Seed Saving, Part 2: Practical Ways to Save Seed
Saving wildflower seeds can be a great way to spread biodiversity
– like this selection harvested by Josie Jeffrey
Having learned some background knowledge on why you would want to save seeds in the first place (see Part I), you may now be wondering how to go about doing it.
There are many ways to do this, and though it can be as simple as keeping a few leftover tomato seeds from your salad, you can gain a lot more success in growing and certainty of what you are actually saving if you understand a few basic practical techniques.
Thanks to the Heritage Seed Library (1), run by Garden Organic (2), UK, I now feel equipped to share these basics in a guide which hopefully will help you to preserve biodiversity and encourage more plant growing.
Choosing your seeds: sourcing and spacing
First, it is important to decide what it is you want from your seeds. Where will you grow them? How much space will you have? Do you want them to crop/flower early in the season or later on, or a mixture?
All of these questions can be taken into consideration and the answers chosen according to what you feel is best for your seeds. When you are saving seeds from plants which you have grown yourself using open pollinated seeds all you have to do here is apply the ‘observe and interact’ principle.
For example, when your plants begin producing seed, observe them to see which ones produce the seeds earliest. If you wish to grow an early variety next year then save these seeds. The same goes for late varieties, and to some extent to height of plants and size of crops, though as open pollinated varieties are quite adaptable, this will probably vary a little depending on where you plant them and what the weather is like for the cropping period.
Seeds of caution
If you used F1 seeds to grow your plants then this principle will not necessarily work as seeds produced by F1 hybrid plants do not grow ‘true-to-type’ (3). Indeed, many seed savers recommend not bothering with saving seeds from F1 varieties at all (4) (5); since you cannot preserve a distinct genetic line, and therefore have no idea whether or not your plants will produce good crops. If you are going to be putting in all the effort of saving your seeds and re-planting them the following season then you need to know it will be worth it, and with seeds from F1 varieties the chances of this are quite low.
If you are using seeds saved from fruit or vegetables which you bought at a shop or market, the chances are they were grown using F1 seeds (4) and so you will run into the same problem. This is even the case with organic foodstuffs: in many countries, including the EU, organic labelling standards mean that something cannot be classified ‘organic’ if there are any genetically-modified organisms in the ingredients, but as hybridisation is achieved using unintrusive breeding methods the same does not apply for F1 seeds (6).
However, if you collect your seeds from wild plants, then you can again use the ‘observe and interact’ principle to decide which ones are likely to be viable and potent when you plant them.
Gathering the seeds
I have been saving seeds for many years; sometimes from crops which I have grown, sometimes from things I have picked in the wild, and other times from fruit and vegetables which I have bought or been given. Inspired by the idea of being able to garden anywhere, I would zealously separate a few seeds from pretty much anything I could get my hands on, put it in a paper envelope, label it, and plant it as soon as I got a chance. Admirable though this enthusiasm may have been, as I now know (see information above), a lot of it may have been slightly misplaced. My seeds were often completely unviable and even if I did manage to grow new crops with them, as I usually had little or no idea of the original variety I could not necessarily maintain a particular strain and so my crops would not have any long-term genetic endurance.
From the Heritage Seed Library I also learned that pollination needs to be taken into account. So if you are growing a particular variety of a plant which can be pollinated by wind, such as for example corn (Zea Mays), if there is a different strain growing within the radius in which that plant could be pollinated your seeds may not end up the same variety as you planned. With corn the radius for wind pollination is three miles (5), so if you are gardening anywhere near a commercial farm which has the same wind-pollinated crops you are planning, perhaps it is best to reconsider.
Restraint may sometimes be useful
If your seeds are in danger of cross-pollination from as far as three miles away, then they can certainly be cross-pollinated in your own garden or growing area. For this reason if you wish to save a particular variety of one crop it is best to only grow that variety and no others. When growing corn this is relatively easy; simply only plant one type of corn. When it comes to other families, however, things can get confusing. The brassica family (Brassicaceae), for example, contains such familiar and desirable food crops as broccoli (Brassica Oleracea), mustard (Brassica Cretica), kohl rabi (Brassica Oleracea Gongylodes) and turnip (Brassica Rapa); some of which can interbreed freely with each other, though you can not necessarily tell this just from knowing the plant (5).
There are some useful resources out there to help decide which vegetables will be most successful (see for example 7), and perhaps one of the most useful things I have learnt is that, however tempting it might be to fill your garden with a blossoming diversity of different types of veg, in terms of actually being able to save that diversity for coming generations it may be more helpful to grow just one variety of each different crop at a time. This is not to say only grow one thing in your garden; but simply that instead of doing what I did and having my Hopi Blue Corn right next to my Chocolate Cherry and Rainbow varieties, which looked amazing but meant that any saved seed had a low chance of viability, it can be beneficial to exercise restraint occasionally and grow, for example, your three sisters guild using just one type of each of the sisters.
A key part of utilising permaculture in garden design for me is to choose types of plant, zoning, etc., in a way which means that the garden will, at least to some extent, look after itself. When applying this to which seeds you will save you can choose which plants are doing well in your garden to collect seeds from, as their seeds will be more adapted to the climate, soil, etc. it is also key to choose the strongest and healthiest plants from which to gather your seeds.
When I attended Sally Cunningham’s (Heritage Seed Library) Seed Saving Course in Brighton (5) one way she suggested you can remember which plants you wish to save seeds from is to tie a piece of strong, brightly-coloured wool or string around those which you see are growing well, so that you will remember that it is those ones which you will harvest. When you choose characteristics like this, if you keep marking the plants with the strongest tendencies of whatever it is you want more of with each successive generation, then it only takes three generations for the characteristic to ‘fix’ (5). This means that if you keep saving seeds from plants which exhibit the same desirable characteristic – be it early cropping, tall height or whatever you wish from your plants – then after three generations you will have effectively nurtured into existence a whole new strain which is stable in those characteristics.
How to harvest your seeds
So you have decided which seeds you want to harvest, what you want them for and where they are. Now how do you make sure you will be able to grow good crops with them next year? There are a number of simple tips for harvesting and storing seeds, which if followed will greatly increase chances of viability.
Firstly, the best method with which to collect your seeds differs depending on the type of plant. There are three main ways to collect seeds: dry collection, wet collection and fermentation (4). With all techniques you need to make sure you have chosen from your best plants (this is where brightly coloured wool comes in handy). When collecting from your garden, you will inevitably sacrifice some food crops in order to let your chosen plant go to seed so it is important that you choose a healthy one to do this.
Dry collection is for seeds which dry on the plant. This includes many wild flowers such as marigolds (Calendula spp) and poppies (Papaver spp), most salads such as lettuce (Lactuca spp) and rocket (Eruca Vesicaria Sativa), and brassicas (Brassicaceae spp). To collect seeds in this way there are three steps:
1) Harvesting: cut the seeds from the stalk or stem.
2) Threshing: separate the seeds from the ‘chaff’ or seed pods, and from the stalks. This can be done by placing the seeds in their pods in a saucer and rubbing them between your fingers and thumbs to break away the encasing material.
Threshing by hand
When you have a larger amount of seeds to collect than can be practically threshed in this way, it is a good idea to use sieves with different sized holes for different species’ seed — such as the ones used by the Heritage Seed Library.
Heritage Seed Library seed sieves
3) Winnowing: this is similar to threshing, in that you are continuing to separate the seeds from any other material present but doing it on a finer level. When harvesting seeds on a small scale this can be as simple as putting them on a saucer and blowing them gently, to lift the unwanted material away. Some seed savers use a simple machine with fans which do the blowing for you. This step is important as you want your seeds as clean as possible. If there are still bits of chaff left on the seeds this has the potential to rot and damage them (5).
This technique is for seeds which grow inside the fruit or vegetable they come from, and so have to be extracted from it (4). This includes fruit such as strawberries (Fragaria spp) and raspberries (some Rubus spp), as well as cucumbers, pumpkins and squashes (all Cucurbitaceaes). In order to harvest these seeds, you need a sieve and (perhaps more importantly) to be prepared to get your hands gooey and messy.
- First, scoop out the seeds from your chosen fruit or vegetable into the sieve which is placed over a sink or bowl. Pour water into the sieve and give the seeds a good mix with your hands to separate them from the goo.
- Rinse and repeat. If the process begins getting too repetitive, you can try just leaving the seeds in a bowl of water for an hour or so, allowing the debris to float to the top and away from the seeds. If you are fermenting your seeds you will wish to do it this anyway (see next section).
Getting gooey with the seeds
This process is very similar to wet collection, but after you have washed the debris from the seeds you then leave them in a bowl or jar of water for two or three days in order to ferment.
The reason for this is that some seeds, in particular many from the Solanaceae family such as tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum) and peppers (Solanum Capsicum) contain a coating on the seeds which prevents them from germinating until they have been digested. In a wild situation the fruit would be eaten by an animal, such as a human for example, and the seeds excreted in a handy ball of fertiliser once they had been through the digestion process. With fermentation we can bypass the need to actually digest the seeds (which could get a little too messy…) by placing the seeds in water which is open to the air, and thus will catch inside it bacteria similar to those present in many animals’ stomachs. This process is very similar to lacto-fermentation of food in that you are catching bacteria from the air in order for them to do a process for you (for more on this see for example 8).
After leaving the seeds for a couple of days in the water, you should notice a kind of milky residue in there with them. There may be green mould as well; this is all a good sign that the fermentation process is working.
Drying and storing the seeds
Once you have harvested your seeds it is very important that you dry them swiftly and thoroughly before storing them. Many seed savers recommend using a dehumidifier for this process, and in a damp climate like we have here in the UK, this may not be a bad investment idea. It might be worth finding out if anyone in your local community is also saving seeds, and clubbing together to buy one which you can all use.
When your seeds are dry, make sure you label them correctly, and store them in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Ideally you want a faint current of air running through to keep the seeds fresh. Many people use paper envelopes to store seeds in, though the Heritage Seed Library recommend kilner jars with hermetically sealing lids as the best storage containers.
Ideal containers for seeds
Now you have the beginnings of a seed bank – and you are ready to grow!
Which process is which?
If you are unsure which process to use for your chosen seeds, the Heritage Seed Library resources (7) can be useful. There are some varying opinions on when to utilise fermentation; scientifically speaking you should be fermenting all seeds which have the anti-germination coating, which includes tomatoes (5); yet at the Seed Saving Course a number of people mentioned that they had saved tomato seeds by simply scooping the seeds from the fruit onto kitchen paper and then planted the paper with success.
With this in mind, it is good to remember that although when you save seeds using the techniques mentioned above you will increase your chances of seed viability, seeds themselves are little pieces of life and, however much they have been interfered with by humans, let’s face it, they still want to grow! So if you have saved seeds using a technique which might not have been optimum, you might as well try planting them anyway.
As Sally Cunningham said,
Do we want to have all of our food in the hands of a few multinationals? … You saving seed, it’s only a small thing, but it’s your own little bit against the machine. (5)
A key way to increasing resilience in ways other than the “machine” is to learn alternative methods. Part of the learning process is experimentation and making mistakes, so go on, try it!
- Garden Organic, 2014. ‘What is the Heritage Seed Library?’ http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl — retrieved 4/11/14
- Garden Organic, 2014. ‘Home’. http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk — retrieved 4/11/14
- Royal Horticultural Society, 2014. ‘What are F1 Hybrids?’ https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=710#section-2 — retrieved 4/11/14
- The Seed Ambassadors Project, 2010. ‘A Guide to Seed Saving, Seed Stewardship and Seed Sovereignty’. Seed Ambassadors Project: Crawfordsville
- Cunningham, Sally, 2014. Seed Saving Course. Garden House, Brighton, 18/10/14
- Daughter of the Soil, 2014. ‘F1 Hybrids: What Every Gardener Should Know’. http://daughterofthesoil.blogspot.co.uk/2006/07/f1-hybrids-what-every-gardener-should.html — retrieved 09/10/14
- Garden Organic, 2014. ‘Seed Saving Guidelines’. http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/seed-saving-guidelines — retrieved 05/11/14
- Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘The Simple Art of Lacto-Fermentation: An Introduction’. http://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/the-simple-art-of-lacto-fermentation-an-introduction — retrieved 05/11/14