Now that spring is officially here and the balance of light has tipped towards days being longer than nights, many people are beginning to get our gardens ready for an abundant year.
One of the key parts of growing your own crops – whether for food, as companion plants or simply to look pretty – is saving seeds from your own varieties so that you can grow them again next year.
Seed saving is rewarding and very useful in terms of food security and helping plants become adapted and resilient. The techniques are pretty simple, and I have already written some basic seed saving tips here (1) which focus mainly on how to harvest seeds once you have produced them. But how do you get to the point where you have some seeds you believe are worth saving?
This Equinox, I was joined by a lovely (and coincidentally, all female) group of keen beginner seed savers at the Oasis Nature Garden (2) in Stockwell to explore some ways of growing crops to save seed. Below are the notes from my workshop.
If you were not at the workshop, hopefully the notes will still serve to inspire and guide you a little. If you feel like you need more, perhaps it’s worth considering attending a seed saving workshop of your own.
The workshop was organised as part of the ‘Spring Re-skilling Workshop’ (ref) series run by the London Freedom Seed Bank (3). The aims of the London Freedom Seed Bank are to:
- Educate people to help them to save seeds properly through trainings into how to ensure biodiversity, quality and varietal purity
- Provide a community resource for people to utilise as a seed bank (3)
My workshop goes through the first point. After the workshop, participants could take home a variety of their choice from the Seed Bank, to grow and save seeds from which they can then pass back to the Seed Bank during the Autumn Harvest festival.
This is the workshop plan:
- Why save seed?
You may want to save seed to save money (so you don’t have to keep buying new seeds every year), to keep a variety which is not generally available, or to create an abundance of seeds which you can share with others. The Heritage Seed Library (4) – a great resource for any seed saver, and well worth a look – also gives these reasons why people might want to save seeds:
– To preserve a link with the past
– To assure a supply of a particular variety
– “Making a deliberate stand against current trends in the seed industry” *(we will go into more detail about this in section 2)
-To create surplus seed
– Because they have always done so….
– To stop genetic erosion and preserve biodiversity (5)
When we save seeds, we are taking our autonomy over what we are producing, preserving and consuming. It is important when we do this that we understand what open pollinated techniques are, and how they differ from commercial seed production techniques.
- The difference between Commercial and Open Pollinated
Most commercial seeds – whether they are for sale for farmers in the large-scale agriculture industry, or for home-growing gardeners, are produced specifically for ease of growing all crops more or less the same i.e. all of the crops will be suited to more or less the same environment, will need the same chemical inputs, and will crop at more or less the same time. For commercial growers who have to fulfil the demands of market quotas this is very useful (1). Indeed, in the EU it is illegal for seeds to be sold for commercial use which do not conform to strict criteria of “Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability” (1, 6).
To this end, many commercial seeds are bred to conform to these standards. One method which has been discovered of creating seeds which produce crops that are distinctive, uniform and stable is to hybridise, or cross-breed, two different strains from the same family. The resulting offspring all contain the same genetic material and so all follow more or less identical growing patterns. This type of seed-breeding is known as “F1” as the seeds created are the “first filial” generation of the new variety.
Can you save seeds from F1 varieties?
As F1 varieties have two different parents, when you save seeds from them to plant the resulting offspring will revert to either one of the two parents, or a random mix of them. This means they will not grow “true to type”: you will not be able to save a particular variety from them as you cannot guarantee what characteristics the plants will have.
If you wish to create your own, new variety, saving seeds from F1 varieties may be a good place to start. Then you need to save seeds from numerous successive generations (at least four generations are needed to stabilise the variety), killing all of the plants which do not exhibit the varieties you are looking for, so that you can create a strain which is pure. This is the method which breeders use, but it involves a lot of trial and error, and sacrificing of plants which you will not be able to use for eating or other things. As such, saving seeds from F1 varieties is not suitable for anyone except those wishing to dedicate time and space to breeding new varieties.
If you simply wish to save seeds for use next year, it is definitely better to grow crops from Open Pollinated seeds.
Open Pollinated techniques
When seeds are Open Pollinated (sometimes shortened to OP), it means that they reproduce naturally. Seeds created using this technique are resilient, adaptable to numerous climatic and chemical changes and variable. The last characteristic is important to note as it means that when using OP seeds you need to actively preserve the varietal strain by making sure that they are not too variable.
- Life Cycle
This is a generalised, simplified version of the life cycle of a plant:
For most growers, especially commercial growers, they only reach the second stage and then cut the cycle short by harvesting all plants. Even if the plant is being grown for the seed as a crop, as with corn (zea mays) or fruits such as tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum) and peppers capsicum annuum), then chances are that if the seed is harvested and re-planted the plants will not grow true-to-type (see Section 2, above).
The growers then have to buy new seeds if they wish to continue growing the following year. This is very useful for commercial seed producers as they have a continuing customer base.
But how do the seeds keep being produced?
If you are interested in the life cycle, it is important to note that even with commercial seeds, someone somewhere is going through the whole life cycle – even if they are F1, they still need to keep producing parent plants for the hybridised seeds. However, the commercial life cycle looks more like this:
The seeds which are then available to the public will not be true to type when re-planted. When you look at who owns what in the commercial seed market (see for example seed co mind map) it is clear that there are only a few key companies. It is not in their short-term financial interests to preserve a wide variety of crops as these are more difficult to maintain, so they do not. Since the Second World War, we have lost an estimated 70% (7) of our food crop varieties.
One more thing to note which may be of interest is that all of the major seed companies are also agrichemical companies so it is in their interest to produce seeds which rely on or are adapted to heavy use of e.g. fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides. This is true even of seeds which are not F1 – they will still have been bred to be reliant on a ‘junk food’ diet.
What do points 1, 2 and 3 mean about saving seeds?
– It is important to save seeds if we wish to have greater nutritional choice, biodiversity and food security
– Seed saving is about creating a diversity of choices in terms of numbers of varieties available but at the same time is about keeping those varieties distinct to create more adaptability and resilience
So, when we are saving seeds, we need to be thinking about the wider picture of keeping many different varieties – some of which have been bred for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years – alive. However, on a practical, individual level, it is just as important to consider the importance of varietal purity and ensuring we keep our strains from mixing with others.
- Cross-pollinating and self-pollinating plants
To make our seed saving as easy as possible, we also have to be aware of some more distinctions.
Annuals, perennials and biennials
Many of our garden crops are annuals – this means that they naturally die after one growing season, so their seeds are produced at the end of that growing season.
Some examples of common annual crops include
– Tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum)
– Lettuce (Lactuca Sativa)
– Peas (Phaseolus Vulgaris)
– Peppers (Capsicum Annuum)*
*These are annual crops in temperate regions, though in the tropics/warm environments such as hothouses, can be grown as perennials.
Many of our garden crops are biennials – this means they take two years to complete their growing cycle, so you have to care for them for this long if you wish to harvest seed from them.
Some examples of biennial crops include
– Carrot (Daucus Carota subsp. Sativus)
– Parsnip (Pastinaca Sativa)
– Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Brussels Sprouts, Kohl Rabi (Brassica Oleracea)
– Beetroot and Chard (Beta Vulgaris)
Many of our garden crops are perennials – their life cycle lasts more than two years and it can be a number of years before they produce seeds.
Some examples of perennial crops include
– Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
– Globe Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus)
– Blackcurrant (Ribes Nigrum)
– Gooseberry (Ribes Grossularia)
*Strawberries, though a perennial shrub, can be disregarded when it comes to seed saving as all cultivated strawberries are produced using hybridisation (of Fragaria x Ananassa) and therefore will not produce true-to-type offspring. Most crops grown in this way are clones.
In order to reproduce and create seeds, plants need to reproduce using flowers which have both male and female parts which need to exchange pollen for reproduction to happen(this is true for the majority of plants, and all relevant food crops). This pollen exchange can happen by wind, insects or other menas. With flowers, it is important to note two further distinctions, the difference between self-pollinating and cross-pollinating plants.
Plants which are self-pollinating can reproduce with themselves i.e. they . These plants are also known as self-fertile.
Flowers which have the capacity for self-pollination have the male and female parts in the same flower. These flowers are known as perfect flowers.
Plants which are cross-pollinating have male and female parts in separate flowers; sometimes on the same plant and sometimes on different plants. These are known as imperfect flowers.
Cross-pollinating plants have the capacity to cross-breed with any other variety in that species. For some crops, this is a huge variety; for example, your broccoli seeds can cross-breed not only with other broccoli varieties but also with any other variety in the same family (brassica oleracea) – this includes cabbage, kale, Brussel sprouts and swede!
So which plants are easiest to save seeds from?
As a beginner seed saver, or an experienced seed saver who wants to ensure the best success possible, the easiest plants to save seeds from are going to be annual crops (so that you only have one growing season before you can harvest the seeds) which are self-fertile (so that there is less risk of cross-pollination).
Great! So, er…how do I know which ones these are?
Though the botany of perfect and imperfect flowers is quite simple, it may not be possible to tell whether a plant is self-pollinating just from looking at it. These pictures are all of plants which are self-pollinating:
As you can see, the flowers are variable in shape, colour, number of petals etc. Therefore it is useful to look up whichever crop you are planning to grow to make sure it is self-pollinating. Two useful resources are the Plants for a Future database, and the HSL guidelines, which also go into more detail about the biological aspects.
- Seed Saving from Self-pollinating plants
Even with self-pollinating plants, cross-pollination can still be an issue, so it may be best to only grow one variety from every family you plan to save seed from.
When you are growing plants for seed, you have to be prepared to sacrifice some of the plants in order to ensure varietal purity and high-quality seed. You need to keep an eye on your plants, and if any of them seem to be exhibiting characteristics which are not typical of the strain, you need to take them out and kill them before they begin flowering. The same is true of any plants which are not as strong or healthy as the others.
This practice is known as “rogueing” and it needs to be factored in to your planting plan. However many plants you want to end up with, you need to plant more to take into account the ones you may have to get rid of. The HSL guidelines go into more detail on amounts for specific species.
Some self-fertile annual varieties and tips on saving seeds from them
All of these crops are self-pollinating annuals:
– Broad Beans (Vicia Faba)
– French Beans (Phaseolus Vulgaris)*
– Lettuce (Lactuca Sativa)
– Lima Bean (Phaseolus Lunatus)
– Pea (Pisum Sativum)
– Peanut (Arachis Hypogaea)
– Pepper – Sweet and Chili (Capsicum Anuum)
– Runner Beans (Phaseolus Coccineus)*
– Tomato (Solanum Lycopersicum)
I will go into detail here about one variety, the Tomato (Solanum Lycopersicum) – a very easy plant to save seeds from and recommended by many as the first to try.
For detailed guidlines on the others check out the HSL guidelines.
All tomatoes are self-fertile, with 3 exceptions:
– Solanum pimpinellifolium (currant tomato) – generally thought of as the wild ancestor of the tomato.
– Potato-leaved varieties of tomato of which there are at least 400. Some examples include: Brandywine True Black and Cherokee Purple.
If unsure, you can check out www.tatianastomatobase.com (8) which has a comprehensive list of varieties
– Double Blossom Beefsteak
If your tomatoes are not one of these three exceptions then you can grow more than 1 variety at a time
– When growing for seed, bear in mind that different varieties produce different amounts of seeds and it is not always the case that the bigger the fruit the more seeds.
– The seeds are inside the fruit. Best way to harvest the seeds is to allow the fruit to ripen on the plant. Make sure the fruits you are harvesting seeds from are fully mature – even though firm tomatoes are good to eat, the seeds will not be ready until the fruit is fully ripe.
–Saving – Use the fermentation method. I go into detail about how to do this here: Seed Saving Part 2 (1).
Tomato seeds need to be fermented in order to ensure viability because of the coating around each seed which inhibits germination. Fermentation also destroys seed-borne diseases.
– One thing to mention is that when using the fermentation method you need to check the seeds in the water every day and strain the water and bad seeds out as soon as the mould appears, as if you leave it too long, they may start to sprout!
– Storage: Make sure you dry the seeds properly in a well-ventilated, dry space. HSL recommends a plate or sheet of glass, if you have one lying around. Then store them in a packet with the date and variety written clearly on it.
– Tomato seeds can be viable for up to 6 years when stored correctly.
1. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Seed Saving, part 2: Practical ways to save seed’. https://permaculturenews.org/2014/11/14/seed-saving-part-2-practical-ways-to-save-seed// – retrieved 28/3/15
- Oasis, 2014. ‘Oasis Play: Nature Garden’. http://oasisplay.org.uk/come-and-play/nature-garden/ – retrieved 28/3/15
- London Freedom Seed Bank, 2014. ‘About Us’. https://londonfreedomseedbank.wordpress.com/about/ – retrieved 28/3/15
- Garden Organic, 2015. ‘Heritage Seed Library Seed Saving Guidelines’. http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/seed-saving-guidelines– retrieved 28/3/15
- Garden Organic, 2015. ‘Heritage Seed Library Seed Saving Guidelines: Why save Seed?’ Available as a PDF here: http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/sites/www.gardenorganic.org.uk/files/resources/hsl/1_WhySaveSeed.pdf – retrieved 28/3/15
- Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Seed Saving part 1: Seedy Issues’. Permaculture News, 18/10/14. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/10/18/seed-saving-part-1-seedy-issues/ – retrieved 28/3/15
- Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. http://bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home/ – retrieved 28/3/15
- Tatiana’s Tomato Base, 2015. ‘Main Page’. http://tatianastomatobase.com/wiki/Main_Page – retrieved 28/3/15