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One job gardeners often look forward to in late summer is gathering seed. Saving your own garden seeds is both easy and economical - one seed head from a single plant can raise hundreds more plants with minimal effort.

 

Top Tips:

Annual flowers and vegetables are a good place to start; the seed is usually easy to collect and the plants grow fast. Many will sow themselves if you let them.

Easy starter for children – nigella, poppy (Hungarian Blue for coating bread rolls), marigold, sunflower, honesty.

Swap seeds to increase stock, ensure against crop failure and try new things. Cultivars or F1 hybrids, will revert to original wild version or one of parents so take cuttings or layer or buy again.

Many plants cross pollinate. Fennel and dill, for example, need to be grown apart to make sure you get the same plant next year. Isolation distances may be as little as a 6ft for French beans, 50ft for peas or five miles for swiss chard, so anything is possible.

How to collect

Mostly when it is ripe – pods and seeds usually change colour and dry (runner go mouldy if wet or if taken too early). Berries can be taken once birds start eating them (= ripe) but Daphne has to be used when fresh. Most Hellebores and umbellifers need to be sown fresh so you can start these off at once in pots or seed trays with a little shelter. Biennials (such as foxgloves and hollyhocks) can also be started at once.

Choose a still, sunny day, looking for seed-heads that have turned brown and seem on the verge of splitting and releasing their contents. Have bags handy (small clear plastic freeze bags are ideal) and invert one over the top of the seed-head before cutting the stem, turning the bag over and tying around the top.

Label as you go, so avoid mix-ups.

How to clean, dry and store

Leave in a warm dry place for up to two weeks to dry out, then empty one bag at a time on to a sheet of paper and separate out the seeds from their casings and other debris. For larger seeds you can use a colander to let the seds through and keep stalks out, then use a fine seive to let dust through an keep seeds in. You can also bow gently to winnow the debris (really gently - you can end up with a lot of small seed on your carpet).

For wet and squashy material like tomatoes lay on newspaper or kitchen towel instead or blotting paper (you can always put tomatoes in blender then seive the result). Be very careful with chili seeds when dried – do not sniff of blow and use a glove/glasses. It always hurts if you don't.

Allium flowers need to be watched carefully because as the seeds mature the ripe seed pods shatter easily (that is, they split and release the seeds). As soon as you can see the black seeds within the drying flowers you should cut the whole head and place it in a paper bag to finish drying. Leek seed tends to take a lot longer to ripen than onion seed but look so similar you need to label carefully.

How to store seeds

In labelled envelopes and store somewhere cool, dark and dry till needed.

You can buy special seed envelopes at £3.95 plus postage for 20 on line , or use ordinary envelopes (used) or old tins. Viability varies and web sites tables should be taken with pinch of salt. Onion said to be one or four years (both 1 and 2 on same web site); sweet corn said to be 2 or 3 years. Records are claimed for 2000 year old date palm, 1,000 year old lotus and even flowers from the Yukon trapped in ice since stone age (now debunked). Look out for little bugs that might eat them – check bags and debris and use fridge for beans and look at them now and then throughout winter. Some develop hard coats and chemical inhibitors to keep them safe until condition are right (winter is over or it rains in the desert), Might need to keep in fridge or wash off outer coat (berries). Daphne and peony can take 2 years to germinate because of hard coats and inhibitors, but if collected unripe can manage it in one year. When they dry they need a period of cold winter weather before they will grow (which means they don’t germinate until spring and you can them keep in the fridge). Some have double dormancies (ash needs warmth to develop embryo then cold)

Useful links with masses of technical detail if you need it:

 

RHS basic guide

Handbook for vegetable seed The Real Seed Catalogue Garden Organic International Seed Saving Institute Seed stewardship
FAQs and useful links - includes images of seedlings to identify BBC video (includes flowers) Back Yard Gardener Kew's seed bank - comprehensive on storage and germination Tom Clothier on gathering, cleaning, storing, germinating etc.

Basic guide with links for storage and longevity table

Seed Saving Guide - PDF File          

 

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