Self-satisfaction is a direct reward of self-sufficiency. ‘Barbara’ and ‘Tom Good’, from British sitcom The Good Life, paved the way to self-sufficiency in the 1970s, beaming passion for growing and feeding themselves from their own backyard into living rooms worldwide. However, you don’t need to be living off the grid or have an alternative lifestyle to save your own seed. I do wonder why more people don’t save their own seed. It is easy, very rewarding and, best of all, it’s free. Anyone, anywhere, can do it. Whoever started the myth that it’s hard should be hunted down and made to sieve oxalis – I have a bed just ready and waiting. Now is a good time to start saving seed, with many crops maturing and nearing the end of their lifecycle.
The downside to saving your own seed is the resulting crop may not be the same as the original plant; this is where the value and experience of seed companies come in. Cross-pollination and hybridising occurs naturally in the garden and, while the resulting seed will have characteristics from its parent plant, it may well look, and possibly even taste, different.
Go to Seed
The first thing to do is wait for the desired crop to fully mature and run to seed. This means letting leafy crops like lettuces, beetroot, silver beet, spinach and kale all flower, then set seed. For fleshy crops, such as tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers, the fruit needs to be fully ripe before picking from the plant.
This is the most critical step. You need to make sure the seed is fully mature before it is harvested as green, immature seed will never ripen completely. Most ripe seed of leafy greens are a shade of brown when mature. When seed starts to ripen, seed pods pop open; this is the time to get collecting.
Cut stems off and hang these upside down in a plastic bag. Over a matter of days, or weeks, the seeds will dry out and drop into the bottom of the bag. With corn, allow a few husks to fully mature on the plant. Once the leaves and silk have shrunk and become a pale yellow the seed is ready to be harvested and separated from the cobs. For tomatoes and other fleshy crops, quarter the fruit and use a small spoon to scrape seed into a fine sieve or tea strainer.
Carefully, using the back of the spoon, ease away the excess pulp and flesh, so you are left with only seed. Rinse with water to help wash it away. Place seed on absorbent kitchen towel and leave somewhere to dry – the linen cupboard is ideal. Avoid laying them in full sun for long periods as this can often break down the seed coat as the seed is drying. I use an old broken microwave, so the mice cannot get to it. One of the down sides of living in the country!
Dry as a Bone
Seed must be totally dry before it can be stored. If any sort of moisture is left in the seed when it is stored it will form a mould or rot and kill the seed. Seed coats are tough once they are thoroughly dry. Store seed in envelopes, jars, containers, pill bottles; whatever you can find. Clearly label what the seeds are and when you harvested them. Most seed is viable for a season or two, but over time they do lose viability. Keeping them away from light, moisture and heat does extend their life.
Good Crops to Try
Lettuce, beetroot, silver beet, spinach and coriander all have tall stems of flowers which ripen into seed. Wait until you can see the seed looking brown and mature before harvesting.
Brassicas – allow them to flower. The pretty lemon flowers mature to form pods in which little dark seeds develop over a few months. Cross-pollination is very likely in the cabbage family, so seedlings may not be true to type.
Radishes have long pods that sit high above the plants after they have flowered. Allow pods to go brown before picking.
Peas and beans – some of the easiest crops from which to save seed. Allow pods to go brown and crinkly before harvesting. Seeds can be left in the pods if time is short, but it is best to remove the seeds from the pods in case there are any insects in the pods. Clean, dry seed always stores best.
Parsnip and carrots have big, tall plumes of flowers that not only look attractive but bring in the bees and pollinators as well. Wait until the pods turn a creamy brown before harvesting, this will take a few months, however each plant produces hundreds of seeds, so you don’t need to let too many go to seed.
Tomatoes, eggplant, melons, pumpkin, courgette, cucumber, chilli, capsicum – all take a little longer, but are well worth the effort to save seeds of heirloom or heritage varieties.
Did you know? In a container of water, unviable seed will float to the surface.