Saving seed - hints and techniques : Bega Valley Seed Savers


SAVING SEED - HINTS AND TECHNIQUES 

Seed saving is not rocket science. There are just a few things you need to know and do to grow and save seed successfully.

Consider the type of pollination

Find out whether the plant you want to grow to seed is a self-pollinator or a cross-pollinator. Start with self-pollinators which are simpler (e.g. lettuce, beans, peas and tomatoes).

Choose open-pollinated — heirloom — seeds which will grow true to type, over hybrids.

Choose the variety

Choose the variety you want to grow (e.g. cos lettuce), and label the seed and plants carefully all the way through the process.

Grow the plant

Grow the plant as you would normally, but:

  • leave the best plants to go to seed without eating from them — it will help if you mark those plants with a stake or a ribbon
  • leave space in your garden for growing the plant past the eating to the seeding stage, as this takes longer.

Collect the seed

Once the seed has ripened on the plant (e.g. beans will go brown and dry, lettuce will be covered in white fluff, tomatoes will be over ripe), pick the whole plant and put in an undercover place to dry with a cloth or paper (not plastic) bag underneath. Some plant seeds need wet processing before drying (e.g. tomato pulp is fermented).

Once the seed is completely dry, hand process it — separate the seed from the husks. Store it in cool, dry, vermin free conditions. Remember to label the seed with details of species, variety, date and where it was grown.

Share

If you have seed to spare, consider sharing it with others via Seed Savers. If you need help at any step of the way, we are happy to answer your questions. 

BASIC BREEDING AND KEEPING STRAINS PURE     

Seed savers are vegetable breeders whether they intend to be or not: choice determines future plant characteristics.

To keep a variety stable, seed savers should select carefully those plants that most closely exhibit good characteristics.  Parent plants need to look and grow as expected, and produce tasty food:

  • taking seed from those plants that seed first may select a variety that tends to bolt early
  • plants that don't meet expectations should be removed and eaten or composted as soon as possible
  • taking seed from the last few plants — not eaten because they didn't get big enough before they went to seed  selects low performers and may lead to a non-productive strain.

Location matters, as pollination distances vary. To make sure that parent plants have the characteristics sought, seed savers need to know where these are. In town it is almost impossible to know what is hiding on the other side of the fence. One solution is to save seed only from plants that are self-pollinated, such as tomatoes, lettuce, peas and standard beans.

Seed savers growing cross-pollinating crops (e.g. cabbage and broccoli) need to ensure they are far enough in either time or distance from other pollinating varieties that might produce an unintended cross.

 

For experienced seed savers with insect pollinated crops, techniques such as bagging or caging can be used to exclude pollinators and keep strains pure. 

Sample distances required between pollinating plants, home use

Plant

Pollination

Breeding

Minimum isolation

bean, runner

self/insects

BIO

250 m

beetroot

wind

VO

1 km

broccoli

insects

VO

500 m

capsicum

self/insects

PI

50 m

carrot

insects

PO

500 m

chilli

self/insects

BIO

250 m

corn

wind

PO

500 m

onion

insects

PO

500 m

pumpkin

insects

PO

500 m

silverbeet

wind

VO

500 m

tomato, heirloom

self/insects

PI

12 m

BIO = both inbreeding and outbreeding; PI = primarily inbreeding; PO = primarily outbreeding; VO = very outbreeding

 

TO HARVEST SEED

Harvesting seed requires good timing. Seed savers aim to get as much good seed as possible from each plant. Many varieties make this difficult as seed ripens over a period of weeks, and early seed falls from the plant before the last seed is mature enough to be picked. On the positive side, seed falling from the plant is an excellent indicator that the seed is mature enough to harvest.

The first fruits of the season will usually produce the biggest and best seed — constant picking saps a plant's energy over a season. If only a small quantity of seed is required, consider picking seed by hand as soon as some is seen to fall, or the first pods have burst open.

To avoid losing early matured seed and allow later developed seed to mature, the whole plant can be harvested and laid on a tarp to dry. The plant will use remaining energy from leaves, stems and roots to finish maturing as much seed as possible.

When harvesting fruiting vegetables for seed they should be picked when fully mature, for example:

  • pumpkins, can be left on the vine until the end of the season when the plant dies back
  • zucchini should be left until their shell is hard
  • eggplants and cucumbers must be left on the plant until they stop increasing in size, and most varieties will also change colour as they mature; after picking they should be left to after-ripen for several weeks before being processed.

 For more information on processing seed see elsewhere on this website (e.g. tomatoes) or www.savingourseeds.org