My garden looks a bit rough and ruffled now. Some places, I’ve pulled crops out, other things are long and straggly and threaten to fall over. Those are my very best plants, saved for seeds.
Saving seeds isn’t all that hard – and at the same time, it really is, if you want good quality. At the Sow Seeds workshop yesterday, we were talking about our criteria when we buy seeds, and the main three were: organically certified, locally grown and easy to grow. If you save your own seeds and barter with other (skilled) seed savers, you might get all of those, for free.
First of all, a bit of basic botany: different plants reproduce differently. From the flowers – pretty or invisible – to the seed, the process can be quite different. The most important part to know about, as a seed saver, is that varieties sometimes cross-pollinate and the plant you grow from those seeds will be a hybrid, which sometimes doesn’t resemble either of the parent plants.
Say for example that two of your lettuces are bolting (going to make flowers), one red and frilly and the other a cos-type heading one. You let them flower and go to seed, collect the seed, clean it and store it dark and dry for next year. What those seeds produce could be a red cos, or a frilly green and red speckled or some other form – and you can’t really be sure of the taste they will have either!
Knowing which plants will cross and which won’t is to 101 of seed saving. The ones you can be quite sure will look like their parent are: tomatos, beans and peas, parsley and coriander. This said, lettuce and carrots also work well if you only let one variety go to seed in your garden and are lucky that your neighbours don’t have one flowering at the same time.
Then, there’s the roughing process. You only want to save seed from your absolutely best plant. If, in a row of lettuces, you have one that is growing fast and big, doesn’t catch any bugs or diseases, is crunchy and sweet when you taste the leaves and takes time before it goes to seed, don’t eat that one. Leave it to flower and collect the seeds afterwards. They will have the genetic heritage which expresses the best in your garden, and over the years, it wil co-evolve with your soil and your tastebuds and your climat.
Even better, start that selection process from the very beginning. Sow 3 times more than you actually want to eat. When you prick out, take only the 10 strongest. When you plant out, plant 6-8 plants. And when you save the seeds, do it from the strongest of those plants.
Good luck! Even though it looks a bit messy, I’m happy to save some of my seeds and participate in this link to all the people who saved and developed these cultivated food plants from wild harvested plants over thousands of years. There are some great resources out there, and for beginners I would specifically recommend “Save your own seeds” booklet from Koanga Institute. You can buy it online or at Commonsense Organics.
As a last point of advice, even if it’s quite obvious, it makes more sense to save the seeds you use a lot of (coriander, dill, carrot, lettuce, beans, peas…) than the ones you only plant a few plants of (tomatos, zucchini, melon…). In spring, workerBe Oasis will have a seed swap event, so you can always bring your surplus there.