You might wonder why I’m writing about seed saving in the middle of winter when we’re recommended to buy our seed from seed catalogues. My winter reading has included ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’, with a key section headed “Planning a Seed Garden’. I’ve never really understood this other than as a ‘A good idea’. However, I decided during autumn 2013 to save seed from an Heritage Seed Library Leek variety and this meant re-thinking what I did with the Leek bed. So, back to the seed garden idea.
I generally save seed each year from the easier vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and French Beans, all are self pollinated and don’t cross (easily); I attempted to save broad bean seed about 4 years ago as I had some Heritage crimson flowered seeds, which were quite expensive; I discovered it was possible to save the seed even though all the gardening guides on growing vegetables told me I shouldn’t. What the guidance should have added was, not that I shouldn’t but that I could and should, but also I would need to isolate the variety I intended saving seed from. Unlike French Beans, Broad Beans are similar to Runner Beans and cross-pollinate with plants of the same species. Only after germinating and growing my saved seed did I appreciate what the result might be – I had crimson flowered, pale pink flowered and white-flowered broad bean plants – they’d crossed with the Express Broad Bean variety grown alongside. The way to get back to crimson flowered plants was to rogue out pink & white flowered plants before they cross-pollinated yet again, save seed from the red flowering plants, isolate them and keep saving seed from red flowering plants until I’d selected out the white crosses. Because cross-pollinating species [out breeders] require a minimum number of plants in order to retain genetic diversity of a variety, this is a time-consuming, although not impossible, task. Again, time reverts to an older framing, seasons and years rather than days or months.
Growing conditions in 2013 made growing food to eat difficult; growing plants to save seed from was equally challenging. The broad beans I intended saving seed from and had isolated with netting (lesson learnt) had all the ripening pods eaten by slugs/snails/squirrels – most likely the squirrels. I didn’t pick those that survived soon enough to dry and ripen off indoors so they rotted in the wet conditions. The same happened to our pea crop marked for seed rather than eating. I did manage to collect the Mooli Radish seed pods from the late sowing I did in early autumn – the pods were almost ready but rain was forecast for several days – I cut the stems and hung them in a warm corner of the kitchen to dry off properly. The good thing about radish seed pods is their hardness so they do survive quite well. However, those left on the allotment provided food for rodents, neat little piles of seed pods at the corners of the beds. However, the lettuce variety I had left to go to seed produced very little viable seed, mainly because they flowered as the weather worsened and it was difficult for pollinators to fly in the wet and wind, so flowers but little pollination and poor seed so I didn’t keep the little that was produced. Therefore, in 2014 I had very little new saved seed and had to rely on what was left from the previous year – I always save more than I’ll ever need, to share, swap, keep some back ‘in case’ I’ve nothing new next year.
Back to my leeks: I left an HSL variety of leek I planted spring 2013 to grow and flower last summer, but I had to plan my beds to accommodate the additional year this group of leek plants were in the ground. I also only saved seed from 1 variety of leek, as these, too, cross-pollinate. Leeks that have flowered sometimes produce bulbils on the flower heads, similar to those I saved from an elephant garlic plant I left to flower just to see what it looked like. These bulbils, according to Cherfas and Fanton in their Seed Savers’ Handbook, can grow faster than seed, so worth saving them if you do see any. Sue Stickland does caution against this in Back Garden Seed Saving, however, since they can carry over leek rust disease which tends to be endemic on allotment sites. However, it was so wet and cold in 2013 that our leek crop avoided rust almost entirely – rust is a fungal disease that develops in hot conditions, so 2013’s cold damp summer meant a healthy leek crop for seed saving.
Knowing more about seed saving and how difficult it can be even with ‘easy’ plants has led me to plan ahead more carefully which varieties I intend to grow for seed and which for food. One thing I’ve learnt about plants I want to save seed from is their categorisation into out breeders and in breeders; Leeks apparently are strong out breeders and should ideally have at least 16 plants for seed to maintain genetic diversity. However, I didn’t realise this when I sowed them, but a way to deal with this, and how to manage seed saving in poor years, is to grow and save seed from the same variety over subsequent years and combine the seed to broaden genetic diversity, over time. The seed remains viable for about 3 years.
The main problem with seeds from the major seed companies is the choice available, usually F1 hybrids that are advertised as ‘reliable croppers’ which usually mean the plants crop at the same time, usual give away: ‘good for the freezer’! These varieties are generally the byproducts of industrial agriculture and are bred for uniformity, cropping at the same time for harvesting by machine, not bred for the allotment grower. The most resilient seed is open pollinated, available from good local seed savers and from local and regional seed companies. Look for information that tells you how the seeds perform in specific conditions. Hybrid seed doesn’t breed true so we go back to the seed companies next year to buy the seed again. I will return to this issue another time, as I’ve discovered its complicated!
Now I understand more about seed saving I’m rather more critical about seed quality, origins, and harvests of anything I’m planning to sow. Consequently I rarely swap my seed at big seed swaps such as Seedy Sunday as the quality and provenance is rarely clear and I’ve picked up some terrible seed in the past. I now swap with other growers on a seasonal basis; Whitehawk Food Project has revived its seed library with their seed and plant swaps; their plan is to share some of their core food crop seeds with a few experienced growers to spread the seed across the city to ensure its survival in case of another terrible growing year like 2013. This makes for a more resilient seed supply, communally grown and shared. It’s also the genesis of a local communal seed bank and the development of seed saving expertise across important food staples, building knowledge about local conditions and seed/crop variability. It’s back to local seed production that reflects local conditions.