Growing Your Own Vegetables - Saving Seeds
24th Aug 2002
Something for Nothing?
We all like to have a present don't we, or something that hasn"t cost us anything apart from a little of our own time. Well the present can be in the form of free seed from your own vegetable plot and it's not as difficult as you might think. However before you rush headlong into it, there are a few rules to obey along the way in order to gain the maximum benefit from the saved seed. One rule that must be obeyed is to save seed only from plants that are seen to be disease and virus free. The best rule of thumb for this is to be very wary of any plant with foliage looking a streaky yellow colour or not as healthy as it should be, then leave well alone.
Another rule to be obeyed if you want consistency in the saved seed is to save only from straight varieties, in other words not from any hybrid varieties that have been crossed with other material. The resulting seed would be fine but it would also contain a mixture from all the previous crosses that made up the hybrid. As with flowers, vegetables are Annuals or Biennials, the Annuals are sown in year one and the seed harvested in that year. These include vegetables such as Peas, French, Runner and Broad Beans and lettuce. Those requiring a two period and therefore biennial are onions, leeks and beetroot, these are sown in year one and the seed harvested in year two.
Annual and Biennials
The simplest are the annuals, they can be harvested easily from the position that you have grown them in at the end of their growing season. The Biennials can also be harvested in the position where they are growing but they will need frost protection and are always in the way when it's time to prepare the ground for the following season. They easiest are the legumes or the podded plants such as peas and beans, these need to be left on the plant as long as possible before harvesting but must be removed before the heavy Autumn rains spoil them.
Ideally the peas should be picked before the mildew disease attacks them, some peas such as Show Perfection are prone to this anytime from now. The mildew manifests itself as a white blanket over the foliage and pods, it will usually leave brown pitted marks on the pods that can actually burn through and damage the peas as well. The peas are in perfect condition for harvesting when they have turned to a pale white colour. At this time the pods can be laid out to dry further on an airy greenhouse bench or conservatory.
Broad beans can be picked when they have turned nearly black, these can also be further dried out on a greenhouse bench as can the French and Runner Beans when the pods have turned a pale brownish colour. Many times in the past, because of persistent wet weather, I have had to resort to actually lifting a couple of plants by the roots to hang them up side down in the greenhouse to dry out. Before opening up the pods they should, ideally be nice and crisp in your hand and the seed should be a fully mature colour. If you select beans and beans that appear to be full and the pods are semi wrinkled, the contents will often be immature. The beans will be a pale pinkie colour and the peas will be soft and when they later dry out they will be much smaller than they should have been and more vulnerable to rotting prior to germination.
Pros and Cons
The great thing about saving your own seed is that you can actually improve your selection with a little bit of thought to what you are doing. The late Brython Stenner from Glamorgan South Wales was a keen showman for many years. Even though only a keen amateur, he quickly became a legend in his own life time amongst showmen with the quality of his Enorma Runner Beans. Brython had been re-selecting this bean for many years using different coloured wool to tie on all the best plants, no pods would be removed for eating from these. His thinking was that you should not pick the longest and the most filled pods along the row, you should select the strongest, healthiest plants, those that consistently produced the longest and most filled pods along the row. Because of one amateurs dedication, the 'Stenner Strain' bean is the only bean that is consistently winning on the show benches today, not only does his selection of beans look good, they taste good as well.
With carrots beetroot, onions and Leeks I much prefer to harvest them from the ground before winter, select them for their meritorious attributes, and then re plant them. Onions and Leeks are planted around the new year in 9 or 10 inch pots using a good quality compost such as Levington M3. They need to be kept in a warm greenhouse to generate a new strong root system and eventually they can go outside. However, to get good quality seed, the heads when in flower, need to be brought inside to harvest; a polytunnel is perfect for this job. One word of caution however, if you have a gardener next door who has the same vegetables as you and are seeding at the same time, put a paper bag over your seed heads when in full flower to prevent cross pollination by the bees. Harvest the seed when they are visibly black within the seed case; not all seeds will be viable, one simple to way to check this is to float the seed on top of some water in a jar. The very best and plumpest seed will gradually fall to the bottom whilst the husk and empty seed shells will float on top, these can then be sieved off and the good ones dried on some tissue paper in a warm room.
Carrots and beetroot can also be potted up in some 4 litre rose pots and again over wintered, in the Spring they can be kept outside until flowering time. Once they are flowering they must be brought under some cover to prevent the rains from spoiling the quality of the seed. One word of caution if you intend to harvest seed from long and short carrots as well as from globe and long beet, they need to be kept separate under another cover as they can very easily cross pollinate. The seed once harvested must be kept dry and cool in a glass or plastic sealed container, some silica gel sachets placed inside the container will help to maintain their freshness and viability.