Harvest seeds from your own garden: they grow better and you do your part for the next generation
Your vegetable garden really can keep feeding you, your family and people in your neighbourhood year after year if you practise some simple seedsaving methods. Start with a few easy crops, take freely available advice, and network with like-minded members of your community – whether you live in suburbia or on a small-holding or farm.
Shannon Draper of the Gravel Garden Company, who grows and sells heirloom seeds in Somerset West outside Cape Town, says, ‘We’ve been saving seed as a culture for the past 12 000 years but, in the short space of 100 years or so, we’ve lost the knowledge base of this simple and vital skill. Farmers and gardeners alike should act now to ensure that we pool our resources and skills in these economically challenging times. This really is what community is all about.”
Why should you save seeds?
You can save money Sue Vingerhoets of the organic farm Foxglove in Baardskeerdersbos, who sells her own seeds under the Foxglove label, says, “If you plan to continue growing your own vegetables, even on a small scale, you’d be stupid not to save their seeds – those packet prices add up. If you save tomato seeds properly, for example [see how on page 110], you’ll get about 100 seeds from one tomato but there are only about 25-30 in a packet you buy.” The first rule, though, is grow things you love to eat, she emphasises, otherwise you aren’t going to take much interest and there’ll be no good reason to keep the seed.
You can make some extra cash
“I think a small seed business is a fantastic way to make a little extra money,” says Shannon. “It’s an amazing occupation to pass on to a child and may just see them in good stead in times to come. Start small and be absolutely informed when it comes to ensuring pure, uncrossed seed. Germination tests are also advised, as there is nothing worse than buying ‘dud’ or inferior seed.”
Sean Freeman of Livingseeds says they do use contract growers. “It takes two to three years to become one of our growers, of which we have a core of four to five. We give you the info – we’re actually teaching people to become our competitors – and you have to follow the instructions and send us samples to grow and check. We take a very hard line on that.”
You can help preserve diversity “Seed saving is critical,” says Sean, who grows heirloom vegetable seeds on his farm outside Johannesburg and also started South Africa’s first and biggest online vegetable seed store ( livingseeds.
co.za). “We save 1 000 open-pollinated varieties on our farm every year but if you think about it, there are 5 000 tomato varieties out there and we can’t save them all. If all veggie gardeners save one or two varieties each year this will make a massive difference in preventing the loss of some varieties. Each one, save one!”
You can share heirloom varieties
You or others in your community might have seeds from your grandparents that you’ve been planting and saving for years. Giving those seeds away – or swapping them for other seeds you
“If all veggie gardeners save one or two varieties each year this will make a massive difference in preventing the loss of some varieties.” – SEAN FREEMAN
want to grow – ensures that they’ll be around for the next generation. You will contribute to food security “Plants, especially annuals, adapt over a few generations to be better adapted to local climactic and soil conditions,” says permaculture expert Kobus Kritzinger, who is based in Rawsonville. “Chances are that we are in for an increasingly unstable time as far as climate and economy are concerned. Forming networks of seed savers might prove far more valuable than we are able to conceive currently. It’s also relatively easy to get our hands on some older, scarcer varieties now, but this might not always be the case.” >
Basic do’s and don’ts
DO If you want to produce true-totype, or true-to-seed, plants (this means they will be exactly the same as the original plant), you should make sure you are saving seeds from open-pollinated plants. These are plants that have been pollinated by insects, birds, the wind or humans (see “Should you know how to hand-pollinate?” below) and have not been cross-pollinated by another variety. Open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse, resulting in greater variation within plant populations, thus allowing plants to adapt to local conditions slowly over time.
DON’T If you started out planting hybrids (these seeds are often labelled F1), you shouldn’t save their seeds for future use, no matter how tempting it may be. Although the first generation of a hybrid plant usually grows better than its parents (it’s known as “hybrid vigor”), this isn’t true of the next generation. The resulting plants also will not be true to type. You should therefore purchase new seed each year. (Also bear in mind that harvesting, saving and exchanging patented seeds – mostly hybrids – is prohibited by intellectual property laws.)
When it comes to fruit trees, Sean says saving seeds from your favourite fruit isn’t advisable as they will not be true to type. Rather grow fruit trees from cuttings.
“If you plan to continue growing your own vegetables, you’d be stupid not to save their seeds – those packet prices add up.” – SUE VINGERHOETS
What’s the deal with annuals and perennials?
Most seed growers focus on saving the seeds of annual plants, which live for one growing season and then die. Perennials, on the other hand, regrow every spring, which of course makes less work for gardeners. When you plant a perennial like asparagus, you know you’ll continue getting asparagus for 15 years, so saving the seeds isn’t really necessary unless you know of people in your community who want seeds from your specific plants, says Sean. (Peppers and chillies, too, are perennial, he adds, so there’s no need to rip them out every year like many home gardeners do, unless you live in an area that experiences frost.)
Annuals like lettuce and coriander will often go through a number of life cycles in a season, says Kobus, so as they seed, sow them again. “Ideally they should be sown every two weeks to ensure a steady supply of leaves for your table.”
When it comes to biennials like carrots and onions, patience is needed as they’ll only flower and set seed in their second year, after a period of winter chilling. They won’t bloom and produce seeds unless they’ve been through this vernalisation process. The number of seeds produced is high – far more than a home gardener will need. “Think about how many carrots and parsnips you want to harvest and eat, and decide if you really want to save those seeds,” says Sue.
When are seeds ready to harvest?
You want the seeds to be fully ripe. “Peppers and tomatoes should have gone through all the colour changes to give mature seed,” says Shannon. “Beans and peas must be fully swollen in their pods, almost at catapult stage.” But timing is crucial, she emphasises: “There’s nothing worse than making a turn a few days later and all that beautiful seed has landed in the grit! When the morning dew has dried, gather a basket, bucket or bag and don’t miss the opportunity!”
If you don’t want to take the risk of losing them, Kobus suggests picking the seed heads and hanging them in paper bags with holes punctured in them to allow them to dry out further. If pods burst open or flowers shed, the seeds will collect in the bottom of the bag. Also think about not eating the produce from your best plant. “Overcome the temptation and rather let it go to seed. This ensures that plants with the most desirable characteristics are carried forward. Things like capsicums and cucurbits are not a problem, as you can harvest the seeds and eat the fruit. Root crops, lettuces and brassicas are a different matter because the edible parts no longer taste good once the plant goes to seed.” >
Which plants are easiest?
Herbs like basil are very easy: just let them dry, bundle them up upside down in a brown paper bag and hang it up to let the seeds fall inside when they’re ready. Then try your hand at these five dependables:
BEANS The experts agree that bean varieties are pretty foolproof. Bean plants have perfect flowers (male and female reproductive parts on the same flower) and can self-pollinate before the flowers even open. But it’s good to know for seed-saving purposes that it’s best to stick to planting one variety, because beans (and other self-pollinators) can still cross-pollinate when, for example, a large bumble bee carrying pollen from another plant manages to push its way into a flower before it opens, thus potentially altering the traits of the seeds you want to keep.
Of course you have no control over what your neighbours have planted, so the best way to prevent crosspollination and ensure “clean seed” is actually to isolate the flowers, says Sean. He advises doing this by covering each one with isolation netting (or pieces of old net curtaining or organza bags, which you should wash before reusing). Once the flowers have opened, label them as self-pollinated.
Because the seeds you’re saving are really the beans themselves, you might want to set aside a few plants purely for their seed because you’ll have to let the pods dry out completely on the plant, about six weeks after eating stage, then open them to remove any chaff and store the seeds (see “Storage tips” left).
MAIZE These flowers are imperfect, meaning there are separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The males, or tassels, bloom at the top of the stalk and as they ripen, they shed pollen onto the ears with their female silks lower down. If you are growing multiple varieties, plant them at six-week intervals to prevent cross-pollination, advises Sue. Choose a few of your best ears to save for seed (one is probably enough for a home garden) and pick the rest to eat. You can leave the seed ears on the plant to dry completely.
“The hardest part is keeping the birds off the plant,” she says. “I just cover the tops of the plants with onion bags to keep them away.”
Leave the ears you’ve chosen for several weeks until the husks turn brown, then pull them from the stalks. Hang them in a dry place where rodents can’t get to them and periodically test whether the kernels are dry enough by placing one on a hard surface and hitting it with a hammer. If the kernel shatters, it’s dry enough to store.
LETTUCE One lettuce plant (lettuce is selfpollinating) will provide plenty of seed for home gardeners to use the next season. As the flower heads dry out and turn downy, pinch them off the plant, place them in a bucket and break them open to allow the small oval seeds to fall out. Or, wait until most of the flowers on the plant have gone to seed, then cut off the top of the plant and shake it over the bucket to dislodge the fully ripened seeds. You will, however, lose some seed as you’ll be harvesting before they are all fully ripe.
TOMATOES Pick a fully ripe tomato (tomatoes, too, are self-pollinating) and cut it in half to open up the vertical cavities that contain the seed. Squeeze the jelly-like substance containing the seeds into a glass jar, add a little water, cover the jar lightly and let it stand to ferment for about three days. After a few days a fungal layer will develop on top. This fungus breaks down the gelatinous sac around the seeds, which will allow them to germinate. Now fill the jar with warm water and allow the contents to settle. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom, whereas the pulp and immature seeds will float to the top – drain off the latter, refill the jar with water and repeat the process until you are left with only the heavier, viable seeds. Drain the seeds in a strainer, then place them on paper towel or newspaper and let them dry for several days – this is important if you don’t want them to turn mouldy. When completely dry, store them for future use.
PEPPERS These also produce perfect, selfpollinating flowers. Most bell peppers turn red when fully mature, which is what you want for ripe seed. Cut off the bottom of a pepper and strip the seeds from the central cone. Spread the seeds on paper towel and leave them in a cool place to dry for one or two weeks. If the paper towel turns damp, replace it. You’ll know the seeds are dry enough if they break when you fold them. >
Sharing is caring
Once you’ve started saving seeds and are keen to learn more and pick up some new varieties for your own garden, investigate whether there are any seed-swap initiatives in your area – these are great for sharing ideas and learning new skills. If there isn’t something like this nearby, think about starting one with like-minded people in your community. This is exactly how the Mother City Seed Library, which started in Cape Town last spring, came into being. Its aim is to advise gardeners of all skill levels how to grow, harvest and save seeds, as well as to give them the chance to network at monthly seed-sharing meetings. Members swap edible, decorative and herb seed varieties and are introduced to a wide variety of open-pollinated heirloom seeds, supplied through donations, to take home to grow themselves.
Founder Paul Barker says the expert growers behind the project hope that borrowers will harvest seeds from their plants to keep for themselves and return some to the seed library or others to take and plant, which will eventually make the seed library self-sustaining.
How important is this kind of initiative? “It’s very important,” says Kobus. “Once your seeds have been shared in a network of gardeners, the responsibility is divided so that you are not the only one responsible for saving that particular variety every season.” (Read more about a seed exchange in which Kobus was involved on page 118.)
“I’ve been given so many fantastic seeds from all over,” says Sue. “And you never know what someone else wants, so it’s definitely worth keeping extras to exchange. People never get enough of tomatoes and chillies, so if you love them plant plenty of varieties to make the most of their different flavours and uses – and, most importantly, share the love!”