As we’re all aware, it’s been an incredibly wet autumn. So wet that poppy seeds have started to germinate in the poppy seed heads, something I’ve never seen before!
But not all seeds are so wet, and I’ve been gathering the seeds that I’ll save for planting next year. Coriander seed and basil seed have been drying on the stems in the greenhouse, and it’s now time to put them into carefully labelled jars or envelopes and bring them into the house for use next spring.
Likewise I’ve been drying the seed heads of dwarf sunflowers. I’m very fond of the small multi-headed sunflowers that you can grow in big pots – but the seeds are really expensive to buy. Although these were an F1 hybrid (meaning a gamble if you try to save seeds from them), I saved mine last year, and they grew into nice dwarf multi-headed sunflowers this year. Hopefully they will grow true again next year, and if so, I’ll have a useful variety to save every year in future. F1 hybrid seeds are expensive, being produced fresh each season by crossing two separate varieties. Generally it’s best to grow from normal or ‘open pollinated’ (i.e. non F1 hybrid) seeds if you want to save your own seed from your veg and flower plants. Most seeds are ‘normal’. You’ll know if you’ve bought F1 hybrids, because it will say so very clearly on the packet, and they will have been extremely expensive, e.g. £3 for just 10 or 20 seeds.
Probably the best and easiest seeds to save are beans. I’ve just planted the Aquadulce broad bean seeds that I saved from the end of this spring’s crop – something I do every year. And I’m just about to cut down and bring indoors for final drying the pods of the now dead and dry climbing beans, which I’ll sow next May.
Before you store your bean seeds, they must be totally dry and hard. If you can make a dent in them with your thumbnail, dry them for longer and test again. Bean seeds grow true, are easy to dry and handle, and are probably the one type of seed that you should regularly save even if you don’t save any other seeds from your garden.
Some other vegetable seeds have technicalities that should be observed for really successful saving. Cabbage family seeds should really only be saved from plants which have had the chance to pollinate with a large number of others, 20 or 30 I think, but I’ve still had good results from my saved Red Russian Kale seeds from a group of only about eight plants.
Tomato seeds are easy and successful to save, but the technique is a bit strange. As with flowers, bear in mind that some tomato varieties (e.g. Sungold) are F1 hybrids so won’t come true in the next generation, but you’ll probably still get a nice slightly similar tomato. Non F1 varieties of tomato breed true, so I always save seeds from my favourites – Russian Black, Alicante, and Marmande.
To save tomato seeds you need to do something rather odd: squeeze out the juice and seeds into a jam jar or drinking glass, and let them mould and ferment on the kitchen windowsill for a few days before drying them.
After a few days, when there’s a nice layer of mould on top of the liquid, lift off the mould with a fork or a lollipop stick, and discard it into your compost bin. Then tip the juice and seeds into a sieve, and strain and rinse the seeds. Now you can dry them, widely spaced out on kitchen paper. It doesn’t matter if they stick to the kitchen paper. If they are stuck, just tear the paper into small bits with one seed on each, and leave the paper stuck to the seeds when you plant them – it will do no harm.
You’ll find plenty of books and websites with advice on how to save different types of seeds. Usually it’s obvious and very simple, but sometimes there are particular odd techniques, as with tomatoes above, or restrictions, as with the cabbage family plants. Sadly, although squash, pumpkin and courgette seeds are tempting to save, it’s best not to try with any of this family, as they cross fertilize rampantly and your saved butternut squash or courgette seeds might produce something quite weird and inedible.
Stroud is very lucky to have an enthusiastic group of people who practise and promote seed saving – Stroud Community Seed Bank. They run local events to encourage and educate about seed saving, and distribute their saved seeds for a donation in various places in Stroud in the Spring.