How and why you should save your seed
Do you know how to save your own seed? Last year we made a list of places to find and swap seed across the UK with a very brief introduction to some of the issues surrounding the commodification of seed.
This year, we thought we should get straight down to business. Knowing about the issues that surround our seeds is important but it’s essential that we start saving and exchanging. Worldwide we've lost 75% of our plant genetic diversity in the last 100 years1. A bit of a scary prospect. However, the problem is the solution and the solution is in our hands, our gardens, our balconies and our windowsills.
Photo by Ruslana Babenko from Pixabay
Not all seeds are equal. Much of the seed you'll find in garden centres comes from large commercial companies. This is distributed across the UK, Europe and perhaps even further, leaving a monoculture of crops in it’s wake. The majority of these seeds are hybrid seeds, which means that they often do'nt reproduce true to type, if they produce viable seeds at all. Why make seeds like this? So we have to go back and purchase them again each year. One-off customers are not good for business.
If you want to save seed, go for open-pollinated varieties. These are seeds that will produce plants looking and hopefully tasting like the parent. Of course, as with anything in nature, there will be a diversity of results and this is all part of the fun. Open-pollinated varieties breed with plants that are genetically similar, though not exactly the same. Over long periods this leads to genetic variation and localisation. The fantastic thing about open-pollination is that many of our vegetable crops can breed with wild varieties, parsnip with wild parsnip for example. While the resulting flavour from these combinations may leave something to be desired (or not, who knows?) the resulting variety will likely be more resilient.
Open-pollinated seed can be fairly unpredictable and you might want to have a bit more control about what ends up on your plate at harvest time. So say you grow two different types of tomato and some of them produce really juicy fruit, but they’re small, and another one produces a really large tomato, but they lack flavour. If you have open-pollinated seed you can cross these two different varieties and see what happens. You’ll end up with lots of different results but here lies the joy, you get to taste them and decide which you prefer. Maybe none of them are perfect, so you repeat the process. Eventually you’ll end up with your own stable variety you can share.
Photo by Peter Holmes from Pixabay
It’s not just about flavour though. Different areas have different soils, different microclimates and therefore different needs. As we’re also all aware, there is a climate and nature emergency and this means an increasingly fluctuating climate with extremes. You might have one variety that thrived in a drought and produced juicy fruit that was too bitter for your taste, and another that wasn’t as good in the drought but produced really sweet fruit. A perfect combination to experiment with. It might take a few years but you’ll eventually end up with a resilient and great tasting variety.
You can get really geeky with seed saving. If you want to gain more in depth knowledge about how to save seed then I recommend ‘Seed to Seed' by Suzanne Ashworth. 'Back Garden Seed Saving' by Sue Stickland and 'The Seed Saver's Handbook' by Jeremy Cherfas and Jude and Michel Fanton are also very good. I’ve also referenced some fantastic free resources below2. For now, we’ll get you started with an easy one to save at home. Beans and peas.
If you haven't got any seeds to start with, check out this list to find your nearest seedy swap.
Photo by Selma K from Pixabay
How to save your bean and pea seeds
Firstly, make sure your soil is in good health. You need healthy plants for healthy seeds and beans like nitrogen. So make sure your soil is well balanced as well as weed free.
Plant your beans and peas as normal but remember to label those you’re saving for seed. You'll need to save from at least 6 to 10 plants to ensure good genetic diversity.
Don’t pick leaves or flowers or eat anythings from the plants you want to harvest.
If the plants become diseased you can leave them in. If they survive to produce seed or some plants appear unaffected, you’ll be left with a disease resistant variety. Of course you also risk losing all of the crop.
It will be a waiting game as you need to hold off harvesting until the pods have dried out. Don’t wait too long however, their natural dispersion method is to explode their pods and you don’t want your hard work to be lost at the last moment.
If it has been particularly wet, try and wait for a dry spell so the pods dry out naturally. If that is looking increasingly unlikely, pull up the plants and tie upside down somewhere dry with fairly good air circulation.
You can also pull off the pods and lie them flat on sheets of newspaper. I’ve found stacking my veg box crates and lining them with newspaper particularly useful (though I know these can be a rare commodity so I take care to return them all once I’m done).
Then the fun bit. After they’re dry, you can run your finger along the pods and pop out the seeds. Putting the ones that are small or malformed into the compost.
Once you’ve harvested all your seed you will need to store them somewhere that has a bit of air circulation. I take old biscuit tins and pop a few holes in with a nail and hammer. Then use small labelled envelopes (pay-packets are good for this) to keep them organised.
Make sure they’re completely dry before storing, you don’t want a couple of damp seeds rotting your harvest.
As with storing any food item, cool dry storage will ensure your seeds last until the following season.
I’ve heard of some people popping their seeds in the fridge and freezer to kill off any potential weevil eggs. Something I’ve never bothered with, a risk you might not be willing to take!
If you’d like to find some seeds to experiment with this year, check out our list of Seedy Saturdays and Sunday’s across the UK.
Happy seed saving!
1. (FAO, 1999) https://www.fao.org/3/y5609e/y5609e02.htm