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Cambridge Allotments 2000


Save Money
Save Old Varieties 
Save Seed!

By Vince Lea
Cambridge Organic Gardeners
affiliated to the
 Henry Doubleday Research Association

A draft for our booklet
Comments please to

Growing your own vegetables used to mean growing your own seed as well, and for some of us, it still does!  Add an extra dimension to your gardening, by following plants through generations from seed to seed.   There are many other benefits to this activity, too, such as the beautiful flowers that vegetables like carrots and leeks produce, and the stately seed heads that follow look good in any flower border.  These flowers also attract useful insects into the vegetable garden, drawn by the supplies of pollen and nectar.  If you deliberately grow a lot of pulses to produce seed, not only will you have a supply for next year, but also a high protein vegetable that can easily be stored for use in the winter - why not grow your own chilli beans, haricots and dried peas?  Some crops produce so much seed, that you can let them scatter a proportion of it naturally in the garden, where it will germinate and provide you with more plants for absolutely no effort whatsoever.   Some years you don’t have to sow a single lettuce or spinach seed at all!

Some modern varieties are protected by Plant Breeders Rights or patents, which mean that it is illegal to save seed from them, unless you pay the breeder royalties or get permission.  This is an important ruling which ensures that the very expensive business of producing improved varieties is not lost to commercial competitors or farmers who save seed themselves and possibly sell it or regrow the variety, with no benefit going back to the breeder.  Many modern varieties are further protected through the use of F1 hybrids, which means the seed packet you buy contains the seed from a cross between two breeding lines, and if you produce seed from these it will contain an often unsuccessful mixture of the two different types.    Old varieties, however, become public domain after a period of usually 25 years, and are free to use.  Because of this, there is pressure from breeders to eliminate these old varieties, which no longer make them any money, and to encourage the use of new improved varieties.  Every year, before a variety can be sold, it has to be registered on the national list of recommended varieties, which is a way of controlling the quality and authenticity of seed sold, but is also expensive enough to discourage the sale of seed of vegetables that do not have a mass market.  This means that old varieties which suit the home gardener but not the commercial producer are deleted from the list and are no longer available.  For example, tall pea varieties that you can pick without bending, and produce masses of peas through the summer, are no good if you want to harvest with a combine the moment the whole field reaches perfection, so the gardener is left with a choice of dwarf, leafless varieties good for freezing - and what’s the point in growing frozen peas?

Of course, like everything in gardening, it’s not always straightforward, and some vegetables give more problems than others.  A few simple guidelines should help to get you started.  See over the page for nine handy hints.

Successful seed saving  

  1. Always choose varieties that are true breeding, not F1 or mixtures, and these should be old varieties.
  2. The easiest vegetables to save are the ones that self pollinate before the flower is fully open, so that without taking any precautions you can be sure of the seed coming true next year:  Lettuce; Peas; Tomatoes; French beans
  3. Some vegetables have not been bred to a high degree, and there are no real varieties as such, so nothing can go wrong if you grow a few to seed: Rocket; Land cress; Sorrel; Corn salad - these all establish themselves naturally in the garden, a bit like having edible weeds!
  4. The next easiest sorts are the ones which produce lots of seed from a single pollination, so that you only have to protect one or two flowers against stray pollen, and perform a single hand pollination.  You also get to eat the fruit with most of these, so you don’t lose any crop!  Pumpkin, Courgette, Melon, Cucumber (‘Ridge’ varieties are best - don’t eat the greenhouse varieties that you normally prevent from pollination, avoid F1 and all-female varieties).  These ‘cucurbits’ have separate male and female flowers on the same plant, which need to be protected from insects before they open.  When they open, take a male flower (no sign of the fruit behind it) and introduce it to the female (small swelling at the back of the flower is the deveopling fruit).  Peppers and Aubergine just need to be protected from stray pollen (OK in a greenhouse), and make sure the pollen on the flower gets onto the stigma by using a feather or paintbrush (leave till seeds are ripe - don’t eat the old aubergine!).
  5. The trickiest category have lots of flowers, each producing only one or a few seed, and requiring cross-pollination with another plant for success.  These must be grown as a block of plants of the same variety, to ensure pollination and maintain inherent diversity, but they must be protected against pollination from nearby plants of the same or related species.  For some crops, the distance that counts as nearby is as much as a mile, because pollen can be brought by bees or the wind.  These need to be screened from other sources of pollen - e.g., in a polythene cage, but insects or wind must have access to ensure pollination occurs within the cage!   Insect pollinated: Brasssicas, e.g. cabbage, sprouts, broccoli, kale, cauliflower; some other Crucifers, e.g. radish, turnip, oriental vegetables like Pak Choi; Carrot family, e.g. parsnip, parsley; Onion family, e.g. leek; Runner beans; Broad beans - these two beans do not need so much distance - 100 metres or so.         Wind pollinated: Spinach; Beetroot; Sweetcorn.
  6. Once the plants have pollinated, and seed have set, leave them alone to ripen and/or dry on the plant.  Some will need a bit of support, as the seed heads may be quite heavy on long stems.  Tomato and cucumber seed need to be removed from the ripe fruit, washed in dilute bleach to remove the jelly, washed in a sieve and then dried on blotting paper.  Brassicas and Crucifers, as well as peas and beans, should be shelled from the dried pods, and checked for any infestations of grubs which sometimes occur.  Loose seed heads like carrots and onions can be stored whole in paper bags to dry fully, then threshed to release the seed into the bag.
  7. Once extracted and dried, all seed should be stored in packets or jars, in a cool, dry place.
  8. Always make sure that you collect seed from healthy, typical individuals of the variety you want to keep, and observe the plants that grow from them to make sure you haven’t had any outpollinations, mix-ups or disease problems.  Some viruses in particular are seed-borne, and so for things like tomatoes, it is worth getting new sources of seed every few years.
  9. If you’re really keen, why not join the Heritage Seed Library of HDRA, which gives access to old forgotten varieties, lots of information on seed saving, and allows you to swap your seed with that of other savers.  At least pass on a few of your surplus supplies to friends, as most vegetables produce far more seed than you need, and of course it doesn’t keep for ever.

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Latest update 03/03/00