Improving Varieties – The Power of Saving Seeds

In January 2005, as part of Tourne-Sol farm’s very first seed order, I ordered some Purple Top White Globe turnip seeds. The seed was dirt cheap – about $5/lb. Since we only grow a handful of rows of this turnip every year, we still have some of that original pound of seed left, and it still has a high germination rate. As such this turnip has never been high on my seed-saving priorities.

During the spring of 2009, we had a lot of beautiful turnips in the cold room. On a whim, I decided to plant some out for seed. (Last post I wrote about saving turnip seed.) I’ve been offering the turnip seed I saved in our seed catalog; but when we seed in the  field, we’ve been using both the original bought seed and our seed without paying attention to which rows were which.

This year, Emily grew out a row of the bought seed beside a row of our seed. When she started harvesting the  turnips, she came and found me to show me them.

There was a noticeable difference between the turnips in both rows. The turnips from our seed had a more vivid purple top and much smoother skin than the turnips from the bought seed. Our seed had produced much nicer turnips.

The two turnips on the left are from our seed and  the two on the right are from bought seed.

Why was there a difference?

I imagine that little effort was put into selecting the roots for seed that would only sell for $5 a pound.

When I took the time to choose the best roots for seed, I eliminated some unfavorable gene combinations thus improving the variety.

Where to go from here?

Previously, I have seen differences comparing plants grown from seed we’ve saved with those grown from the original seed – better cold and disease resistance, spicier hot peppers, changes in leaf shape or color. But the difference in the turnips really struck me because I hadn’t seen the previous seed as inferior. In fact, I hadn’t really paid much attention to them because we grow so few every year. But now I wonder what other crops we can quickly improve.

This  change was after one generation of simply choosing what I liked. Imagine what 2-3 generations of selection can do? Or even 10-20 generations?

Have any of you noticed similar improvements in varieties you save seed of?

13 thoughts on “Improving Varieties – The Power of Saving Seeds

  1. Hello! I was excited to see another blog based in Eastern Ontario with posts on seed saving. Looking forward to coming back. For some reason, my family isn’t yet a fan of turnips but I enjoy saving and adapting all sorts of seeds including biennials.

    1. I’m actually based in Western Quebec (just west of Montreal) though the climate isn’t that different from Eastern Ontario.
      I can’t imagine anyone not loving turnips! A little mayo can sometimes go a long way to converting new fans.


  2. That’s very encouraging to see the difference in just one year !!! My experiment this year was with some volunteer Bok Choi. It grew 4 different styles of plant. I pulled the off looking ones ( 2 kinds) and ate the early bolting ones. Then selected the biggest, least bug eaten and latest bolting to save seed off of. It will be interesting to see what comes up this next year !! Thanks for sharing, perhaps next year I will try some turnips after hearing all about them from you : )

    1. I’m curious how much diversity you’ll have in the next generation of plants. Did you cull the off types before they went to flower? That’s one to make sure they don’t add their genes back into the population.

      If you save turnip seeds, remember they can cross with your volunteer Bok Choi!


      1. Oh yes, nothing flowered until all else was taken out. It was interesting how one type was even more resistant to flea beetles. I can hardly wait until next Spring to see what comesof the next generation. It was a trick to find out what would cross withh the Bok Choi. There was also Mizuna flowering, but the research I saw said they were different families, hoping that’s so !!!

      2. You might get an unplanned for surprise next year. Mizuna and Bok Choy are both Brassica rapa and will happily cross. Tatsoi, turnips, rapini, and chinese cabbage are also in the same species and therefore can also cross.

        However, crossing your best bok choy with mizuna, which tends to be fairly resilient, can be a good foundation for a new variety!

      3. Yikes, quick search of the JOhnny’s Seeds says that Bok Choi is rapa, I said the wrong name for the other, it’s Tokyo Bekana. Its listed as Brassica rapa(Chinensis group). I was thinking that meant they were different, but of course the Brassica rapa is the same. Ideas ? Maybe it’ll be Tokyo Choi !!! I did plant some of the bekana in the greenhouse right away and it looks like the other, a bit stronger but I was chalking up the higher temps in there. Thanks for all you do and share !!

      4. Next year, you have two options:
        1. Try to go restore your original bok choi. You can grow out your saved seed. Those that cross with the Tokyo Bekana will probably be a bit lighter in color. You might be able to eliminate them all and only leave uncrossed bokchoi.

        2. Develop a new variety. Choose the best plants (most tolerant to frost, disease and pests; tasty; slow bolting) even if they look a little bit different. Over a few generations the population will start to stabilize.

        However, you mentioned you had 4 styles of volunteer bok choy. That probably indicates cross pollination in a previous generation. If that’s true, it will be harder to be sure you are eliminating all the crossers. I would suggest you go for the develop a new variety option.

        One advantage with your cross is that Tokyo Bekan doesn’t have serrated leaves like Mizuna; and Tokyo Bekana does form a somewhat upright head. Therefore, you are more likely to get something similar to a bok choi. Though it might be a bit ruffled with a bit of color variation.

  3. I’ve actually struggled… as a community gardener, it’s more challenging to prevent unwanted cross-fertilization. Unfortunately, I’ve found I’m losing some of the qualities I’m trying to preserve.

    1. I can see how growing in a community garden definitely creates challenges growing enough plants and making sure they don’t cross-pollinate. Some plants are less likely to cross-pollinate: Lettuce, tomatoes, and beans are great candidates for seed saving when you can’t control what your neighbors are growing. Good luck!


    2. I love community gardens but there are downsides. For me community gardens are for socializing but for serious gardening you need your own piece of land.

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