Saving Vegetable & Flowers Seeds Is Very Satisfying, Provides a Link With the Past, Is Sensible & Green, Gives Us Food Security, Stops Genetic Erosion, Maintains Local Heritage Varieties, Can Be Organic and Offers Hope For The Future.
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But is saving seed easy, what are the pros and cons off saving seed, what are the pros sand cons of saving seeds? And are there seeds that we can’t save?
Seed saving goes back to around 12,000 years ago to a time when we gave up being hunter gatherers and become settled farmers. Without saving seeds there can be no farming and no gardening. It’s an essential gardening skill, but one many of us have forgotten.
Of course, in some senses that doesn’t matter because we can buy seeds from the seed companies. But this does limit what we can grow because legislation limits what seed companies can sell. It’s why charities such as Garden Organic have set up their Heritage Seed Library (HSL) where they conserve a range of vegetable varieties that are not commercially available. The seeds aren’t sold, but members are able to pay an additional HSL fee, pick up to six varieties from the seed list and have samples sent to them for home growing. The seed list changes each year and include heirloom, landrace and (commercially) discontinued varieties.
Why Save Seeds?
Seeds are a capsule of unique genetic information that enable us to grow the same plants for generations. But, simply because every seed is an unique combination from male and female flowers (or parts of flowers) every seed is slightly different. Over time seeds will vary slightly and the traits they confer and, in nature, will be selected to suit the circumstances the seed finds itself. This is natural selection as described by Gregor Mendel and his three laws.
But of course when we select seeds we do it to suit us and not the plant. And we grow our plants in “artificial conditions” simply by sowing the seed and looking after the plants.
Commercial seed production is an international business and largely bypasses local conditions. The seed companies want to produce large quantities of seed and may grow it all in one field. That seed will have grown in those conditions, whilst your conditions will be different and usually miles away .. sometimes in another country or on another continent.
But where we save our own seed, it is seed that has grown and thrived in our gardens. And when a neighbour gives you seed it is likely from a garden similar to yours and was grown nearby. Even the HLS seed will all be grown in this country and not have been selected from seed grown overseas. It’s not that overseas seeds is bad seed as such, it’s just that it’s best suited to the conditions where it grew.
By growing and saving seed locally we are selecting for local conditions. And that includes soil type, weather conditions etc.
Landrace, Heritage, and Heirloom Seeds
Local seed is often known as landrace varieties. Landrace means country bred and comes from the German term, Landrasse. These are morphologically distinct varieties of a species and often not grown outside a distinct area. And of course it needn’t be a German vegetable, it could be a Greek pepper, a Spanish onion or English tomato. And these specific landrace varieties are important as they are part of the genetic seed bank across the world. It’s a seed bank that is often called upon to breed new varieties. For example we often go back to landrace tomato varieties and wild plants from South America to help us produce better varieties. And there nothing intrinsically wrong with mass produced seed. Sometimes it’s necessary.
Heirloom varieties are also worth considering. These tend to be old varieties that have merit simply because they are good. Thats why they’ve been grown so long and are still favourites.
Heirlooms are a strange concept though. There is no legal definition of a heirloom plant. Most people say its a variety that is at least 50 or 100 hundred years old. Other people say it must be a variety that was grown before the end of World War ll i.e. before 1945.
What is however generally agreed is that it must be an open pollinated variety.
And interestingly many heirloom crops are still sold by seed companies. For example, Moneymaker tomatoes were first sold by F. Stonor of Southampton in 1913, and its still for sale today.
I grew Moneymaker commercially. It was a good size, reliable, reasonably disease resistant, easy to set and manage .. a good allrounder. And that’s why it became a heirloom variety. It was good enough to keep selling in sufficient volumes.
Selling Seeds in Volumes
Volume is one of the problems commercial seed growers face. They have to get seeds officially tested and certified. That costs money and if sales volumes aren’t sufficient they stop selling that seed. Then the only way the seed is available is where it is exchanged or given away under schemes such as the HLS.
What Are Heritage Seeds And Plants?
This is one of the simplest question I get asked. Heritage and Heirloom are different words for the same thing.
Can F1 Seeds Be Saved?
F1 seed is the first filial generation of a cross between two different strains. And according to the science it means the F1 seed is very uniform. Each seed produces extremely similar plants which means it is easy to harvest a whole field of a crop all in the same day. That’s great if you are combining wheat or barley. Or even if you are harvesting cauliflowers for a supermarket. But it isnt something that most gardeners want. They want to harvest a crop over several weeks. Otherwise they get a glut and most of the crop spills before they can eat it.
The seeds from a F1 plant will not be pure. It will be a hybrid, a bit like a mongrel dog. Possibly lovable, but each one will be very different from its siblings.
If it were only that the harvest date varied a bit then that would be ideal. But what happens is that loads of other characteristics change as well. So each plant might be taller or shorter, a different colour; sweeter, blander or even horrible tasting. Its totally unpredictable so NO .. don’t save F1 seeds.
The Basic Rules of Saving Seeds
Basic seed saving rules are relatively easy.
- Only save seed from healthy plants
- Only save seed from typical plants i.e. those with the characteristics you want.
- Don’t save seed from F1 plants
- Respect isolation distances; time & distance
Healthy plants and seed saving
This one is fairly obvious. You don’t want to save seed from plants that carry diseases, viruses, pests etc. Healthy plants will give healthy seed.
Choose typical plants from which to take seed. Plants do vary a bit and if you select seed from the breadth of that variety your future plants will start to deviate from what you started with. So rogue out those plants that are not typical of the type. Otherwise you start to get genetic drift, what is often called genetic erosion. And after a few generations your plants will start to be different to what you started with.
Avoid F1 plants
I’ve explained this elsewhere on the page and also in the article on Gregor Mendel and Mendelian ratios.
It takes two to tangle!
To form viable seed the female flower parts needs fertilising with pollen from the male parts. In some plants, such as peas, a process called cleistogamy (closed marriage) allows the fertilisation to occur before the flower opens. Pollinators aren’t needed. And in tomatoes all that is needed is for the pollen to drop onto the anthers. All it needs for this to happen is physical movement. A gentle breeze is enough in many cases.
In other cases we need pollinators or the wind to move the pollen. And if we have compatible crops nearby this can mean cross bred seed being produced. We can separate the crops by distance, time (early and late crops not flowering at the dame time) or by barriers. If the insects cant take pollen from one to the other pollinations doesn’t occur.
But beware keeping pollinators out totally. No pollinators means no pollination. So you might only net plants on alternative days. This lets the pollinators in without risk of cross pollination.
Seed Saving Process
It all starts with sowing the parent crop
Then you need to select the best plants to collect seed from
Grow the plant to flowering/seeding size. With biennials this will be in year two.
Where necessary the plants need pollinating
Let the seed mature
Extract the seed from the seed “cases”. This might be from a fruit, pod or whatever.
Clean the seed of all debris and ensure it is dry enough to store
Pack safely and store in a cool dark place
Saving Lettuce Seeds
The red lettuce in the image is starting to flower. After a few weeks seeds will form and mature. Once they are mature and “plump” (not that they get that big, but I’m sure you get the idea) they will start to dry.
This is the time when I harvest the plant, at or just before it starts shedding seed. I either pull it out by the roots, or cut it off at ground level, and hang it upside down in my cool and fairly dark garage. And over the next weeks the seed falls out. To stop it falling on the floor I enclose the whole plant in a large paper bag. This is where the term “brown baggers” to describe seed savers, comes from.
The only word of caution here is to ensure the plant has desiccated fairly well before putting it in a bag or it will go mouldy.
The alternative to using a brown bag is to upturn the plant in a large bucket or other container.
Clean the Seed
Once the seed has fallen from the plant you need to clean it. The reason is that you will have collected is a mix of seed, dead insects, chaff and the white “feathers” that adorn the seeds (the remnants of the flowers). If you only have a handful of seed, and blow gently on the mix the chaff and feathers will blow away. But if you’ve gathered a lot the easier way is to put it in a fine sieve. Shake it and there heavy seed goes to the bottom and the chaff and feathers rise to the top. It’s now much easier to gently blow the rubbish away.
If the seed is still a bit damp leave it on a plate or kitchen tissue to air dry for a while. If it’s damp it’ll go mouldy. But don’t subject ti to intense heat or the seed will die. Now put it in a labelled envelope and store in a cool dark place. Lettuce seed will keep for around 3 years provided it is stored in a cool dry place.
Beware Brassicas: Why You Shouldn’t (Normally) Save Brassica Seed
Brassicas are promiscuous plants and cross with just about every other brassica given the chance. So if you’ve another brassica crop within a mile to two don’t try saving seed. The chances of it turning out to be anything like what you expect is close to zero.
Commercial brassicas seed growers grow seed in a netted, insect proof cages. But, because the flowers are self incompatible, they need insects to take pollen from one flower to another. So you need to trap the insects in the cage and not allow any others to get in. Bees are great brassica pollinators but hate working long rows of plants, so grow them in a block.
I said that brassicas will cross with just about any other brassica. Thats not quite true. Sprouts, kales, cabbages, sprouting broccoli and calabrese are all members of the same plant family (B. oleraceae) and will cross. But they will not cross with oriental cabbage, turnips, mustard greens, turnips and swedes which are from the B. rapa or B. rapa subspecies family.
I’ll be adding more plant types from how to save seeds to how to sow seeds in the next few weeks.
Watch this space.
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