In 2013, Geoff Andrews discovered the perfect seed combination for what has since become his farm’s most popular variety of corn. To match that perfection, Andrews needed to come up with the proper name for this one-of-a-kind corn that he described as “real, real sweet and buttery” tasting, a flavor that has become highly sought after by his customers at Tony Andrews Farm in East Falmouth.

And so BTS—Better Than Sugar—was born. “Since 2013, when I started selling it, my customers would ask, ‘Where is that BTS? I need more of it,’” Andrews said.

It is one of seven corn varieties that his farm sells, and the only one with his distinct stamp on it; the other six are grown directly from seed. BTS is the result of experimentation and an example of what can happen when you utilize the science of cross-pollinating varieties of corn to get the ideal taste.

“This year I got it down pat, but I wish I could patent it,” he said. “I can’t, the seed is not mine. It is from the seed company and I can’t sell the seed to the consumer.”

What he can do is something that many throughout Cape Cod do on an annual basis—save seeds—to replicate the success of the crop. This year’s BTS was grown with seeds that he saved from the previous year.

Because he operates a commercial farm with 40 acres of crop that he sells to restaurants and local fruit and vegetable stands, he said, he cannot afford to use those seeds again. “The seed gets fatigued and is going backwards per se,” he explained. “The plant is more susceptible to disease and may grow mold or wilt. It is a frugal way of farming and sometimes it is not worth it.”

Preserving Varieties

But for others like Stan Ingram, the farm manager at Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth, there is a real value to saving seeds. “It is fun,” he said. “In our neck of the woods it is a way to preserve some varieties that are just not available through seed catalogs.”

The basics of the practice start, of course, with the seed itself, which should be taken from fully ripe plants. “You collect the seed, clean the seed and make sure it is dried down completely and store it in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to use it,” he said.

The viability of the seed varies, Ingram said. “Some seeds survive for hundreds of years, but then there are some—we use allium onions and those seeds start losing viability after one year so they don’t store particularly well.” He noted that some seed supply companies such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Central Maine have charts which detail the standard life expectancy of their products.

Seed saving is impacted by how a plant is pollinated; cross-pollinated plants such as squash, zucchini or cucumbers may result in an entirely new-looking squash, cucumber or zucchini. “The chance of you getting the same butternut squash is 50 percent or maybe less because bees take pollen from other squash plants so you will get a mix of stuff,” Ingram said.

With self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes, beans, peas and peppers, the chances of sameness rise markedly.

“For some people that doesn’t matter,” Ingram said. “It is sort of like a gambling game. You take the seed, you plant it [next spring] and see what comes up from it.”

Among the seeds that he saves are tomatoes, a Jamaican pumpkin seed “because I can’t find it anywhere else,” he said, hot pepper seeds, potato seeds “just out of curiosity because I don’t know what I’m going to get,” and flowering seeds such as sunflower, because of its diversity.

He recommended choosing seeds from the best plants, not the last ones to sprout. “If you wait until the end of the season, it is probably not the best time,” he said. “You want to pick a fruit, whether a cucumber or tomato or flower that is one of the best ones.”

Focus On One Seed

While Ingram experiments with a variety of seeds, some farmers opt to focus on one. Matt Churchill of Pariah Dog Farm in Teaticket solely saves seeds for garlic because it is relatively easy to do so.

Garlic should be left in the ground as long as possible; once the foliage begins to die, the bulb can be lifted out of the soil. “Select the largest clove of garlic from the year before,” Churchill said. “It will give you the largest harvest.”

The next step, he said, is to let the garlic properly cure in a dark space with low humidity for up to six weeks. Planting of garlic takes place in the late fall, near Thanksgiving. “Give it a good layer of mulch and leaves,” Churchill said. “Don’t worry about it until the spring when you should fertilize it and weed it. You won’t harvest it until around the 4th of July.”

In Woods Hole, John “Rooster” Fricke also focuses his seed-saving efforts on one particular plant—chili peppers—that he grows at Nobska Farms. “This year, we grew 80 varieties of chili peppers,” he said. “We’ll save seeds from 20 to 30 of those.”

Those seeds will primarily be from the exotic, hot chili peppers that he uses to make hot sauce, jelly, and salsa which are sold at farmers markets across Cape Cod. Nobska Farms also supplies some of its peppers to Falmouth restaurants such as Osteria La Civetta on Main Street and Quicks Hole Taqueria in Woods Hole.

Peppers, he said, are “very easy to grow,” though some have long growing seasons. Seeds should be saved when the peppers are ripe. “We suggest people take the seeds out of the pepper and set them on a paper plate in the sun and let them dry out and then put them in a package,” he said. “Then keep them cool in a refrigerator or cool basement until the following spring.”

Those saving multiple seeds, he said, should remember to clearly label them when storing them over the winter.

To get the most out of the practice, he recommends saving seeds from varieties that people like, depending on the characteristics of size, shape or color.

For him it is a practice that has its benefits, particularly as the owner of a relatively small commercial farm that needs to keep costs low. Pepper seeds can cost anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per seed. “We save a lot of seeds from our own peppers and it helps us on an economic basis,” he said.

Another benefit is that he believes the practice makes the seeds heartier. “There is no scientific evidence to support this, but my sense is they are more acclimated to our climate,” he said. “Plus, we know where the seeds came from” which is important “because we only use organic methods to grow our plants.”