In agriculture, sometimes even the simplest of concepts can encourage better practice and dramatically improve the qualities of your produce. Back in June 2014 I decided to hop on the bandwagon after a good friend of mine (and much better agriculturalist), recommended I start to save seeds for the benefit of both myself and my customers.
Now over the years I have grown a wide variety of food, so I was sceptical at first as to whether it was really worth the time to start ‘brownbagging’ and collecting seeds for reproduction. It’s more common these days to purchase seeds directly from a supplier on an annual basis, which many of you will know, isn’t cheap at all. Hence, saving seeds is similar to saving money – A seed saved is a seed earned!
You might, like I was, be pretty keen to get started on a little project of your own, so that you can see first-hand the pros (and minimal cons) of protecting and reproducing the seeds you already own for generations to come.
Why should I start saving seeds
Permaculture is all about living lightly on the planet, and working with nature to build and manage a sustainable ecosystem from which we can comfortably supply many generations to come. But, as with everything in modern society, this can only happen if it proves to be cost effective. Seed saving is a great starting point for developing a strong foundation for your produce, not only does it build a stronger gene pool, but it also saves you a tonne of money in the process.
So aside from cost, what else makes saving seeds a worthwhile course of action?
Seed Security –
Particular varieties of seeds are in short supply, why? It is because the big corporations that we buy from are only interested in the most profitable hybrids and ‘species’ of plants. This is condensing the market and seeing the discontinuation of many great and unique fruit and vegetable varieties, varieties which, dependant on where you are growing them could give you a much better product.
Success in any eco-system largely depends on a certain degree of self-sufficiency. In seed saving, we effectively take control of our own supply and become far less reliable on others. You can build your own supply of seeds, and seed swap with others who may have strong breeds for you to test.
Quality, Quality, Quality –
What is one of the most important factors to consider for a farmer or agriculturalist? Quality! The traits of your produce are crucial. There’s no point saving seeds if it’s going to leave you with a poor turnout at the end of the day.
Luckily, and this is one of my favourite parts, you get to play god for a little while. As with any breeding process, good genes and strong traits are desirable. So when selecting seeds to save for the next generation, it is important to look out for the best breeds. Whether it’s the quality of the product itself, or the plants ability to adapt to its environment, selective breeding will allow you to build your own ‘super’ crop.
Such a practice over many generations will tailor your produce to your requirements, build stronger resistance to pests and overall increase the quality of your final product.
Adaptation to the Environment –
Akin to the selective breeding process, protecting successive generations of the same type of seed will allow it to adjust to the climate and environment in which it is being grown. I have noticed this with my own produce, as some varieties have begun to thrive in certain conditions more than others.
Diversity – Kicking the GMOs! –
Genetically modified organisms are all too frequent in agriculture nowadays, and in purchasing seeds directly from large corporations, you can be fairly certain that what you are getting is nothing unique. What you will be buying is a generic seed sold to thousands of customers, which has likely been modified and tailored to suit a certain climate, and environmental conditions.
While this can be useful in large scale farming, it does not give the seeds the chance to adapt over generations, which could potentially cause further risks from pests.
You will also be on the receiving end of a mediocre product, on par with everyone else whom has bought the same genetically modified seeds. This causes a huge lack in biodiversity in the market.
You should also be aware of the health complications some genetically engineered products can cause, as many are highly fattening and can trigger allergic reactions in some people.
Where do I Begin?
So let’s take a quick look at how you can get started on your own little seed saving project. As you would expect, most types of produce have varying methods for seed-saving, although the majority follow the same principle.
Here are 5 popular fruits & veg which are grown in different climates around the world, and how you can begin saving the seeds necessary to begin developing your own heirloom product.
I forgot to mention before, but if you are looking to develop a better seed over many generations, try to avoid collecting seeds from sickly looking plants, which may be diseased. It is also a good idea to collect seeds from different varieties of the plant – To breed variety and give more chances of carrying good genes from generation to generation.
Cucumbers are some of the most commonly grown foods by hobby growers and farmers alike. It is best to collect the seeds when the cucumbers are still growing, during their ‘yellow’ phase tends to provide the best results. Make a slit down the centre of the cucumber, and split the cucumber into 2 halves to reveal the seeds in the middle.
Usually, I will use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and pop them into a glass cup. Don’t try and get each seed out individually, just scoop out a batch with all of the stuff around it into the glass. Now you need to leave the ‘gunk’ around the seeds to ferment, which should take around 2 days.
When the fermentation process is complete, layers will form in the glass including water and the seeds at the bottom. Simply use a sieve to separate the seeds from the rest of the liquid, place them on a plate, and leave them to dry for approximately 24 hours.
Once dry, you have your cucumber seeds ready to plant, and begin your next generation.
Another commonly grown food here is the tomato, I have many friends who have grown tomatoes with absolutely no experience or knowledge in agriculture, so it’s a great place to get started – Even more so when you can save the seeds for later!
With my tomatoes, I cut them into quarters before squeezing, although it really doesn’t matter. Work to your own preference. Extracting the seeds is as simple as with the cucumber, squeeze the tomato pulp and juice into a glass. Afterwards I add a little water to the mixture and stir, but again this is completely optional. The extra water helps to break down the protective jelly coating around the seeds.
It is important not to leave the tomatoes in the mixture for longer than 24 hours, once the coating has broken down, it will cause the seeds to germinate and begin sprouting, which will ruin them.
Put the seeds in a sieve and hose down to remove remaining pulp.
As before, spread the seeds out on a plate or piece of newspaper and allow them to dry for a few hours.
Not so common amongst hobbyists, although another of my favourites to save seeds from.
This one is a little different; of course, we can’t just squeeze the seeds out of the lettuce.
We need to wait until the lettuce is ready to seed, in which is will grow taller and skinnier at the head, where the seeds begin to fill out. Again, we must wait until the seeds have matured enough, which is when they turn from a greenish colour to a much darker shade. Equally, picking the lettuce seeds too late can cause you to lose much of the offspring.
Cut the seeds at the stem just below. It is now a matter of using a mixing bowl to strip the seeds into. With a closed hand, move down the stem and dislodge the seeds into the bowl.
Swirl the seeds around the bowl carefully, aiming the separate the plant material from the heavier seeds. Gently blowing across the top of the mixture can also help during separation. Allow the seeds to dry and they will be ready for planting.
The pepper is one of my favourite vegetables to collect seeds from, why? Because it’s one of the easiest! Simply open up the pepper and strip the seeds from the stalk. Pepper seeds are generally very easy to dislodge and keep separate from everything else.
Again, leave the pepper seeds out to dry as before.
Coriander, Basil etc. –
Although I do not have much experience with this myself, I am aware that herbs are very popular amongst those of you doing a little home growing. With Basil and other similar herbs, seed heads simply need to be rubbed between the hands over a bowl to dislodge the seeds from the seed heads. Some seeds are better rooted than others and may need a little extra grinding to encourage them to drop out.
Using a similar method to the lettuce, separate the seeds from the plant material and dry them out, ready for planting.
Hold up a second, is it legal!?
It may come as no surprise to you that it’s not quite this simple. In many parts of the world, such as Australia, seed-saving is still completely free and widely practiced. In other areas of the world, it can still be practiced, but you should be aware of certain legislation, restrictions and copyright laws.
For example, here in the EU (European Union), we have copyright laws put in place to protect the rightful owner of the seeds. It is also common to have similar laws in place in many other areas of the world. Major agricultural company Monsanto for example, are well known for patenting all of their seeds and products. Those who purchase from Monsanto enter a lawfully binding agreement, in which the grower promises not to sell, save or exchange the seeds for future generations.
Monsanto in particular have been known for prosecuting farmers in northern America, much to the community’s disgust at the destruction of farming communities.
In many developing countries, seed exchanging is prohibited, and little legislation has been put in place to protect farmers.
Before you save seeds, or aim to use them for reproduction of future generations, it would be sensible to check that the seed type you are using is not patented first. As a hobby grower, you would not have much to worry about, but by saving or exchanging patented seeds, you will be directly breaching copyright laws.
In the EU, if you want to sell your produce and save seeds, it must be registered. Applications for the registry can cost up to £3000, and the seed will have to pass multiple quality tests before it is cleared to be sold. If the seed is not registered, it is considered illegal to sell, save or exchange it for other varieties. This and other legislation prohibiting seed selling and saving is currently under fire from many groups, and is likely to be re-drawn at some point.
Build your Heirloom
No matter what product you are growing, now you can use this information to save your own seeds, replant, reproduce and develop your own variety of plants and produce. This is how many famous Heirloom products were founded, through generations and generations of careful seed selection to produce the best breed possible.
What heirloom food will you create and pass down?