Quick and Dirty Guide to Herb and Veggie Seed Saving

Quick Guide to Herb and Veggie Seed Saving

This guide is only a brief introduction to saving herb and vegetable seeds. Seed saving isn’t complicated but it does take a little bit of knowledge. This guide is based on personal experience of Canberra Seed Savers and information gathered from the Real Seed Catalogue, Bega Valley Seed Savers, and the Seed Savers Network’s Seed Savers’ Handbook.  Get in touch: canberraseedsavers@gmail.com !

The cycle of seed saving 

from sowing and growing           to saving and storing           to sow again

   (Image from www.realseeds.co.uk)

Sow a seed and let the plant live a long, happy life.
Harvest many seeds and clean, dry and store them.

Seed saving basics – for true seed that can be stored

Grow from open-pollinated, non-hybrid seed. Hybrid seed (also called F1) is bred to produce a plant with particular characteristics in it’s first generation. This plant won’t set seed which reliably reproduces the same characteristics in following generations. If you save seed from a hybrid plant, it will not be stable and may show characteristics from either of the parent plants. Open-pollinated seed has been stabilised by growing over many generations and will grow true seed that can be saved to grow the same plant again and again. Grow the right plant in the right season. Check out www.cogs.asn.au for guides on growing in Canberra.

Check if the plant is self-pollinating or wind/insect pollinated. This will affect what you can grow, where and how many plants of the same type you need to grow (or not grow). Self-pollinating plants are the simplest for seed saving; wind/insect pollinated plants can ‘cross-pollinate’ or inter-breed with other plants in the same family, producing some interesting new plants with very different characteristics to their parents! You may need to isolate plants during flowering or plan planting and flowering to prevent the possibility of cross pollination.

Make sure you grow enough plants. Some herbs and vegetables need to be grown in large numbers for genetic strength and good seed (carrots and corn for e.g.). For some herbs and vegetables, you can get good seed from a single plant (tomatoes or peas). 

Be prepared to grow the plant to full maturity. This can take a long time. A plant from which seed is saved needs to flower, be pollinated, set seed and then be left in place for the seed to mature fully. This means the plant will be in your garden for a lot longer than other plants. For fruiting plants, you can select the earliest fruit that looks great but try and let it mature on the plant for as long as possible.

Select the best plants to save seed from. What you choose is what you’ll get. Choose plants that have the characteristics you want all future plants to have whether that be tasty fruit, resistance to heat, frost tolerance or just vigorous growth. It’s hard to do, but you need to not eat the best plants – save them for seed and next year’s plants will be just as good. Be ruthless – don’t save seed from inferior plants, rogue them! Make sure you label the plant.

Mature, clean and dry seed thoroughly. If seed is not mature it will likely not be viable. If seed is not cleaned before it is stored, it will not stay thoroughly dry. If seed is not thoroughly dry, it will not store well and stay viable. Seed is alive and needs to be put to sleep before being stored or it will use up all of its nutrition before it gets a chance to germinate. Seeds should be air dried – add grains of rice to seed store to assist with keeping storage dry.

Dry method of cleaning seeds: Some seeds are cleaned with the ‘dry’ method – e.g. lettuce, herbs, rocket, peas and beans. This is very easy! Plants need to be left to mature and start to die. Then pull out the plant or just cut off the seed heads and hang upside down in a paper bag in a dry place for a few weeks to dry. Then separate seeds from chaff by winnowing and hand sorting/ sieving. Label and store. 

Wet method of cleaning seeds: Some seeds are cleaned with the ‘wet’ method – e.g. cucumber, tomato, pumpkin. Cut open the very mature fruit, scoop out seeds and pulp, rinse in water and separate seeds from pulp. Dry thoroughly (air dry for days or weeks), label and store. 

If you feel adventurous and want to store seeds for a long time, you can ferment seeds such as tomatoes. This will remove the protective gel layer from the outside of the seed. To ferment, scoop seeds and pulp out of fruit; place in a bowl with a little water if needed to make it a bit slushy (!); leave covered for 2-4 days (depending on conditions) until scum forms on top of the water; rinse off scum and any seed that has floated (good seed is heavy and will sink to the bottom; rinse seeds with clean water and sieve. Check seeds don’t have protective coating. Dry and store. 

Store in a cool, dry place and don’t forget to label it! You think you won’t, but you will forget what exact variety the seed is and when it was harvested. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the seed – but it could be a surprise! Different seeds have different periods of viability in storage – some last for a year, some for a decade: it’s important to know when the seed was harvested. Adding some grains of oven dried rice to the seed jar will help to absorb any excess moisture and assist with long storage. 

Start with the easy ones: peas, beans, tomatoes and lettuce Some seeds are easier than others to save. Plants that are self-pollinating do not need to be isolated or protected from cross-pollination, and usually don’t need to be grown in large numbers. Peas and beans and basic herbs are dry-processed which is simple to do. 

Resources for Seed Savers

There are lots of great information resources for seed savers online and in books. Some favourite resources (which have been used to produce this quick guide) are: 

  • The Real Seed Catalogue: www.realseeds.co.uk – most of this fact sheet is taken from their materials.
  • The Seed Savers’ Handbook of Australia and New Zealand, Michel and Jude Fanton, published by The Seed Savers Network in 1993. Buy copies online from the Seed Savers website: http://seedsavers.net/ 

This is the guide for seed saving in Australia – a small encyclopaedia of information organised by plant type and lots of handy hints. 

By saving seeds you become part of the millennia of culture, tradition and science of plant breeding; you help to build our community’s resilience to climate change; you protect our common heritage from corporate control, and you create abundance and life.

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