I collect seeds from all over the world; from my own travels bringing home heirloom varieties given to me by farmers and gardeners, buying commercially grown local varieties in markets; receiving varieties from other collectors and of course through the Heritage Seed Library and other libraries in America, France and Switzerland. I have a collection of over 350 different varieties of vegetable including sweet peppers and chillies, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and beans collected from all over western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Far East and Asia, the USA, Central and Eastern Europe and from islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
If saving your own seed always select the best specimens of fruit or pod to take seeds from. Select peas and beans that are long and full of seeds; tomatoes and capsicums should be potential show-winners, a uniform size which mostly conform to the variety. Cucurbits should be large and well conformed. Most seeds kept in airtight containers in a refrigerator will keep for many years.
WHAT TO SAVE?
The easiest vegetables from which to save seed are pulses – beans and peas. All pulses are self-fertile – they don’t need an insect to pollinate them, although all pulses are visited by pollinators. Peas and French beans do not easily cross pollinate, although isolating similar types from each other by a few metres is always advisable. Runner beans and broad beans cross pollinate readily because they are very attractive to bees. Indeed, both these types need bees to improve pollination. So only grow one type of runner bean or broad bean on your plot if you wish to save the seed and keep the variety true. When I want to save seed of more than one variety of broad bean I stagger sowing. I’ll sow an over-wintering variety in the autumn in a polytunnel, knowing they will have finished flowering in May before the spring sown variety gets started. Sometimes, if first flowering is late or slow I have to cover the second sowing with fleece and alternate removing it daily with keeping the poly tunnel doors closed.
When saving pulses allow the pods to grow unchecked. Once the pods are really dry and split easily they can be harvested and the seeds extracted.
If the seeds are not absolutely dry, first hang up the pods in bunches in a dry shed or garage and once the pods are dry then put them in a cloth bag in an airtight box containing silica gel.
You can buy modern coloured silica which is completely safe to use. Once the granules have changed colour – usually from orange to green, dry them in the oven at about 100 degrees centigrade until the granules change back to orange. Keep the seeds in the box with the silica until the granules no longer change colour. I like to keep my seeds in airtight containers in a refrigerator at about 4 degrees centigrade.
Lettuce is one of the easiest vegetables from which to save seed. Although saving a few plants is always to be recommended you only need to keep one lettuce to save to have a good supply of seeds. Lettuce are self-fertile and do not cross at all easily. If you have a plant starting to bolt, why not leave it to go all the way? The plants can grow quite tall so it is a good idea to stake them. You will know when the seed is ready to harvest because the flowers go a lovely fluffy white with either black or white seeds depending on the variety. I pinch out each flower and put them on a sunny window sill to dry completely. Then give the seed heads a good rub and gently blow off teh white fluff to leave lots of seeds for the next crop.
Squash and courgette seed is also quite easy to save. Squash and courgettes will cross pollinate easily but the good news is that there are four different groups of squash that will not cross pollinate between groups. So you can grow courgettes and different squash together with no danger of cross-pollination. If you are growing more than one variety of squash be sure they are from different groups – for example butternut squash will not cross pollinate with an old-fashioned winter squash. However, courgette will cross with other summer squash like Acorn. I grow some squash in separate poly-tunnels to get a big crop and isolate them from other similar varieties. Allow the fruits to grow to full maturity. Courgettes will get very large. Wait until the plants have died back in late autumn. Take the plants off the vines and allow to ripen in a dry, airy place for at least a month, even longer. I extract seed to save from squash at the time I want to eat them.
The seed will need to be washed to remove pulp that sticks to the seed. Put seed in a large jam jar full of water. Add a teaspoon of washing soda and shake vigorously. Leave for a day or two and then drain, rinse and put the seeds on silicon baking parchment to dry in a warm, airy place. Put in a cloth bag in an airtight box with silica gel to dry completely before putting into airtight containers and storing in a cool place – ideally a refrigerator.
Chilli and other pepper seeds are also easy to save. These plants cross-pollinate for a past-time so must be grown in isolation if you want them to breed true. I isolate varieties by only growing one variety in a greenhouse or poly-tunnel at a time. Allow the fruits to grow until fully ripe. Green chillies will not yield viable seed. Take the ripe fruits and tie them to lengths of cotton. Hang in a warm and airy place – the kitchen is perfect – and allow to dry out over several weeks or months. The seeds can then be extracted from the dried fruits and put in packets in an airtight container.
Tomato seed need a little more effort to prepare for storage. All tomatoes are self fertile. Potato-leaved varieties are often pollinated by insects and so will cross with other similar varieties nearby. But, generally one can grow other varieties in relatively close proximity without contamination. Again, select the best fruits that conform to the variety to save for seed. Allow the fruits to fully ripen on the vines and then pick them and leave them somewhere warm and sunny for a couple of days. Quarter the fruits and scoop out the seeds into a fine sieve. the pulp can be used to make passata or soup. Rinse the seeds under a cold tap and remove as much of the pulp attached to the seed as possible by pressing the seeds against the sieve. If you have a small amount of seed then put them into a jam jar half full of cold water. Put on a lid, shake well and leave for at least three days to allow the pulp left on the seed to start to ferment. Then rinse the seeds again in a sieve and spread on silicon baking parchment in a warm airy place to dry. If you have more than about a dessertspoonful of seed then add half a teaspoon of washing soda to the water in the jam jar and shake well. Allow to stand, covered, for a day and then rinse the seeds again in a sieve and dry as normal.