Seed saving for free plants is easy. It’s been the traditional way over thousands of years and it’s given us the wonderful choice of vegetables that we eat today. But it’s only been in relatively recent years that the professional seed companies have taken over. With a little care and planning anyone can collect their own seeds. They’ll be better than the ones you can buy because they’re already perfect for your own conditions, resulting in better germination, and stronger, healthier plants.
But it’s not simply a case of picking the prettiest and most perfect fruit or veg and just collecting those seeds for guaranteed success. It depends on the plant’s origins as you want to be sure to collect healthy seed that is true-to-type and keeps well.
There are three different types of seed stock to choose from but for seed saving you need to make sure that they are open pollinated or heirloom, and not the hybrid varieties.
Open Pollinated plants are pollinated from the wind, birds and bees and this develops more genetic diversity. The resulting plants are able to adapt slowly and naturally to the local growing conditions and will remain true-to-type year after year.
Heirloom Varieties are particularly successful stock which has been passed down within the generations, similar to inheriting the family silver. These have been open pollinated and come with a traceable history of cultivation which guarantees the quality and success of the seed.
Hybrid Varieties (often labeled F1) are where the pollen from two different popular varieties have been crossed commercially to produce a new hybrid plant. These are normally developed for their particularly successful high yielding crops, however any seed produced by hybrid varieties will be genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in subsequent years .The plants that follow would not be true-to-type, and would be considerably less vigorous.
Seed Saving Secrets
- You need to be sure that the seed you are collecting comes from open pollinated or heirloom varieties
- They come from good strong healthy plants
- They need to be well dried and well labelled.
- Store them in a cool dry place.
- There are slightly different things you need to do for different types of seeds, so refer to the list below. There are so many more types of flowers, fruit and vegetables that you can grow, but these are the ones that I have grown successfully from seeds, collected from my own plants.
Broad Beans cross pollinate with other varieties readily. So if you want to keep your seeds pure, then you need to plant different varieties well away from each other. Check out if your neighbours are also growing broad beans and choose your spot accordingly.The easiest method is to grow them in a large block and only collect seeds from the plants that have grown in the middle of the block . This should cut down the chance of contamination from other plants nearby.
Allow the seed beans to mature and dry out on the bush. When the pods become brown and wrinkly, you can shell them out. Make sure they are really dry by testing with your thumb nail and if it leaves a dent, then allow them to dry for a bit longer in a warm airy place. Store them in labelled envelopes in a cool dry place and they’ll keep for several years.
French Runner Beans – It’s best to ear-mark some good, strong bean plants specially for seed stock, rather than simply collecting the left-over pods at the end of the season. Grow your seed crop at least 6 feet away from any other variety. Although french beans are self-pollinating, they can still be crossed by insects with other varieties nearby.
Runner bean flowers get pollinated by being tripped by wind or insects, and are much more likely to cross with other varieties grown nearby than french beans. You can mimic this tripping by carefully tapping the bean flowers when they are freshly open. Again, to obtain pure seed, make sure your seed crop are planted well away from any other variety. If you’re growing in confined spaces, you can share your seeds with your neighbours and then they’ll be growing the same type of beans – thus keeping the stock pure.
Collect and store the seeds in the same way as for broad beans. Once they are dry, shell out the beans and allow to dry for a bit longer out of the pods until they are really hard. You want to make sure there is no moisture left in them, or they’ll be prone to going mouldy.
Peas are easier than beans as they mostly self pollinate. Set aside a few good, strong plants specially for seed production, and allow the peas to mature until the pods are brown and the seeds start to rattle. If you’re harvesting the seeds in bad weather, pull up the whole plants, hang them out somewhere airy to dry inside and only shell the pods when they are really dry. Label and store them in the same way as for beans.
Sweet peppers and chillies are members of the same Capsicum family, and are completely self-pollinating, setting their fruit without any extra help. However they do cross pollinate easily, and if you’re not careful you could end up with very hot, sweet red peppers! So keep your chilli plants very well away from sweet pepper plants.
To save the seed, take ripe peppers from your most isolated plants, cut them open carefully, and remove the seeds carefully. If the chillies are very hot, you may want to wear gloves, and be careful to avoid your eyes! Dry the seeds out in a warm airy place until they become crisp.
Tomatoes – These days most varieties of tomato are self pollinating, and do not cross, so it’s easy to collect good seeds from a fully ripened tomato that comes from a healthy, strong plant. But as tomato seeds are a bit fiddly, follow these steps;
- Slice the tomato in half, and squeeze out the seeds and juice into a jar.
- Leave this to ferment for a few days in a warm place – this will remove the jelly-like coating on each seed, and kills off many diseases that can be carried on the seeds. After 3 days it should start to look a bit mouldy and smelly.
- Then add 1/2 a cup of water to the jar, and stir well. The good seeds should sink to the bottom of the jar.
- Carefully skim off the mould and any floating seeds and empty the good seeds into a sieve and wash them thoroughly under running water.
- Allow them to drain and dry off, and then tip the sieve out onto a china plate which will stop them from sticking.
- Put the plate somewhere warm and airy and once they are completely dry, carefully remove them, label and store them with your other seeds.
Lettuce flowers are self pollinating, and very rarely cross. Collect the seeds from good strong plants which did not bolt early. Once the lettuces have flowered, the seeds will ripen gradually over the next few weeks. Harvest them daily to get the maximum yield, by shaking the flower heads into a bag. If there are lots of seeds available, then cut the whole plant and put it head first into a bucket, shaking and rubbing to remove the seeds.
To sort the seed from the chaff, shake it gently in a kitchen sieve. The chaff rises to the top, and the seeds gravitate to the bottom, then you can pick them out. Don’t worry if there are little bits of chaff left with the seed, it won’t cause any harm.
Make sure the seeds are completely dry before labelling and storing and they’ll keep for around 3 years in cool, dry conditions..
Pumpkins, squashes, marrows & courgettes are all good friends and will cross readily with each other. Usually the only way to save pure seeds is to hand pollinate a couple of fruit. This method is very easy and works for pumpkins, squashes, courgettes & marrows – and also avoids any mix ups!
- All these plants have both male and female flowers, and the fruits develop from the female flower once it has been fertilised by the pollen from the male flower – just like the birds and the bees!
- The female flowers can be identified by the baby fruit which can be found just beneath the flower. Male flowers only have a straight stem.
- You need to transfer some pollen from a male flower into a female flower, and then make sure that no pollen gets introduced from any other plants.
- Pick a freshly opened male flower and tear off the petals. Brush the pollen laden stamen of the male flower on to each section of the stigma into the centre of a freshly opened female flower.
- After this hand fertilisation, close the flower again with a rubber band or garden string so that no insects can get in with with any ‘foreign’, pollen.
- Then tie a piece of string loosely around the stem of the female flower to remind you which one is which.
- Now leave the young fruit to develop and ripen. After harvesting, keep them in a cool dry place for another month or so to ripen further indoors.
- Cut the fruit in half, scoop out the seeds, leaving the flesh for cooking as you wish. Wash the seed in a sieve, rubbing it between your hands to get rid of the fibres, and then shake off as much excess water as possible.
- Spread the seed out on a baking sheet to dry on a sunny window sill straight away. When the seeds are dry enough, they will be crispy and will snap when bent.
- Store them in the usual way.