Collect, save and sow seeds gathered from your own garden and start swapping with your friends!
Saving and swapping seeds isn’t just a brilliant way of saving money on creating a great garden, but it’ll also open it up to whole new avenues of possibility.
Seeds are valuable and can be used as currency with friends, neighbours and relatives to expand the range of plants in your garden – and you won’t have to spend a penny. What’s more, these swaps will provide you with interesting stories about their origins and the people behind the plants that you’re growing, which adds to the fun.
Saving seeds, especially vegetables, is also one of the best ways to achieve self-sufficiency. If you join an online site or gardening club seed circle, you might get access to rare and exotics that other grow-your-own enthusiasts are growing and sharing.
Which seeds to save?
Some vegetables are easier to save seeds from than others. Self-pollinated plants, for example, are fertilised by their own pollen and reliably produce plants that are identical to their parent.
Open-pollinated or heirloom varieties rely on bees and other pollinators visiting compatible plants in the area. They mostly, but not always, produce offspring that are the same mixture of colour, sizes and heights as the original plants.
Vegetables, such as tomatoes, French and runner beans, lettuce, peas, chillies and peppers are the most reliable for seed saving.
Modern hybrids – known as F1s and F2s, which are produced by two or more inbred varieties – will not produce the same variety that you originally planted. Their seeds will always make inferior plants than their parents, so are not worth the effort.
Plants such as sweetcorn, brassicas and onions are especially promiscuous, so where space is limited, you should aim to protect varieties you’d like to save.
You can do this by growing them in isolation cages made using horticultural fleece or Enviromesh to help keep the strain pure.
The best seed always comes from healthy, vigorous plants, which should be selected for their individual performance in your gardenand taste. The seed should be collected at the point of ripeness, so you’ll need to keep a careful watch and pick your time for harvesting.
How to save seeds
First, the seedpod will become dry and will usually change colour, probably from green to brown. It can take several months from when a flower dies for the seeds to be ready.
Be aware that some plants have seed capsules that ‘explode’, flinging their contents far and wide, and there are plumed seeds that are carried off on the slightest breeze.
The best way to prevent them disappearing is to protect them with a paper bag and cut off the seed head as soon as the pods start to split.
Always harvest your seed when the weather is dry. Once taken indoors, put the seed heads on a paper-lined tray in a warm, airy place until the seeds start to fall out (this may take three weeks or longer), then separate the seeds from the pods by shaking or blowing them gently to remove the chaff.
Put the cleaned seeds into labelled envelopes and keep in a dark place until they’re ready for sowing – usually in springtime.
For fleshy vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, squash and melons, pick them when they are fully ripe. Scoop out the seeds – you may need to wash and sieve repeatedly until they’re clean – before spreading them out to dry in a well-ventilated place. When they’re properly dry, store them in a labelled, airtight container.
When saving pea and bean seeds, allow the pods to ripen on the plants with seeds rattling inside. This may be as long as a month after you would normally harvest the crops to eat.
Biennials, such as beetroot and carrots, will produce flowers in their second year from sowing, so you’ll need to have patience and leave some roots in the ground to have seed to collect later in the following summer.
The germination test
Get into the habit of saving seed and you’ll soon discover that not all seeds have a long life. If, for example, you save some old seeds of cabbage and lettuce, you’ll find that the cabbage will germinate, but practically none of the lettuce. Generally it’s the freshest seed that give the best results.
Before you go to the expense and time of sowing ‘old’ seed, check the viability by carrying out a germination test. Sow seeds as a sample in a small pot and under controlled conditions wait for them to sprout. Your seeds should begin to germinate in several days up to a couple of weeks, depending on seed type.
Seeds from ornamental plants can be similarly saved. Annuals, such as sunflowers, marigolds, cleome, larkspur, nasturtium and poppies, are some of the easiest to save.
You simply pick the seed pods off the spent flowers or leave them to self-sow and produce ‘surprise’ borders around the garden in the years to come.
Get serious about seed saving and you’ll find that it pays to look at how the seedpods on your favourite flowers are formed.
For example, eschscholzia produces seed capsules that explode when ripe, so these must be collected as soon as the pods colour and poppies produce pepper-pot pods, which shake out the tiny seeds when disturbed.
You might also find a cocktail stick is useful for releasing the last few seeds from the sticky seedpods of aquilegias, and a knife useful to cut open penstemons to get at the seed – or bash them with a rolling pin!
When stored properly, most seeds will remain viable for three to four years. Happy hunting!
Dress up borders with seed heads
- Allium, the architectural ‘firework’
- Honesty, white silver ‘dollars’
- Clematis tangutica, a fluffy old man’s beard
- Papaver somniferum, pepper-pot seed heads
- Physalis franchetti, bright orange Chinese lanterns
- Indian corn, multi-coloured cobs
- Sunflower, a hanging bird feeder
- Nigella, plump green and crimson seed heads
- Teasel, for structural interest