Seed saving

By Beccy Middleton and Chloe Ward. Beccy is studying for the Kew diploma in Botanical Horticulture and Chloe works with the UK Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT).

Why save seeds?

Because it means we can choose the varieties that suit us best Some varieties have been designed for large-scale horticulture, rather than being bred for gardeners. For example, commercial growers prefer crops that ripen simultaneously for ease of harvesting, whilst gardeners struggle to cope with gluts, and prefer to harvest over a longer period.

Because it preserves our vegetable diversity It is thanks to seed savers that many of our vegetables are still in existence. Varieties which are not profitable for seed companies would become extinct without gardeners and specialist growers saving the seed. Preserving as many plant varieties as possible gives us the best chance of finding those which will adapt to new climate conditions and diseases.

Because your veg will be suited to where you live Commercial plant breeders also like varieties that will grow relatively well all over the country. But it’s far more useful to have plants that will do really well in the particular conditions where you live.

Because it saves money Many vegetable varieties sold by big seed companies are F1 hybrids. These come from plants which have been carefully crossed and are often very productive. The down side is that any seeds you collect won’t be ‘true-to-type’ – that is, they won’t be the same as their parents. This might be fine if you like experimenting, but if you want the same F1 plants, you’ll have to buy more seed. If you save some of your own non-hybrid seed and swap with friends you’ll be saving money every year.

Because it celebrates our plant heritage Each variety of fruit and vegetable has its own special character, and heirloom varieties often have a fascinating story behind them. The best way to safeguard this is to keep growing them, so we have a living library of plant heritage. This also means that the variety can continue evolving and adapting. We can preserve seed in a seed bank, but we can only really enjoy them if they are in our gardens as well.

How it’s done

For many vegetables, it’s easy to save seed alongside harvesting your normal crop. The simplest vegetables to save seed from are those that flower within their first year (annuals) and that naturally self-pollinate (‘inbreeders’). To maintain diversity you will need to save seed from a minimum number of plants, depending on the vegetable. To keep the variety pure they need to be grown a minimum distance away from other varieties of that vegetable (see Top Tips, below). Here are some good ones to start with:

Peas Grow the crop as you would for eating, but not right next to another pea variety. Save seeds from around 10 plants by leaving the pods on the plants to dry. Then pod the seeds by hand.

Climbing French Beans Get them off to an early start by sowing in pots in April, then planting out after the risk of frost. Grow at least 10 metres away from any other Climbing French Bean. Save seed from around 20 plants, by letting the pods dry on the plants, or if the weather is wet, uproot the plants and hang in a dry place. Pod the seeds by hand. Runner bean seeds can be saved in the same way, but they need to be grown at least 800 metres away from another variety to maintain purity.

Lettuce When lettuce “bolt” they are sending up a flower spike which will produce seeds with white fluffy parachutes a bit like a dandelion. Sow your lettuce early in the year and at least 8 metres away from any other lettuce varieties. Let a few plants bolt. The flower heads may need staking as they can reach about 1.5m high. Collect seed from one or two plants by shaking the heads into a paper bag on a sunny afternoon.

Squashes will cross pollinate, so grow only one variety – and check what your neighbours are growing. Harvest ripe fruit from 2 or 3 plants and leave to ripen further for about 3 weeks. Rinse the seed in a sieve and lay out to dry on a sunny windowsill, turning occasionally.

Tomatoes Most tomatoes are self-pollinating, with the exception of some currant varieties, potato leaved varieties and double blossoms on beefsteak varieties. Self-pollinating varieties have their female stigma enclosed inside the male anther tube. Varieties that can cross pollinate have a protruding stigma, so check your flowers to make sure. Gather fully ripe fruits from at least 2 different plants. Scoop the seed out and clean in a sieve under cold running water. Spread the seed out on a paper towel to dry. The seed will stick to the paper, but you can sow it by burying the paper the next spring.

Successful saving!

Processing Seeds are processed differently depending on whether they are dry (e.g. peas) or wet (e.g. tomatoes). Collecting dry seeds is relatively straightforward. Let them get really ripe and as dry as possible on the plant. Then remove the seeds from the pods for storage. Wet weather often makes this difficult, but if rain threatens, you can pull up the whole plant and hang it up under cover to finish drying. Seeds that develop inside fruits are a bit more tricky. Leave the fruit to get really ripe before you collect it, then scrape the seed out as best you can and wash and dry it. Try using a sieve or tea strainer for little ones. Dry your seeds in a warm airy place, but not in the oven or direct sunshine as both will damage the seed and impair germination next year.

Storage Label your seeds carefully with the vegetable, variety and year of harvesting and, in some cases, with any isolation measures taken. Store them in cool, dry, dark conditions with a stable temperature (above freezing). Keep your seeds in paper bags and out of danger from mice.

Trickier vegetables Slightly more difficult for seed saving are carrots, parsnips, leeks, cabbage and kale. These all flower in their second year, so forward planning is needed. They are also ‘out breeders’ (cross-pollinators) meaning that a lot of plants need to be grown and measures may be needed to keep the variety pure. However, by taking on one of these more “difficult” vegetables you are making an even bigger contribution to preserving vegetable diversity. You will produce a large quantity of seed which will go a long way at a seed swap. Or you could become a Heritage Seed Library Seed Guardian. You may decide not to control the pollination of an outbreeder and you will still have viable seed, but you will begin to lose the characteristics of the variety. Many people do this for their own use, but if giving the seed to a seed swap please note it on the packet that the variety was not isolated.

Helping each other A Seed Circle is a group of people who all pledge to save a seed of a different vegetable and distribute the seeds among the group. So you can save the seeds of just one vegetable and receive seeds of 5 or 6 in return. Why not use VON’s Facebook group to make contact with others who may want to start a seed circle?

More facts and top tips

If you want to be really successful there are a few simple principles to bear in mind.

The Birds and the Bees Well, mainly the bees. Seeds come from flowers, which is where plant-sex happens. Pollen (‘sperm’ in a yellow coating) is transferred from a male part to a female part. When it gets to the female part it joins with an egg and makes a seed. Different types of plant do this in slightly different ways – some use the wind to transfer pollen, some use bees and other insects. Some flowers will pollinate themselves, some like to be pollinated by a flower from another plant. The different ways plants make their seed affects how we save it.

Innies and Outies Most plants can be described as inbreeders or outbreeders. An inbreeder will usually pollinate itself so the daughter plants will be just like their parents. Saving seeds of inbreeders such as tomatoes and lettuce is really easy. An outbreeder likes to cross pollinate with other plants. This means that when saving the seed of an outbreeder you need to control their pollination in some way. This can mean keeping a distance between your outbreeding vegetable and other vegetables in the same family, or putting a mesh cage around them when they flower. If you want to keep your vegetable the same from year to year, it pays to know whether it is an inbreeder or an outbreeder, and the normal method of pollination. As a general rule, self-pollinating varieties have their female stigma enclosed inside the male anther tube, whilst varieties that can cross pollinate have a protruding stigma. See the book list for sources of more information on this.

Choosing your plant Gather your seed from your best plants. Consider how well the plant has grown (not just the fruit), how productive it was, what it tasted like, and how resistant it was to pests and diseases. Try not to eat all the best ones! A plant variety will be more adaptable and vigorous if it keeps a good diversity of genes. This means growing a good number of plants to save seed from, especially if it is an outbreeder.

Recommended books

Heritage Vegetables – The Gardeners’ Guide to Cultivating Diversity by Sue Stickland and Alan Gear. Gaia Books, 1998

Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland and Susanna Kendall. Eco-logic Books, 2008

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, 2000.

You may also join the Heritage Seed Library via and gain access to their seed saving factsheets on line.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 30 (Winter 2012), p26. This article was first published by Dyfi Valley Seed Savers