Kim Stoddart gets to grips with seed saving Link to video: Gardening for free: saving seed
Now a few months into my challenge to grow food without paying out for tools, compost and the like, it was definitely time to fully address the issue of how I’m going to make sure I have a steady supply of plants in future without spending a penny.
As I’m sure many of you have; I’ve dabbled in the past with collecting seed from lettuce, herbs and various tomatoes, beans and peas, which are, (if you’ll pardon the dreadful pun) really easy peasy to do. I’ve also been using my existing stock more carefully and there’s a lot left, so I’ll have plenty of bartering potential next year with friends, family and at my local seed swap. But, as I’ve eagerly thrown myself into the deep end of making, mending and doing in the garden, I want to know which seeds can or cannot be home-produced, full stop.
Buoyed on by the fact that seed collection used to be an integral part of vegetable growing, before we all had so many assorted gardening retail options at our disposal, I first arranged to have a chat with the good folk at Garden Organic and the Real Seed Catalogue. Both organisations actively encourage home seed production in one form or another and their respective websites and publications provide a lot of handy advice on the subject.
Having become used to hearing that brassicas and carrots are a complete no- no for the DIY gardener, I was most relieved when my enquiries about the potential for cabbage reproduction were greeted enthusiastically and without the customary sharp intake of breath. The upshot is, some plants (yes those pesky brassicas included) are a little bit more effort to home-seed at first, until you get used to it, but with the exception of one or two plants; yes, it can be done. The only one to rule out is sweetcorn, because you need at least 200 plants, and I’ve decided to pass on parsnip because the seed doesn’t last well, it’s a biennial so it won’t seed till the second year and it sounds just too damn tricky all round. Otherwise, I just need to make sure I avoid using any hybrid seed packets (also known as F1 and F2) and, all going according to plan, I should eventually end up with the next generation of seeds I am looking for.
The harder plants, I’ve learned, are generally the out-breeders (brassicas, carrots, leeks, onions, beetroot, radish, and celery), and most require a recommended minimum of 20 plants from which to reproduce effectively. It sounds like a lot, and because most of them then won’t flower until the second year (as biennials), it means planning space to set aside for them. Also, they have to be kept separate from others in the same family lest they cross, in which case you might end up with a kale/cabbage hybrid as I did earlier this year before I knew what I was doing. Pleasant tasting it was not.
However, as the Real Seed Catalogue pointed out to me, you could just let one brassica “herd” flower each year; then you don’t need to worry about the crossing issue at all. Plus you get so much seed in return for your efforts that an allotment holder growing 20 plants of, say, brussels sprouts every fivr years could supply the whole site during that time.
Realistically, it’s not feasible for me to generate every type of seed at first, but that’s fine because I don’t need to. To ease me into breeding from the trickier veg I have started planting out my breeding “herd” of just under 20 ‘Red Winter Kale’ plants in a protected spot where they will stay until they flower and seed next year. They don’t take up too much space, and the good thing is that, unlike cabbage (where you have to leave the heads alone), I can pick and eat the leaves in the meantime, so it’s a good brassica to kick off with.
I’m also going to have a stab at breeding from the ‘Autumn King’ carrots we’ve been munching on all summer. During the next few weeks I’ll need to select 20 of the best specimens left from this year, before storing and re-planting them in the spring to seed. We have a lot of wild carrot (queen Anne’s lace) growing nearby, so I’ll grow them in the polytunnel and even then will probably also need to make an isolation cage to protect them from mixing with their wilder relatives. Thankfully that’s one task I can deal with next year. Otherwise – I’m going to take a leaf out of the allotment holders’ book and set up a seed circle with friends and other gardeners in my vicinity.
As luck would have it a conversation with my local gardening group reveals that Bob Flowerdew is coming to do a talk in my area soon. Never one to pass by an opportunity for learning; especially not from such an influential and experimental Gardeners’ Question Time legend – I arrange to have a chat with the great man himself.
Flowerdew uses his own potato sets, and one variety has been going strong for 20 years. As with all the produce and plants from which you are looking to reproduce, the key is to choose the best examples and avoid weak or different-looking types. Yet, he explains, we don’t apply the same principle to spuds when we should. That rather than choosing smaller tubers (of the size we are familiar with when buying seed potatoes), we should opt for keeping back the biggest because they have more energy to produce a higher yield. It makes perfect sense when you think about it, and if you store and then chit your spuds carefully, there’s no reason why you can’t keep your home stock going for many, many years to come.
It’s worth pointing out that the guidelines I’m working to here are designed to produce seed of a very high and saleable quality because I’m looking for super resilient, true-to-type stock, that will last. However, as seeds are cheap to buy, you may choose to be less meticulous about, say, separating your different types of runner beans. The resulting seed will no doubt produce something edible and it is be fun to try.
I’m also going to have a stab at “off-roading” a bit, just to see what happens. I’d be really interested in hearing your seed-saving stories and recommendations; especially those of a more experimental nature.
• Kim Stoddart is a writer and thrifty living enthusiast who contributes to a variety of publications. She is a former businesswoman and social entrepreneur.