How to store seeds
by Frann Leach
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Saving your own seed is easy to do, if you follow some simple guidelines. This is the way families develop their own varieties, suited to their own local conditions, and their own taste. You can choose the plant that produces the nicest tomatoes, say, and save enough fruits to provide seeds for next year. You can also do your own breeding, by choosing two plants with qualities you would like to see in the next generation and cross-pollinating them.

When growing vegetables for seed remember that some species are biennial, carrots and brassicas for example. We harvest them halfway through the cycle of growth when we dig the roots for the kitchen. To finish the cycle and produce a seedhead the plant needs a further season of growth.

When choosing vegetables for seed production select two plants of open-pollinated types to ensure cross-pollination. F1 or first filial generation plants are not suitable as the seed does not breed true, and you will almost always get an inferior result. To produce F1 seed, the original cross has to be made each year under carefully controlled conditions.

Select for flavour, yield, strength, form, early cropping, drought resistance, disease resistance or height. Make sure you collect the seeds at the right time - some seeds are only fully ripe after shedding. When it is ripe, the seed colour changes to dark brown or black and the texture of the seed capsule changes.

Collection and drying

Label all seeds at the time of collection with name, variety and date collected, and make sure the label stays with the seeds throughout the drying and storing process. All seed collected for sowing should be dried naturally, not in the oven. Put the seedheads in paper bags (not polythene) and hang them up to dry. Spread large seeds like squash, peas and beans in trays or boxes lined with paper and separate seeds from the pods or the rest of the plant when drying is complete by shaking or straining, removing all debris and misshapen seeds.

Store seeds carefully in envelopes or paper bags, clearly labelled, kept in a cool, dry place. Test for germination before sowing for crops by placing ten seeds on damp kitchen towel and keeping them warm and moist. After three weeks count the number that have germinated. If there are fewer than five, it might not be worth sowing that sample.

Methods for different crops

Because brassicas need two years to achieve seed production, it is best to transplant the selected specimen for the second season as a precaution against clubroot. Do avoid allowing more than one sort of brassica to flower at the same time, or you will probably not get the results you expect. Collect brassica seed pods after they have turned yellow, but before they have opened.

For root crops, either transplant the selected plants and give them protection over the winter or store the best in the usual way and plant them out in March to grow on and produce seed.

For squash, select a good specimen on a plant early in the season and remove all other flowers. Fruits, including courgettes, should be allowed to develop to full size and ripeness. By late autumn the skins will be hard and brittle, so you may need to use a saw to open them. One fruit will produce 300 or more seeds. Remove the seeds carefully and wash thoroughly to remove the fleshy pulp. Then spread them on blotting paper or kitchen towel to dry naturally.

Leeks and onions also need two years to produce seed. Transplant and stake the selected plants and tie a paper bag round the seedhead if the weather turns wet or windy during the final stages of ripening.

For lettuce don't choose a plant that bolted prematurely; you need one that has stood for some time before running to seed. Harvest lettuce seed before the parachutes open.

Peas and beans for seed should be allowed to ripen on the plant. Bring the whole plant indoors to finish drying naturally in a well ventilated atmosphere, then hull and store the seeds in a dry place.

Store tree seeds in damp sand, as they should not be allowed to dry out, or they will not germinate.

©2004 Frann Leach. All rights reserved.

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