Sunday, 30 August 2015

Why Save Seeds?

I grow mostly perennial vegetables at the moment.  They have a lot of benefits when compared to annuals as well as some negatives.  I also grow some annual vegetables and save seed from the very best each season.  

I am slowly starting to realise that I should sell some seeds each year as the varieties I am growing are amazing in one way or another.  Some are rare, some I have bred myself, others are extremely common, but they are all worth growing and saving seed from each year.  I have also taught people how to save seeds, a skill that I taught myself over many years through trial and error.
Purple mustard, very HOT

How I started to save seeds
Recently my mother came to visit with my kids and saw me fermenting tomato seeds, she asked what I was doing and I told her that I was saving seeds to grow next year.  She asked why I bothered as I could buy seedlings next year.  Not wanting to get into a discussion over it and knowing full well that she would not understand I replied with "Oh ok" and then continued what I was doing.  That got me thinking about how I started saving seeds.

When I was a preschool aged child I remember spitting out a tomato seed, then carefully putting it somewhere safe to plant.  From memory I did this several times a year and I never once planted the seeds or even remember finding them again after they had been put "somewhere safe".  My mum would purchase vegetable seedlings each year to plant out when the weather warmed up, I often asked why we did not just keep some seeds from the tomato or other things we grew and plant them the following year, I was told that it just didn't work that way.  Being so little I just accepted what I was told.

I distinctly remember my mother growing radishes when I was very young, then some flowered and she began to pull them out and throw them away.  I asked why she was killing them and was told that they go woody and are no good to eat when they flower.  I asked why she did not let them flower and plant their seeds (even before reaching school age I had a good understanding that plants flower to produce seeds, and that seeds would grow into plants) and was told that it just didn't work that way.  I convinced her to leave a few to go to seed, I remember carefully collecting the seeds and happily scattering them in the garden.  I have no idea if they grew or not, or if they spouted and were weeded out, I was just too young and my memory is not all that clear.  I am pretty sure that for one reason or another nothing came of them.
5 year old Nanuq carefully collecting mini blue popcorn seeds
Now that I have young children myself, I save seeds of heirloom vegetables (as well as saving seed from new varieties I am breeding myself) and I teach my children to save seeds.  They all help in one way or another, even my one year old helps collect hardy seeds such as broad beans.  I save these seeds for quite a lot of reasons including cost, variety selection, genetic drift, preserving rare varieties, having control over what I eat, breeding new varieties, improving existing varieties to suit my needs, and so on.  I have some varieties which I purchased as seeds prior to having kids, other things I planted the first seed with my first born in one arm when he was a few days old and I have saved seeds each year since then so I save them partly for sentimental reasons.  

I have a few varieties of vegetables which are not currently grown or saved by anyone else in Australia, I need to grow them to save their seed and distribute it otherwise they will go extinct here.  Some of these are great varieties, others have unique genes that could be well used in breeding programs to create improved varieties.  I am growing them for conservation reasons, as soon as I have enough seed I plan to distribute it.  Some heirloom varieties have been given to me on the provision that I do not distribute them to anyone until the person who gave it to me has died.  I will follow these wishes and conserve these varieties until I am allowed to distribute them.  Hopefully you can begin to see why saving seed is important.
Micro Tomatoes don't get any larger than this and are virtually unheard of in Australia
As I teach my kids or anyone else about saving seeds I can't help but to think back to my mum telling me that "it just doesn't work that way".  Now that I am older and have greater experience and education I now understand what she was getting at with that phrase.  She was not referring to cytoplasmic male sterility, she was not referring to F1 plants not producing true to type offspring, she was not referring to problems associated with producing accidental crossing of varieties, she was not referring to inbreeding depression resulting from small gene pools and tight genetic bottlenecks, or any other reasonable explanation, she was simply referring to the fact that one is told to buy seeds or seedlings each year and that is the way things are done.  It really is very sad.
Speckled Roman tomato
I find that view of "it just doesn't work that way" interesting as it is the prominent view when regarding vegetable seed even among many who grow heirloom vegetables.  It is limiting, it is controlling, it is enslaving, it reduces the variety we have avialable to us, it makes good varieties go extinct and many people have made their fortune from people who hold this view.  Even people I know who have been growing vegetables for decades hold that view close and are wary of anyone who attempts to stray from it.  

I even hear new gardeners complain that they grew some amazing variety last year and now they can not find it for sale anywhere.  I used to ask them if the variety was so good why they did not save seeds themselves, after a blank stare they usually reply with that mantra of "it just doesn't work that way". I no longer bother to ask any questions.

If you are confused let me tell you, it most certainly can work that way and it will work that way if you can be bothered. 
Skirret - delicious and practically extinct

Saving seeds is for everyone

I am not suggesting that you should save seed from everything that you grow.  Not everyone has the time or space to save seed from everything they they grow.  That is just a simple fact of life and there is no way around it.  

Some things are just easier to buy each year.  When we move into town I will not be able to save all our own seeds, or I may find a way to make it work.  If it is not practical then I will only save seed from some things and I will probably buy others.

Leaving a biennial plant such as beetroot in the bed for 2 years so that it can go to seed, ensuring that it does not cross with any other type of beetroot or silverbeet in your neighbourhood, and ensuring that you keep enough plants to reduce the impacts of inbreeding impression, is not for everyone.  It takes a lot of time, space and a few difficult techniques if you happen to have neighbours over the fence who are doing the same thing with a different variety. When we move to town I seriously doubt that I will ever save beetroot seed again.
Crimson flowered broadbean, this would be extinct if not for ONE lady who saved seed
Crimson Flowered Broadbean seeds

Saving seed from other things is far simpler.  Other things can take almost no time, no effort, no cost (in fact they save you money as you never buy seeds or seedlings of that plant ever again), and end up giving you a superior variety that is better suited to your purposes.  I want to encourage people to save seed from these easy things.
Reisetomate tomatoes, difficult to find anywhere but simple to save seeds once you have found them
Saving seed from a coriander plant for example is simple.  You grow your coriander as normal, you eat the leaves as normal, when it flowers and goes to seed you rip out any substandard plants (or at least kill the plants that flower first) and allow the rest to do their thing.  Then you can let them self seed and you are done, no real effort on your behalf other than ripping out some plants which you were going to do anyway.  Or you could collect and store the seeds somewhere until you are ready to plant again, and that is all.  That wasn't too hard and didn't take much time and certainly didn't cost anything.  

By killing off the first plants to flower you are selecting for plants that will be slow bolting and produce over a longer period in your garden.  If you buy seeds or seedlings each year you can rest assured that they have been selected for fast bolting and high seed yields, those are the traits that make money for the commercial seed farms, they do not care about the quantity or quality of the leaves.  You may have to be careful if you grow more than one variety or you have a close neighbour who is growing a different variety, you may eventually run into issues with inbreeding depression if you save seeds from too few plants over too many generations (there are a few ways around this though), but if you grow coriander and are happy with a variety I think you should save the seeds for next year.
In my opinion, if you are the type who wants to grow something, and has the space to grow something, then you should save some seeds from something.  While you may not save seed from everything you grow you should at least save seeds from one or two things.  Many balcony farmers can easily save seed from an annual herb such as coriander or basil if nothing else.

Are home grown seeds as good?

People often ask me if seeds you save yourself are as good as "the ones you can buy".  The short answer is yes.  Any seeds you save yourself are just as good as any seeds you can buy.  

The longer answer is that seeds you can buy the seeds that I save, but seeds that you save yourself are likely to be far superior to anything you can buy anywhere for quite a number of reasons. 
OSU Blue tomato - you don't see these at the supermarket
If you save seeds you should get higher germination rates, this is due partly to the fact that the seeds will be fresher, seeds that you buy may be a few years old before you purchase them.  I write the year the seeds were collected on seed packets, I know of no one else who does this, they mostly write an arbitrary date of expiration or the date that they were repackaged.  I dislike companies who write the repackage date as who knows how old the seeds were before they were repackaged and sold.  I dislike the arbitrary best before dates for a number of reasons.  I want to know the year they they were grown, that is why I write that on my packets.

Your home grown seeds will have been stored in reasonably stable conditions in the cupboard or wherever it is that you store seeds, anything you buy may have been stored in variable conditions as it goes on trucks, gets stored in warehouses, hangs on the wall of the shop in direct sunlight etc. The seeds I sell are the same ones that I will plant if they are not sold, so I take as much care as possible with them and store them as best I can
Freckles lettuce and purple mustard
If you save seeds you know that they are clean, at very worst they will only have diseases and pests that are already in your garden, you will certainly not be introducing any new horror.  Many heirloom seed companies import seeds from overseas.  One well known heirloom seed company which sells a range of 'organic' seeds imports almost all of their seeds, they try to trick customers into thinking that they grow their own seeds by pointing to the fact that they are an Australian owned and run company.  The only seeds that they sell which were grown in Australia are the ones that they are no longer allowed to import.

Ever seen white tomatoes in the shops?  You must save seeds if you want to grow and eat them
If you are growing vegetables to reduce your carbon footprint or lower food miles then it does not make sense to buy seed each year that was grown in Mexico, shipped to somewhere in the USA, shipped to Sydney, transported to Melbourne where it is stored in bulk and repackaged (stamped with the repackage date) and stored again, then posted to you.  Producing and saving your own seed each year makes far more sense.
More importantly than any of this, each time you save seeds you are adding selective pressure for plants that are suited to YOUR garden's climate and have the traits that YOU want.  If a plant is not suited to your climate it will not survive to produce much seed, if you buy seed it is likely that it has been grown in conditions that are not at all like yours.  It is also likely that seeds you buy will have been selected to produce seed, home grown plants are selected to produce large crops, crops over an extended period, delicious crops, disease resistance etc.  

Most seed companies spray crops many times throughout the growing season, even organically certified farms tend to spray with all kinds of horrible "organic" chemicals.  Many of these organic poisons are highly residual.  All of this is selecting for plants with lowered resistance to whatever it is that will attack them in your garden.  

In my garden we do not use poisons, if a plant get attacked by pests or diseases I pull it out and do not save seed from it, in this way I am selecting for pest and disease resistance.  You can easily do the same in your garden when you save seeds.
Golden podded snowpea seeds - it is simple to save pea seeds
This year I grew over 2 dozen different types of tomato, all seeds were planted on the same day, all seedlings were planted out in the vegetable garden on the same day, and all of them have been given the same conditions.  One variety, my yellow pear tomato, has been with us for many years now and we have saved seed from the best plants each year.  

My climate, just like everywhere in Australia, can be rather hostile.  Out of all the varieties I am growing the yellow pear plant is about 4 times the size of the next largest, it is absolutely covered in flowers and is setting fruit long before everything else.  Many of the other varieties are meant to be far more vigorous, many are meant to fruit several weeks earlier, and many are meant to grow larger plants than the yellow pear.  Given ideal conditions the yellow pear should not be anywhere near as large or fast or have as many flowers as many of the other varieties.

But my garden does not have ideal conditions nor does yours.  This strain of yellow pear tomatoes will produce fruit until the frosts kill the plants, then I will collect any green fruit that is still on the dead plants and ripen it indoors.  Clearly over the years I have been selecting for plants that not just survive but thrive in arid hostile environments as well as growing large quickly and producing early crops.
Yellow Pear tomatoes

You should save some seeds

I do sell heirloom vegetable seeds as well as perennial vegetables and a few other things through my for sale page.  While I will happily sell you seeds each year and profit from doing so it is in your best interests to save at least some seed yourself after growing out some plants.  After all, you have little to lose and very much to gain.  There is no reason to buy seed each year, buy once and save seed if you like that particular variety.
Immali Corn, I am developing this variety myself
Start with something simple, do NOT start with beetroot or corn.  Start with peas or tomatoes or some annual herb that you enjoy.  Every time you save seeds that variety will be slightly different from the last time, even if you make it your desire to keep the strain exactly how it was it will still be slightly different, it will be slightly better.  By saving seeds you will also be saving money.

There is no way to stop these slight changes, you can slow them considerably but these changes will never actually stop so you may as well have the variety change for the better.  Add some deliberate selective pressure, kill off the undesirable plants and only save seed from the ones that do best for you.  Perhaps you want compact plants to utilise space better, then only save seeds from your most compact plants.  Perhaps you want tomatoes that have more uniform shape, then only save seed from these plants.  Save seeds from the fruit and plants that you want to see more of.  The difference you will make in a few years is amazing.
Heirloom tomatoes, many rare and delicious varieties in this basket
If you do not know how to save seeds and are worried about doing it wrong, read some books, ask some people, or talk to me and I can offer some advice.  You certainly do not need anything too high tech and do not need botanical or horticultural training in order to be successful.  Lets face it, people were saving seeds back before we knew anything about genetics, they have done so all over the world for many generations, if they could do it then so can you.   

These vegetable seeds are gifts from the ancestors who developed them, preserving at least some of these varieties and improving them is the only sensible thing to do.

1 Peter 4:10  Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms

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