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Saving seeds for harvesting

May 29, 2016


Mustard mizuna left to form seed
Mustard mizuna left to form seed

The home production of vegetables — with emphasis on organic — is progressively becoming more popular throughout the country; yet, despite the number of garden supply stores having multiplied, gardeners are still finding it difficult to source a decent range of seeds.

It has long been common practice here for garden stores to import bulk tins or packets of seed from just a handful of international companies and then to repackage them under their own name without adding planting instructions, let alone details of source and expiry date of the seeds.

These international companies have, on the whole and particularly over recent years, concentrated on supplying F1 hybrid seeds which produce, under optimum growing conditions, beautiful to look at fruits and vegetables, with tough skin to protect them from easy bruising and damage.

Useful tips on developing your own seed bank from ‘heritage varieties’ which produce extremely tasty fruits and vegetables generation after generation

However, they are deficient in the taste department and, for obvious reasons, produce ‘inferior’ seeds which are not worth the trouble of harvesting. If the seeds germinate, the resultant crops have a tendency to be very poor indeed.

Such international companies — our seed stores too — want gardeners to purchase new seeds each and every season as, naturally, they make no profit if you harvest and save your own from what are termed ‘heritage varieties’. Heritage varieties are open-pollinated (naturally pollinated by insects) and, as long as certain guidelines are followed, produce extremely tasty fruits and vegetables, generation after generation, without any deterioration in quality.

Gardeners and local farmers were, in days not so very long ago, the guardians of seed stocks with, for example, seeds of an especially sweet melon or wonderfully productive tomato being swapped around among growers — “I’ll swap you a handful of excellent tomato seeds for a handful of seeds from those melt-in-the-mouth melons you grow, and which your grandfather grew before you” — without resorting to an exchange of cash.

Now, however, with just a few international seed companies basically controlling available seed choices, indigenous heritage varieties are disappearing fast and, unless we all do something about it, they will soon be nothing but a vague memory.

The key to getting the best-tasting fruits and vegetables is to pick the  best seeds
The key to getting the best-tasting fruits and vegetables is to pick the best seeds

Going out of your way to track down what are often localised heritage varieties and saving them from extinction is a wonderful thing to do and, once you have built up reasonable stocks, you can exchange them with like-minded people for other heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables you wish to grow.

Some fruit / vegetable seed is easier to save than others but it is important to remember the following:

• Open-pollinated means that the flowers preceding the fruit or, in the case of many vegetables, appearing once the vegetable is past its edible best (for instance, seed lettuce or cabbage), are pollinated by the wind or a variety of beneficial insects such as bees, hover flies, beetles, and butterflies. These hard-working insects transfer pollen from one plant to another and, as is often the case, also from one variety to another.

The latter, especially visible with pumpkins and close relatives, usually means that, having been what is known as ‘cross-pollinated’ — perhaps a cross between a red pumpkin and a green one — seeds so produced will, when their time comes, bear neither a red nor a green pumpkin but something which is a mix of the two. The same cross-pollination can occur between cabbages and cauliflower, if they are allowed to flower and set seed at the same time.

• To make life simple for yourself and to avoid cross-pollination issues — and the complicated / tedious task of hand pollination to conserve purity of variety — it is advisable to grow just one open-pollinated variety of, for instance, pumpkin unless you have a very large garden and can grow a different varieties of pumpkin at opposite ends of the growing area.

Pumpkins are members of the large Cucurbita family of plants and open-pollinated varieties will also cross with zucchini, marrows, squash, etc. It is important for seed saving purposes that these are not grown close together — although you can do nothing if your neighbour decides to grow a variety that will cross-pollinate with your own unless you are prepared to hand pollinate. This will be covered in a separate column sometime in the future.

Towering spires of cabbage flowers
Towering spires of cabbage flowers

• Fruit — capsicums, chillies, aubergines, tomatoes, etc are formed after flowering and contain seeds inside themselves. Vegetables — turnips, radish, carrots, mustard, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, etc, produce flowers once the vegetables are past their ‘eat by’ date and these flowers, once pollinated, form pods with seeds inside.

• Save seeds only from the strongest, healthiest, best-producing, best-tasting plants.

• Fruit must be allowed to fully ripen — overripe is best — on the plant if seed is to be extracted, dried and saved.

• Vegetable seed pods must be completely dry on the plant before harvesting. Seeds should be taken out of the seed pods, dried some more, packed in airtight containers and, as with all seed, labelled, and stored in a cool dark place until the next planting time comes around.

  • More seed saving details will be included over the coming weeks, as the subject is too complicated to be dealt with all at once.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 29th, 2016