fulfillment and continuity-plants and people maintaining each other, nurturing each other, evolving together. It completes the circle.
Saving Seed from Hybrids Hybrids don't breed true to type from seed. Some hybrids are even sterile, though most will produce seed. This seed can be used to derive a pure-breeding variety by the methods described in chapters 9 and 10. Such a variety derived from a hybrid is a new variety and should be given a new name. It is not the same as the hybrid from which it was derived. In other words, you can save seed from hybrids as the first step in creating a new open-pollinated variety, but you cannot reproduce a hybrid by saving its seed.
This section on seed-saving practice, then, refers to pure-breeding, not hybrid, varieties.
Seed-Saving Overview

Saving seed is easy. Plants want to make seed. They cooperate fully. To save seed, all you have to do is let the plants produce seed, then grab it quick before the birds or squirrels or bugs, and before it gets rained on and molds or sprouts in the pod.
Saving seed of pure varieties is another thing entirely. Plants don't care at all about pure varieties. The outbreeders would all rather cross with that strange inedible ornamental variety down the street in the yard of your neighbor. Even the inbreeders outcross far more often than they are "supposed to", especially under organic growing conditions.
To save seed of pure varieties, we need to know something about the outcrossing tendencies of the crop so that we can isolate it sufficiently from other varieties or wild plants of the species that it could cross with.
Finally, every variety contains genetic variability. Some of this is desirable and even essential to the vigor and adaptability of the variety. Some of it, though, is undesirable. So, we need to grow an appropriate number of plants in order to maintain the amount of genetic variability that we want. At the same time, we must select and rogue to eliminate the genes associated with specific kinds of variability that we don't want.
Given the genetic heterogeneity in most varieties and the greater vigor of the more wild-type forms, the natural tendency of most varieties is to deteriorate quickly to something that is far less useful to its human associates. To maintain a variety we must actively breed in order to counter this tendency.
There is actually no such thing as "saving" a pure variety. There is only further breeding, either deliberate or accidental. We either select in order to hold the variety in its current form and to eliminate undesirable types, or we select in order to change the variety in some preferred direction. Both processes involve exactly the same principles.
Roles and Purposes

"What's my role with respect to this variety?" That's the first thing I ask myself about every seed-saving project. Am I the sole savior or creator of the variety, the one person without whom it would be lost forever? Or is my line better than everyone else's, and especially worthy of preserving and distributing?
Am I planning on building up the precious stock, then giving or selling it to seed companies or others? Will I be distributing it through the Seed Savers Exchange? Will many or even all future plantings of this variety all over the country be descendants of these seeds I hold in my hands today? If so, I will want to be pretty careful and rigorous. I will use serious numbers of plants, and serious isolation distances.
Often, however, I'm saving seed just for myself, and I know others have the variety as well. In that case, I can be quite casual about most nearly everything. Numbers of plants? I grow what I need for the table, and use special tricks (see Chapter 19) to deal with maintaining heterogeneity.
Isolation? It's often minimal. I usually plant so as to be able to recognize hybrids, which is much easier than avoiding them (see Chapter 18). If I can recognize hybrids I can eliminate them or not as I choose in future generations. Who knows? The hybrid might be more interesting than the original material. And if the seed is just for my own use, what's an outcross or two among friends?

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix Introduction to the Original Edition xi Introduction to the Second Edition xiv How to Use This Book xvi
Part I: An Introduction to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving
1 Amateur Vegetable Breeding 3
Why every gardener should be a plant breeder. Stories of three amateurs and what they've done.
2 How Much Space Do You Need? How Much Time? 17
Vegetable breeding can be done on any scale. You can do an elaborate tomato-breeding project in a few half-gallon pots of soil, or a pea-breeding project in a few feet of row. Some projects require only a year or two to produce material that is an improvement over anything available commercially.
3 Roles and Goals for Amateurs; Wish Lists and Wild Ideas 23
Breeding for flavor. Breeding for size, shape, color, earliness, cold or heat resistance, disease resistance, regional adaptation, yield. Breeding as an expression of individuality, for your tastes and needs. Breeding varieties that do well under organic gardening or farming methods. Breeding new and unusual crops. Discovering popbeans and tiny fast-cooking chickpeas (garbanzos). Thinking small, thinking big, daring to dream.
4 Finding Germplasm 42
Obtaining germplasm and information about it. How to work with seed companies, seed saving organizations, and plant science professionals. How to gain access to and use the collections of the USDA-ARS National Plant Germplasm System.
5 Evaluating Germplasm and Experimental Material; Variety Trials and Gardening Research 54
How to design, conduct, and evaluate garden trials. How to combine trials with production of food and beauty. How to get good information with the least amount of land and labor.
6 Genetics and Plant Parenthood 77
7 Sex and the Single Gene; Mendel's Genes 85
8 Modern Genes 93
9 The Genetic Basis of Seed Saving 111
Inbreeding and the genetic nature of inbreeding crop varieties. Saving seed from inbreeders. Heirlooms. Outbreeding and the genetic nature of outbreeding crop varieties. Inbreeding depression. Outcrossing and self-incompatibility. Saving seed of outbreeders. Inbreeder or outbreeder - how you can tell? Saving seed from hybrids. Making and breaking hybrids.
10 Plant Breeding Stories 126
Popbeans and purple peas. Perennial vegetable buckwheat and perennial lettuce-salsify. Power selection, power inbreeding, crosses, backcrosses, and recurrent backcrossing. 'Rainbow Inca' sweet corn. Tomatoes, squash, and melons.
11 Bigger, Brighter, and More Beautiful 148
Creating polyploids. Chromosome doubling using colchicine. Breeding with established polyploids.
12 Fun with Wide Crosses 152
Crosses between distant relatives within a species. Crosses between different species. Creating entirely new crop species.
13 Happy Accidents 156
Taking advantage of new mutations, sports, bud sports, and accidental crosses. More cold-hardy fava beans, bigger tomatoes, and giant top-setting onions.
14 Domesticating Wild Plants 163
15 Expanding Horizons 172
Table I 801 Interesting Plants 175
Vegetables of the world and their wild relatives; edible plants that have the potential for being developed into vegetables; fruits, nuts, and grains. Scientific names, common names, families, and lifestyles. Basic breeding systems, chromosome numbers, flowering patterns, flower types and modifications, average cross-pollination frequency, major pollen vectors, and incompatibility system information. Recommended isolation distances, seed yields, location in the USDA-ARS National Plant Germplasm System, and references.
Part II: Seed Saving Practice
16 An Introduction to Seed Saving 209
Why save seeds? Seed-saving overview. Saving seed from hybrids. Roles and purposes.
17 Growing Seed 213
Preparation and planning, planting, tending.
18 Isolation 218
Traditional seed saving and isolation distances. Isolation distances for organic farmers and gardeners. Isolation basics. Factors that affect the need for isolation. Isolation distances, absolute and practical. The Basic Rule for Everyday Seed Saving. Isolation tricks and methods.
19 How Many Plants? 232
Inbreeders and outbreeders. Practical compromises.
20 Selection 237
Selection basics. Selection complexities, subtleties, and surprises. Selection for the purpose of germplasm preservation. Evaluating a selection program. Does selection always work?
21 Harvesting, Processing, and Storing Seed 243
Harvesting, threshing and cleaning. Dry and wet processing. Drying seed. Protecting seed from insects and rodents. Storing seed.
Part III: Developing Crops for a Sustainable Future
22 Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Foods 261
Carol Deppe meets the FlavrSavr tomato. Standard plant breeding versus genetic engineering. Everything in this book is illegal with genetically engineered varieties. Genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture.
23 Conversations with a Squash 272
Why not just select? Choosing the right cross. The agroecological virtues of a squash. The grand plan. Choosing the cytoplasm. The reality. The squash speaks. Carol falls in love. Disaster and opportunity. Sandwich-slice. To market, to market, to sell a new squash.
Appendix A Breeding and Seed Saving for Eight Common Vegetables - An Illustrated Guide 291
Tomato 291
Lettuce 296
Pea 299
Common Bean 304
Alliums (Onions) 309
Brassicas (Cabbage and Relatives) 311
Squash and Pumpkins 314
Corn (Maize) 317
Appendix B Technical Aspects of Hand-Pollination and Performing Crosses; Overcoming Incompatibility Barriers 322
Appendix C USDA-ARS Plant Introduction Stations and Germplasm Collections; Using GRIN (Germplasm Resources Information Network) 332
Appendix D Addresses of Seed Saver Exchanges, Seed Companies, and Organizations 335
Appendix E Sources for Seed Saving, Plant Breeding, and Garden Research Supplies 339
Appendix F Statistical Predictions and Actuality 340
Glossary 341
Annotated Bibliography 347
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