HOW TO SAVE YOUR OWN SEEDS
2. PLANT FAMILIES
3. SAVING SEEDS
4. INDIVIDUAL INSTRUCTIONS
Saving your own seeds is an essential skill. It should be a natural part of growing food sustainably and locally. Large multinational seed companies have succeeded in cornering the markets, controlling over 90 per cent of the seed varieties in the world and threatening traditional varieties, which so often have valuable characteristics and wider gene variations and important local characteristics that are unique, which modern varieties do not have.
For more information see: firstname.lastname@example.org and their ‘SOS Save Our Seeds’ campaign to encourage New Zealanders to save their locally grown seed, and distribute the knowledge about how to do that throughout the country. Get involved by joining or organising local seed swaps and swapping seeds among friends.
If you are involved in a larger enterprise, a large community garden or farm, then I recommend the Koanga Institute’s booklet – Save Your Own Seeds by Kay Baxter. The Koanga Institute and Kay have spent many years saving and protecting heritage seeds and are very experienced at how to do it. They have built up a seed bank of traditional and heritage seeds. Even for the smaller seed saver there is a large amount of useful information in this booklet, much of which I have used in this chapter.
Saving seeds on a small scale can have its problems. Saving seeds over a long time on a small property can lead to a lack of gene diversity, so buying in fresh organically grown seed and/or heritage seed from time to time, or swapping with other gardeners who live some distance away will help. To protect a variety over time and protecting gene diversity can only be done on a larger scale. This is especially important for plants that cross easily with other members of their tribe, like Cucurbitaceae, the cucumber, zucchini and pumpkin family and other plants that are pollinated by insects are difficult to keep true to type.
Having said all that, I highly recommend saving your own seed as much as you can. I remember the first year we saved some tomato seeds and the following spring we sowed them and they came up like mustard and cress, much better than bought ones - so exciting and revealing. We have regularly saved our own seeds over forty years with good results.
2. PLANT FAMILIES
The seeds are ranked in their families, because each family has different needs and treatments.
AMARANTHACEAE – Amaranth
AMARANTHACEAE (sub-family CHENOPODIACEAE) – Quinoa, Beetroot, Silver beet, Spinach beet, Spinach, Lambs Quarters, Good King Henry
AMARYLLIDACEAE – Onion, Chives, Garlic, Leek, Elephant garlic
APIACEAE – Carrot, Parsnip, Celery, Celeriac, Fennel, Parsley, Dill, Chervil, Coriander
ASTERACAEAE – Lettuce, Chicory, Globe Artichoke, Jerusalem Artichoke, Yakon, Scorzonera, Salsify, Shungiku
BRASSICACEAE – Cabbage, Broccoli, Chinese Cabbage, Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Collards, Mizuna, Kale, Radish, Turnips, Swedes, Sea Kale, Cress, Water & Land Cress, Kohlrabi, Horseradish, Mustard
CUCURBITACEAE – Pumpkin, Squash, Zucchini, Cucumber, Melon, Water Melon, Gourd, Choko
FABACEAE – Beans, Chick Pea, Peanut, Peas
LILIACEAE – Asparagus
POACEAE – Barley, Maize, Millet, Oats, Rice, Rye, Sorghum, Wheat
PORTULACEAE – Miner’s Lettuce, Purslane
SOLANACEAE – Cape gooseberry, Eggplant, Pepino, Pepper, Potato, Tamarillo, Tomato
VALERIANACEAE – Corn Salad
3. SAVING SEEDS
There are several stages to saving seeds:
1. When to Plant for Seed Saving
3. Support & Protection
5. First Selection
9. Second Selection
10. Bug Control
When to Plant for Seed Saving:
Usually you just leave the plants in where they were planted or sown and wait for them to run to seed, however with plants that have storage roots, like carrots and parsnips that run to seed in the second year, one can harvest them in the early winter and plant them in another area to flower the next season. Individual details are described for each family.
To maintain healthy stock, rogueing, or selection, is essential. In other words, only selecting from the healthiest plants, pulling out diseased or week plants, or plants that are not true to type, possibly ones that have crossed with another variety. One can also choose plants that have new characteristics thus selectively creating a new strain.
Support and Protection:
Tall plants like broccoli and Brussels sprouts need supporting anyway, but even low plants like a parsnip will produce a reasonably tall flower shoot. So when collecting seed, supports for the growing plants will be needed, by tying to a post or cane. Many seeds are a great attraction to birds, especially sparrows, so netting is often essential to ensure a crop. Be sure to carefully peg down the netting at ground level to stop the birds crawling underneath and make sure the netting is not resting on the seed heads so the birds can peck through.
Broad bean pods tend to go black and the seed green to brown-green. The seeds of brassicas are like little pods – again wait till they are brown or black and the seeds are hard. It is important that the seeds should mature and dry as much as possible on the plant. With seeds heads that might spill their seeds or seed casings like brassicas that might split and spill the seeds, it is a good idea to tie a paper bag over the seedpods, so they spill into the bag.
To save only the best for sowing, you will need to be selective, especially if you want to improve bloodline. In the mountains of Indonesia, and probably many other areas of the globe, the traditional way of selecting the best rice seed, was the women went out into the fields just before the main harvest and only picked seeds from the healthiest, most productive plants. In this way the seeds from the plants that were best adapted to the local climate and conditions and were the most resistant to local pests and diseases, were the ones that were sown each year.
Over many generations there was an improvement in the seed stock, with the occasional introduction of some other seed from other areas to ensure new vitality. This was a brilliant way of saving seed stocks. So, only save seeds from the healthiest plants and the ones true to type and you won’t go far wrong.
Finish drying them by placing the harvest bean or pea pods in a glasshouse, or in a dry warm room in your house. If it remains damp outside, you can hang up whole plants in a dry shed or storeroom to finish drying. For very fine seeds like carrots, or parsley, or the larger seeds of parsnips or celery, they have a flat headed multiple flower head. To stop the seeds from falling, carefully cut the heads and place in paper bags and place in a warm dry place for the heads to finish drying. This method can be used for any fine seed. Thorough drying is essential if the seeds are to be stored through the winter. Commercial seed drying is done with heat, but a gentle natural drying is better for viable seeds the following season, or to keep for several years.
When we first bought our farm, we asked Gerard, an expert in ‘the old ways’, how to thresh wheat once we had grown it, thinking we would need a combine harvester, or other complicated machinery, he said
“What’s the problem? Just spread a tarpaulin out on the floor and beat the sheaves over the back of a chair”.
So, threshing is just shaking, knocking, banging, rubbing – or whatever it takes to shake the seeds from their seed heads. For little seeds like carrots, just rub the heads between your hands over a spread out newspaper or plastic sheet.
Some seeds are more difficult and require a rougher approach; others are very fine and need a more delicate touch:
• Laying the plants on a sheet and stomping or dancing on them will do the trick
• Beating the seed heads with a stick or homemade flail (see the section: ‘How to Grow Grain” section: WHEAT)
• Tomato and other fruit seeds need extracting from the fruits flesh. This will be discussed in the individual sections.
Winnowing is about ways to remove the rubbish, chaff, bits of leaves and dust from the seeds. Usually the seeds are heavier that the trash, so using wind, a fan or blowing will get rid of the lighter stuff. With fine seeds, place them in a wide bowl and while gently tossing the seeds up in the air blow across them. The seeds should drop back and the lighter trash and broken seed husks will float away. Another way is to go outside on a breezy day with two bowls, pouring the seeds from one into the other, the wind will blow the lighter chaff away. For larger seeds and larger amounts use an electric fan set up at one end of a sheet, tipping the seeds in a stream in front of the fan. The best, heaviest seeds will land closest to the fan and the lighter chaff will end up furthest away.
For a lot of wheat, naked oats or naked barley seed, you can do no better than the advice we received from Gerard, who new ‘the old ways’. He said –
“What’s the problem? Just carry your sacks of seed to the top floor of a barn or building on a windy day, having first spread out a long sheet or tarpaulin down wind, and then pour the seeds in a steady stream. The best seeds will land nearest you (some of these to be used for reseeding next year) the next down the line for eating, the next for feeding to the animals and the chaff for bedding the animals and for the compost heap – simple.”
And so we did – and it worked!
To improve your seed lines, you will need to first sieve the seeds, with a sieve that lets only the heaviest and healthiest seeds through. All the rest, the week smaller seeds can be eaten, the healthiest are for sowing next year and beyond.
For small-scale collectors this procedure is not necessary, but for those who are trying to save local heritage, or rare seeds, it is a good idea to illuminate the possibility of the seeds being eaten by bugs. Place your chosen seed for a minimum of three days in the freezer to kill any bugs and eggs of bugs that might eat the seed.
What is important is to write the date of collection and last date they can be sown on each packet – (see the section: ‘Propagation’ – SOWING SEEDS).
4. INDIVIDUAL INTRUCTIONS
Sowing and Planting:
Start them early by sowing in deep seed boxes then plant them out at the same time as sweet corn or maize. Amaranth plants are largely pollinated by wind like maize, so like maize Amaranth should be planted in blocks with 30cm (1ft) between plants in diagonal plantings.
Pull out any plants that do not look true to type, or those that do not look healthy.
By wind, that is why they are grown in blocks.
Support & Protection:
When we grew blocks of Amaranth and Quinoa at Waimarama Community Gardens in Nelson, we soon found that the blocks of plants needed support and the birds were going to eat most of the seed. So, we hammered in high stakes around the edge of the blocks tied with strong string around the edge to stop them blowing over in the wind. We also used the stakes to cover the whole block with netting to keep out the birds, carefully pegging it down.
Harvesting & Drying:
Both Amaranth and Quinoa have fluffy seed-heads, which can hold moisture, so if the autumn weather is not warm and dry, you might have to cut the heads off and lay them on high racks or hang them up in a glasshouse or conservatory to dry properly.
On a small scale the best way I have found is to rub the heads gently to release the seeds and some chaff.
Tip the seed from one container into another when there is a breeze. Do this several times and the seed should be pretty clean. It is then a good idea to place in shallow trays back in the glasshouse to finish drying.
Kept in the dark in dry storage jars or lidded buckets in cool dry conditions, the seed will last for many years, anything from three to ten years.
Amaranthaceae (sub-family Chenopodiaceae)
All in this family are wind pollinated, so plant a minimum of 4 together in a block. For the beets, they are biennial, so either leave them in after the first season or move them in the autumn to flower the next year. Rouge out any that have gone to seed the first year. For Quinoa, as for Amaranth, start them early by sowing in deep seed boxes, then plant in a block.
For Beetroot, Quinoa and Spinach take out the least true to type. For Silverbeet and Spinach Beet, only save seeds from those that look strong and true to type.
Support & Protection:
When they have started to grow to flower, you will have to individually stake the plants, because they grow tall. The birds love the seeds so netting will also be necessary.
Harvesting & Drying:
As they ripen the seeds will drop easily, so cutting the heads just before they are fully ripe, hang them up with bags tied over the heads, or lay the heads down on trays to dry in a glasshouse until the heads are dry and crunchy.
The best way I have found for threshing Quinoa is to run one’s gloved hand gently down the heads, sow as not to crush the chaff so fine that it is difficult to winnow from the fine light seeds. This method can also be used for the beets.
Winnow in the usual way.
Beet seeds will last 4 years and Spinach 3 years. Store as already described.
The onion family can cross quite easily, so it is best to only grow one variety at a time. Onion seed will last 2 years, and leeks 3 years, so you don’t need to grow them for seed each year.
Bees and flies, they love onion and leek flower heads. Isolation Distances We have grown one variety of onion and one variety of leeks on alternate years for many years without problems, as long as we don’t let our chives and Welsh onions flower at the same time, by pulling off the flower heads. For most people growing seed on a small scale there should be very little problem from cross-pollination.
When to Sow & Plant:
I always save our onions platted and strung up in our storage area, and only choose the onions that are large, true to type and haven’t started sprouting early. I then plant 3 or 4 out in late winter early spring at the end of a vegetable bed. For leeks, we just leave 2 or 3 of the best where they grew to go to seed next season.
Only the best for seed – the ones truest to type, large and healthy.
Support & Protection:
The birds don’t eat the seed. I tend to tie the growing flower and seed heads to canes just in case of wind damage.
Wait till the seeds in the heads are turning black, but don’t leave them too long, in case the seed falls, or is knocked out on a windy day or in a rain storm. I cut the heads off and lay them on the shelf in our glasshouse to finish maturing and drying, or hang them up in a dry warm shed.
The best way is to just gently rub the heads by hand over a sheet. Winnowing Tip the seed from one container to another outside in a gentle breeze, or in front of a fan a few times until you have clean seed.
As already described.
All members of this family only cross with their own species, so Carrots with Carrots, but not with Parsnips. They are all biennial, so will only flower in the second year; if any flower in the first year pull them out.
This family are all insect pollinated. They cannot self pollinate, because they each produce pollen before their own stigmas are ready, so several plants will be necessary for good pollination, a minimum of 6-8. Carrots in particular can cross with wild carrots, but this is not common. If any are white the following season, or in any way different from type, then they might have crossed with wild carrots, so you might want to get new organic heritage seed stock for next year, or try breeding out the unwanted characteristics by only growing seed from those true to type.
When to Sow or Plant:
In the case of the plants with roots, carrots etc., you can either leave them in or move the roots to a new site in the winter. For celery and the herbs leave them where they were sown or planted.
Only choose those roots that are true to type or whatever characteristics you want to choose, and those that are healthy for re-planting. For the non-root crops only save those that are healthy and true to type for saving seed from.
They will all grow tall, so they will require staking against wind. I have never had problems with birds, but if you do, cover with netting.
Harvest & Drying:
The first seed heads are always the largest, so save these by cutting them with a little stem and dry in the glasshouse.
Rub the seed heads gently with your hands onto a sheet of paper.
Celery, Celeriac and Carrots will store for 3 years, but parsnips only I year, coriander and Dill 5 years, Fennel 3-4 years, Parsley 1-3 years. Store in paper bags in a rodent safe box.
This family is all self-pollinating, so there is no chance of crossing, so saving from even one plant is ok.
When to Sow or Plant:
Both Salsify and Scorzonera are biennial, storing their energy in their roots and flowering the next season; all the rest of the family will flower in late summer.
Rogueing & Selection:
Apart from Salsify and Scorzonera, the most obvious thing I think about is don’t save seeds from any of those plants that run up to seed too early; you do not want to encourage this trend by breeding from those, so pull them out because they won’t keep anyway. Pull out the usual – week, diseased and those not true to type.
Support & Protection:
They will all grow high, so stakes will be needed, along with netting against birds that like these seeds.
All this family have dandelion type seeds designed to blow away in the wind. The best way is get in a little early, cutting off the heads and placing in paper bags placed in a glasshouse where they will open up and mature releasing their seeds.
For Yacon and Jerusalem Artichokes harvest roots from the best plants in late winter to be planted straight away for the coming season.
Threshing & Winnowing:
Once dried thoroughly, rub the seed heads with your hands until you are left with the seed and powdered remains of the heads. Winnowing is then made easy.
Endive, Artichoke and Sunflower seed will last 7 years, Lettuce 4 years, Scorzonera 1 year, and Salsify 2 years. Store as above.
Brassicas are insect pollinated, but only cross within species. So all the varieties of Brassica oleracea – Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Kale and Kohlrabi will all cross with one another. Brassica Rapa i.e. Turnip, Chinese cabbage, Chinese mustard and Mizuna will cross with each other. The rest of the Brassica family usually have only one example each and will not cross with other brassicas, examples – Radish and Watercress. So, the advice is, only grow seed from one species in a year, growing a different one next year – e.g., Broccoli then Kale then Cabbage etc.
When to Sow or Plant:
Spring sown plants, will produce seed the next summer. Allow 2 or 3 of only one species near each other to keep in the ground for seed the following season.
Save only healthy ones true to type.
Support & Protection:
All the brassicas grow tall when running to seed; so individual staking will be necessary. As for birds, brassica seeds seem to be at the top of the gourmet list, so you have to cover the seed heads carefully either individual plants or tall stakes around the group. Very fine strong netting may be necessary to keep out those probing beaks.
Harvesting brassicas can be difficult, because the seed casing can pop open, spilling the seed at the slightest touch. So the advice is, spread a sheet under and around the plant. Cut the stems just below the seed heads, placing them on the sheet. In this way you can be sure of saving most of the seeds.
Threshing & Winnowing:
This is easy – fold the sheet up shaking the seedpods into the centre, then bash the sheet with a stick or your hand. Winnow in the usual way, pouring from one container to another on a breezy day, or in front of a fan. If the seedpods remain largely intact, you might have to pass the seeds through a sieve leaving the pods behind.
Turnip and Swede will last just 2 years. Cabbage, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Radish, Kale and Collards will last 4 years. Chinese Cabbage and Chinese mustard will last 5 years. Store as above.
Mostly by bees, but also other insects, and bees will travel up to 5 kilometres (3 miles) radius from their hives. As with the Brassicas there are several species of Cucurbitaceae, so you can only grow one variety from each species without crossing others in the same species, but they may still cross with other species in the area that you don’t know about. These are the 7 main species:
1. Melo: Armenian Cucumber, Asian Pickling Melon, Cantaloupe, Casaba, Honeydew, Mango Melon, Muskmelon, Pocket Melon, Rockmelon and Snake Melon
2. Sativus: Most Cucumbers (except African Horned Cucumber & Armenian Cucumber)
3. Maxima (Squash): Banana, Buttercup, Green Chestnut, Grey Crown, Hubbard, Red Kuri, Turban, and Triamble
4. Mixta (Squash): Green Striped Cushaw, Silver Seeded Gourds, White Cushaw and Wild Seroria
5. Moschata (Squash): Butternut, Chuck’s Winter, Cupola
6. Pepo (Squash): Acorn, Crook Neck, Gem Squash, Kamokamo, Scallopini, Small Striped & Warted Gourds, Spaghetti, Zucchini
7. Vulgaris: Citron and Watermelon
African Horned Cucumber, Choco, Hard Shelled Gourd and Wax Gourd are all single members of their own species.
If you want to save popular varieties like Zucchini, Squash and Pumpkins, which might also be growing in neighbours gardens then hand pollination is the only way to ensure purity of seed.
This is how to do it:
1. In the late afternoon look for both male and female flowers that look as though they will open the next day. Female flowers have a little Pumpkin, Squash or Zucchini behind the flower, males don’t. Choose two male flowers for every female. Tape the male and female flowers up with cellotape so the bees don’t get to them before you next morning.
2. Next morning take more cellotape and a small soft paintbrush. Pick the male flowers, carefully stripping off the petals to reveal the stamen and its pollen, laying the flowers on a plate. Undo the cellotape from the female flowers; the petals should open out exposing the female stigma. Take the male flowers and tap the pollen onto the female stigma.
3. Tape up the female flowers again so that bees can’t get in to mess up your good work.
4. Water the plants strait away to encourage pollination.
5. The tapes can be removed after 1 or 2 days.
To maintain genetic variability, it is best to choose seed from several plants of the same variety. We usually grow 2 or 3 of one type, so that will have to do.
Choose the best ones to grow seed from, not easy if you only have a few, but obviously don’t save seed from any that under perform, have disease or are not true to type.
Leave the fruit that you want seed from a lot longer on the plant than you normally would – for Pumpkins at least a month, for Melons a bit less and Cucumbers somewhere in between. Just make sure the seeds have hardened skins and are not soft. Pumpkins can be stored and the seeds extracted any time in the winter from the store. Traditionally the ones that stored best were the ones used for seed.
Wash the seeds in a kitchen sieve under a running tap, whilst rubbing off the flesh and rubbish on the seeds, then dry them in a dehydrator or in a glasshouse or window sill, before storing. They should snap in two if properly dry. They will go mouldy if they are not dry.
Cucumber, Watermelon, Squash and Pumpkin seeds will last 6 years, and Rock Melons 5 years. Store as above.
The flowers of this family are self-pollinating, and do not usually cross within species or across species, however Runner beans and Broad beans will cross freely within themselves, so only grow one variety of Broad bean or Runner bean in a year if you want to save seed. As an example, because Runner beans are popular and grown by my neighbours, trying to maintain my variety, Scots White Seeded, has become crossed in the past, so every few years I buy new organic seed, until they get mixed again. Bees love these flowers, so I just have to be adaptable.
Broad beans are best sown in mid May to grow through the winter. All the rest should be sown in early spring, and planted out or sown outside after the last frosts.
Support & Protection:
We always put stakes around the broad beans with strings stretched around the crop to prevent them falling over. Peas have to grow up netting and the taller varieties need a structure to climb as for runner beans and other climbing beans. Some people have problems with birds eating the drying peas, not something we have ever had. Dwarf beans need no support or protection.
Harvest & Drying:
Leave the pods on the plants until crunchy dry. To ensure that they are completely dry I lay the pods out on a shelf in my glasshouse. For dwarf beans, you can pull up the whole plant and hang them up to dry in a glasshouse, conservatory or warm dry shed.
This is easy, just open the pods and take out the seeds. If there is a lot of them place them on a sheet and walk over them, then pick out the seeds.
As a general rule all this family’s seed viability is 2 years, after that, the germination rate drops dramatically. It is very important that pea and bean seeds are thoroughly dry if they are to keep. Store as above.
Asparagus is the only member of this family that is commonly eaten.
By bees, so if there are other asparagus beds in the neighbourhood there might be crosses.
Usually one buys roots to plant out. However, you can grow them from seed. Sow thinly in furrows about 2cm (¾in) deep and 30cm (12in) apart at the beginning of October. Thin the seedlings to 20cm (8in) between the plants. Leave the seedlings until the third spring, and then choose only the most thickset plants for production.
Support: It is always advisable to stop harvesting the asparagus spears at the end of December (southern hemisphere) June (northern hemisphere)to allow the plants to recover. The spears will then grow up, flower and produce red berries, which contain several black seeds. This is the time to put several canes around the asparagus bed with several strings running around the canes to stop the tall fronds from falling over.