The Ultimate Bean Seed Saving Guide
Saving your own seeds can be empowering but it is sometimes daunting for both seasoned and beginner gardeners. The truth is, saving one's own seeds is a task as old as gardening itself. This precious knowledge has been passed down from one generation of gardener to another for thousands of years. Only in recent history did gardeners rely on large companies to provide them with the seeds they needed to grow food for their families.
That knowledge is precious and I strongly feel that as gardeners, we need to understand where the seeds we plant in the ground come from. The possibilities are endless for a gardener who knows how to preserve and maintain his own seeds stock. That knowledge used to be widespread and traditional plant breeding has been done for thousands of years, resulting in the vast array of heirloom vegetables we have today. It is now the responsibility of the gardeners and small seed companies of today to propagate and preserve old heirlooms.
By taking control of our seeds, we take control of our food system. Whether you want to preserve a rare variety, take better control of your seed supply or just save money, saving your own seeds will empower you just as it did me.
But we need to start somewhere!
Heirloom bush bean plants like the one pictured above are unusual and productive. They make the perfect seed saving project for home gardeners and beginner seed savers.
The common bean, Phaseolus Vulgaris
The very first plant beginner seed savers tend to experiment on is beans and for good reasons. Beans offer an impressive array of shapes, sizes, colors, types and flavors. This is great motivation for a beginner seed saver and can even lead to the lifelong project of improving and maintaining your very own seed line of a rare and exceptional heirloom variety.
The common bean, Phaseolus Vulgaris, has been cultivated for thousands of years and is the most widely grown legume in the world. Most scientists agree that the common bean was first domesticated in Mesoamerica, but the exact origins are still debated today. It is, regardless of its origin, the most important and varied legume cultivated today.
According to author Suzanne Ashworth in her excellent book, Seed to Seed, there are over 2200 known varieties of dry and snap beans of Phaseolus Vulgaris cultivated around the world.
How to select your plants for seed saving purposes
Like most gardeners, beans were the first seeds I successfully saved and replanted in my own garden, many years ago. I have since maintained many lines of my favorite beans, from dry pole bean like Good Mother Stallard to bush beans like Antiqua Green Bean. Year after year, I have noticed a steady improvement in the performance of my bean plants, with improved yield and disease resistance. This is one of the advantages of saving your own seeds, as you will achieve improved adaptation of your own seed lines in due time if you select carefully for the characteristic you want to promote in future generations.
The traits that most gardeners usually select for are vigor and pest resistance, coupled with yield and I do recommend you select for those as well. It can be tricky to assess plants for those characteristics, so proceeding by elimination is an easier process. Let me give you an example.
Let's say you have an entire row of Gold Rush Wax beans and out of 20 plants, 3 seem to have stunted growth, with yellowed, wrinkled leaves. You should eliminate them from your gene pool right away. Further along in the season, if out of the remaining 17 plants, some produce small, misshapen pods or have fewer pods per plant, then you should eliminate them from the genetic pool as well. Do not collect seeds from plants that seem to be the particular focus of pests or disease, as you want to increase natural resistance to those in future generations.
The same method applies to plant shape and pod bearing forms. If you want to select for tidy bush plants that bear their pods above the foliage for easy picking, then do not include that stray semi-running plants or those that bear their pods hidden under the foliage in your gene pool. If you are selecting for color, only harvest seeds from the plants displaying the color you care for, remembering that access to light affects individual pod colors. As a general rule, all the pods from a single plant will contain the same genetic material.
Common bean do not experience inbreeding depression so don't be afraid to reduce your gene pool in the first generation. You can also preserve a quantity of your seeds each year and sow more plants from a previous year to increase your gene pool in a following years. Keep good records, it'll save you headache down the line!
One little advice though: start with what you like. Trial as many varieties as you can before taking upon yourself to improve a particular variety and create your own line. Your goal will be that much easier to attain and the results that much more satisfying.
Generally speaking, it is best for seed savers to begin with one or two varieties of Phaseolus Vulgaris. Chose a variety that you love above all others and try to enhance the characteristics already present in the gene pool.
The Nitty Gritty of the Seed Saving Process
Now that you decided to saved your own heirloom bean seeds, how do you proceed?
The common bean, is the ultimate beginner seed saver plant but care must be taken to properly identify it before attempting to collect its seeds. Do not confuse it with the Runner Bean, Phaseolus Coccineus, Fava Beans, Vicia Faba, the Cowpea, Vigna Unguiculata or any other bean commonly grown in the garden. The correct specie and subspecies identification should always be present on your seed packet.
Seed Packet information containing variety name as well as species and genus of the seeds it contains
The blooms of Phaseolus Vulgaris are produced in raceme. Each blossom is perfect and autogamous, meaning they possess both male and female parts and can and readily do self-pollinate, often before the flower opens or shortly after, eliminating the need for pollinator. This wonderful trick of nature also makes isolating and maintaining pure varieties much easier since it and reduces the chances of cross-pollination.
Although been flowers are self-pollinating, if many bean varieties are grown close together and pollinator pressure is high, there is a chance for cross pollination. If you want to completely avoid the risk, then isolating your plants is the only way to keep your varieties pure. This can be achieved by using a number of different techniques.
The first technique is the most intuitive, which is distance isolation. For home us, a distance of 10 to 20 feet is generally accepted as being sufficient. If the variety you want to preserve is particularly rare and the genetic material preservation is critical, then a distance of 100 feet is considered the gold standard.
The second technique is caging, which involved covering a plant or group of plants with a mesh screen or fine insect netting. This technique works very well for small to medium size operation and when seed isolation is of primordial importance.
Bumblebee working on a Phaseolus Vulgaris flower increasing the chances of cross-pollination
Blossom bagging with a soft spun polyester bag is a great technique for home use or when only a few plants are available for seed preservation. Simply attach and secure the bag over the unopened blossom and remove once the bloom falls and the fruit starts to develop.
For the home use, short distance isolation and blossom bagging are the most commonly used techniques for seed preservation. They work very well and are inexpensive and easy to apply.
Patience is needed to collect viable seeds regardless of bean growth habit type, although bush beans will produce fruits earlier and those will mature earlier than pole types. No matter the types, the seeds need to fully mature while attached to the pods to be viable. The seeds will be mature once the pods turn tan and dry.
Heirloom bean plants, especially pole types, will not ripen all their pods at once, unlike in commercial settings. Care must be taken by the home seed saver to gather the pods when they become ripe.
Another consideration for seed saving is population size and genetic diversity. In theory, a single plant can use used for seed preservation, but it is always advisable to collect seeds from as many plants displaying favorable traits as you can. This will preserve the genetic diversity in the variety for future generations. Do not collect seeds from plants that perform poorly or show unfavorable traits like lack of vigor, small yield and uncharacteristic fruits even if it means collecting seeds from fewer individuals as those traits will be passed to future generations.
The chart below gives a summary of the information needed to harvest common bean seeds.
This means the gardener can work on many seed saving projects in the small space of a home garden, making the common bean the perfect plant for small scale seed preservation. Many beloved heirlooms were in fact perfected by home gardeners who worked on their favorite variety for years before releasing it to the public and finally attaining fame and fortune!
Not really. I don't think fame and fortune is in the future of many seed savers, myself included. It is true, however, that many home gardeners are responsible for perfecting unusual and wonderful varieties of bean now grown in gardens all over the world.
How amazing would it be to know that a variety grown and perfected in your own garden could be loved for decades or centuries to come?
Like, Share, Spread the Word!
Did you like this article? Did you find it useful? Leave a comment below to let me know about your own seed preservation project! Better yet, share this article with your gardening friends to help increase biodiversity in the home gardens all over the world.