- It can save you money (instead of buying seedlings, or buying new seed all the time)
- An exciting wide range of unique varieties to choose from that you may not be able to source as seedlings
- Reduce negative impact associated with packaging, distribution and production of conventional seed or seedlings
- Save seed from produce that has grown well in the conditions of your garden, so it is acclimatised
- Protect and encourage genetic diversity, and avoiding the possible downfalls of monoculture (i.e. less pest and disease resistance, soils depleted, chance of a species being devastated and no ‘back ups’, less biodiversity, boring food choices!)
- Be prepared for possible food shortages or price rises, or food distribution issues, by knowing how to save and grow from seed
- It is a satisfying and enjoyable hobby
- You can connect with other seed savers, and share your seeds around!
Not all veges and herbs that you want to grow can be grown from seed, or have seed saved from them. You propagate them from cuttings, roots and bulbs. Some examples include potatoes, sweet potatoes, lemongrass, garlic, certain herbs.
There are some seeds which are not ideal to save from year to year, such as hybrid seeds (i.e. F1), which are a cross between 2 plants, to get the ‘best’ from both, such as higher yield or disease resistance. The seed from these plants can be sterile, or highly variable, if they do germinate.
However, seeds that you can buy, swap and save are:
- Heirloom or Heritage – genetically strong (the ‘best’ are saved each season) handed down from generation to generation, or a variety that has been around for a long time
- Open Pollinated – when pollination occurs naturally, not manipulated; they may be more genetically diverse; may be adapted to local conditions, and produce a dependable crop
- Organic – collected from chemical free plants, some may be certified organic
WHERE DO WE BUY OR FIND THE SEED TO START OFF WITH?
You may save from seedlings or plants already in your garden, or look for seed swapping groups, or Seed Savers Networks, in your area, or swap with your neighbours, family or friends. There may also be seed companies that specialise in heirloom and organic seeds in your region.
You might be tempted to save seed from produce you’ve bought at the shops, or farmers markets, but you may find that seeds from produce that has been stored in cool rooms or gassed, will not have a good germination rate. Or may be from a hybrid variety, or got cross pollinated at the farm and won’t grow true to type. Sure, you can give it a go, but if you have limited space and time to do experiments, it could end up being a waste.
Join the Growing Home Community to check out our list of recommended Australian Seed Companies. The group is free, and hosted on Facebook. The list is in the File section, or use the search function.
Now for some science! So we know that for edible plants that produce fruit (like zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes), the seeds are inside. First the leafy part of the plant grows and produces flowers. The flowers need to be pollinated, or the fruit part won’t grow (and the seeds can’t form inside it). For vegetables or herbs (without a ‘fruit’), they grow their leaves (which we harvest) and then they go to flower, and have to be pollinated to produce seed to save.
So these plants can be self-pollinated, cross-pollinated, or sometimes both.
- Self-pollinated plants – Pollen is not transferred from one flower to another. The process occurs within each flower. The flowers have both male and female plant parts and pollination occurs successfully within the single bloom. These plants include lettuce, peas, beans and tomatoes.
- Cross-pollinated plants – The pollen from one flower fertilizes another flower, either on the same or another plant. Either wind or insects carry the pollen. It is important to know the other varieties of the same species with which a plant has the potential to exchange pollen. These plants include pumpkins and cucumbers.
WHAT IS CROSS POLLINATION? WHY IS IT ‘BAD’?
Cross-pollination is where genetics have been shared between plants, during the pollination stage. As explained above, for some edibles, they rely on being cross pollinated before they can produce. That’s good. But in terms of saving seed, the genetics may be mixed up with a different variety within the same species, and those mixed up genetics are saved in the seed.
The genetics determines what the plant grows like, so if you grow from seed saved from that plant where cross pollination occurred with a different variety within the same species, it could negatively affect the ‘next generation’ by not growing true to type.
This can be ‘bad’ or unwanted, as it could mean if you save cross-pollinated seed, and plant it next season, you could grow odd-shapes and colours, not the right flavour, and could be a waste of your growing space and time! (Corn is one of the few edible plants that can be affected and unwanted cross pollination occurs in the current generation that is growing).
UNDERSTANDING PLANT CLASSIFICATION
To avoid any negative side effects of cross pollination, we need to learn more about plant taxonomy, or classification. The hierarchy that plants are classified by (from higher order, to lower) that we are concerned with is:
- genus and species
- variety (or also known as ‘cultivar’)
For example, broccoli is from
- Brassicaceae (family)
- Brassica oleracea (genus and species)
- Italica (variety) NB. There are also variety by-names, such as ‘Purple Sprouting’.
Those long Latin names (especially the species) become relevant when you want to avoid cross-pollination. For example, the genus, Brassica, has several species, besides Brassica oleracea, including Brassica rapa (i.e. turnip) and Brassica napus (i.e. swede). These cannot cross pollinate with each other, as only the genus is the same, the species are different. You can’t cross pollinate between different species, you can only cross pollinate within a species.
So, broccoli can cross-pollinate with other oleracea species, like kale or cauliflower (despite being different varieties within that species). Varieties from within the same species can cross-pollinate with each other when you grow them together.
HOW DO I KNOW WHICH FAMILY, GENUS AND SPECIES, and VARIETY MY EDIBLE PLANTS ARE FROM?
Before we start seed saving, we need to know which species our plants are from, to determine which varieties of those edible plants can cross pollinate with each other (and avoid it). In the graphic below, you can see the family (including the Latin family name, and Common Family name) which many of your everyday vegetables/ fruits belong to. Of course, it is the genus and species within the family that you need to find out.
If a species has multiple varieties within it, and it is pollinated by insects or the wind, there is a higher chance that if you grow and save seed from it, you save will not grow true to type next season you grow it!
You can check on seed packets, or in books, or do research online. If you Google each of the family names listed below, on Wikipedia you will be able to find further information about the genus and species, and cultivar or ‘variety’, for many common everyday vegetables and herbs.
An example is the family Cucurbitaceae, under which you find the genus, Cucurbita, and the species, pepo. Any variety within the Cucurbita pepo species can cross-pollinate with each other. This includes zucchini, spaghetti vegetable/ squash, crookneck squash, some varieties of pumpkins, squash delicata, scallopini or patty pan squash etc (which all have their own variety names). If you grow these near each other in your backyard (or some are growing in your neighbours yard), they could be cross-pollinated with each other, and saving the seed from them may not mean you will grow the same thing next season. (However, they won’t cross with anything from the Curcurbita moschata, or Curcurbita maxima species. The genus is the same, the species is different).
HOW TO AVOID CROSS-POLLINATION WHEN SAVING SEED?
- Some species, such as bean, pea, tomato, and lettuce, self-pollinate before their flowers even open (as opposed to wind or insect pollinated) so cross-pollination is less likely to occur. These are great for beginner seed savers to start with, or those restricted by space and time to be able to pursue ‘harder’ varieties.
- Restrict what varieties you grow from within each species you grow, for insect/ wind pollinated plants. If you grow Brassica oleracea, choose only one cultivar or variety from that species (i.e. Brassica oleracea Italica, which is broccoli, but don’t also grow Brassica oleracea Botrytis, i.e. cauliflower, if you want to save seed).
- If you do grow more than one variety or cultivar within a species, they need to be kept a certain distance from each other (500m, up to 1000m). That can be hard in an urban setting, and you may not know what is growing in your neighbourhood.
- Look into bagging, or caging and covering the plants, then hand pollinating them. Or try planting a barrier between insect pollinated varieties, of a different species, or even on opposite sides of the house.
- Stagger planting times, so members of the same species are not flowering at the same time.
These categories are based in terms of success of saving seed that will grow true to type (not how hard the method to actually collect the seed is). You will have more success with saving seeds from plants that self pollinate, or that you have only grown one variety from that species. You will require more skill to save true-to-type seed from plants that love to cross pollinate, and that you are growing multiple varieties of, and need barriers/ space between, bagging or caging & hand pollinating. Some plants only produce seed every second year, or to reduce ‘in breeding’ you have to grow many plants of that variety, so that can be harder.
HOW DO WE SAVE GOOD QUALITY SEED?
Choose plants and fruits with the best flavour, size, colour, disease and pest resistant, early bearing or late bolting etc. If you notice a tomato plant, that was in the same position as other tomato plants of the same variety, but it seem to have resisted succumbing to early frosts, save seed from those tomatoes, as it may have genetics that make it less frost sensitive. If you notice that one broccoli plant has not ‘bolted’ but all the others have, mark that broccoli plant (with tape/ garden tie) to save seed from a plant that doesn’t go to flower so easily.
You may want to mark the plants that you are going to save seed from, so you don’t accidently harvest everything from it, without letting some of the produce get fully mature or go to seed, or forgetting which one it was you noticed had the good traits. Use garden ties/ coloured ribbon or tape.
Some fruiting plants, like beans and okra, you need to leave the fruit on beyond the normal eating size, allow it to be fully mature and the seeds grow fat inside the pod. Some vegetables and herbs need to matured beyond normal harvest point, and ‘gone to seed’, such as herbs, carrots, beetroot, lettuce, leeks. They are ‘dry’ because they can dry out easily (on or off the plant) and can be collected without further washing or fermenting.
For some seed heads, you may need to bag them (paper bags, fine mesh bags) before they fully mature or dry, because when they are mature, they will start to fall or pop off (or birds will eat them). An alternative method, if you cannot leave the seed heads/ pods on until dry (if they are being eaten by pests or there are frosts or rain predicted), is to cut the mature flowers or seeds pods off, and then dry.
- Once the harvest is winding up, leave some pods on the plant to fully mature and dry, or allow a plant to go to flower and develop seed pods
- Pick the dried pods, remove beans/ seeds and make sure the seeds inside are dry
- Or shake the pods and seed into a paper bag, or transfer into an appropriate container. Gently rough up the pods to release the seeds, if necessary
- Put into appropriate containers
- Label and store
For seed that are found in the edible ‘fruit’ part of the vegetable, such as squash, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkin, capsicum, chilli and tomatoes, you will find they are ‘wet’ with flesh and/or tissue from inside the fruit.
- Make sure you have a mature specimen, or let the edible part grow beyond when you would normally harvest, to ensure the seeds are mature
- Cut open, scoop out the seeds and flesh, then place in a sieve.
- Rinse and remove the seed from the fleshy parts or pods, and discard the tissue. Allow the seeds to drain.
- Spread the seeds on a plate or tray to dry, and LABEL the seeds immediately (drying time could be a few days to a week or so)
- Leave them in an area that is low humidity, light filled but not too warm, and where you can easily observe the seeds
- Once the seeds are VERY thoroughly dry, put them into an appropriate container
- Label and Store
- When you save tomato seeds you can ‘ferment’ the seeds, to remove the gel-like coating on the seed (and it can kill off some disease too)
- Scoop out the seeds from a ripe tomato, place in a jar, bowl or container and label them
- Leave them in a safe, clean area that you can observe them, like a kitchen bench. Watch for the ‘mould’ to form in a few days.
- When they start to appear foamy and a white mould forms on top, rinse the seeds, drain and dry (not on paper towel, they stick to it) on a plate or greaseproof paper, again making sure you label them
- When dry, place in appropriate containers
- Label and store
Seed Container Options (what to store seeds in)
- Paper envelope (reuse envelopes from bills) or you can buy small paper ones
- Sterile jar, such as old baby food jars – be careful of any moisture getting trapped in these
- Small plastic envelope (buy or from those you get buttons in on new clothes)
- Seed mats (make your own with tissue or paper towel) and dry
- Don’t forget to include THE LABEL, with type of seed, dates, any other information
CONDITIONS TO STORE YOUR SEEDS
- Seeds need cool, dark, dry, consistent temperatures, i.e. laundry cupboard, linen cupboard, fridge door. (Some people store their seeds in the freezer, and keep them for years, with good germination rates).
- Keep individual envelopes in containers/ box/ old filing box, in order of planting seasons. Below is an example of my ‘seed bank’.
- You can consider silica or other moisture absorber.
WHAT IS SELF SEEDING?
When the plant goes to flower, the seeds form, then the pods (and plant) dry out, allowing the seed to fall to the ground/ garden bed, they germinate if the conditions are right, and start growing again. Or if you have a fruiting plant, like a tomato, that drops a mature fruit onto the ground/ garden bed, the fruit breaks down, and next time the conditions are right, the seeds germinate and start growing again.
The benefits are that you don’t have to manually collect and store the seed, or plant it again the following season. You may notice that plants that spontaneously spring up without you planting them (from self seeding or from a compost pile) are hardier, prolific producers.
The challenges are that if this self seeding may occur in your garden beds, where you planned to put other seeds/ seedlings. Or that you are not sure of the variety until it is well grown.
- The Plant Propagators Bible, Miranda Smith, 2007, Quarto Inc.
- The Vegetable Gardeners Guide to Permaculture, by Christopher Shein
- The Seed Savers Handbook, and Seed Savers Network
- Seed Savers Exchange Blog – What’s the Difference? Open-Pollinated, Heirloom & Hybrid Seeds
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