How to save seeds from your vegetable patch

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Have you got a great bed of veg that you'd like to take into the next year? Here's how you can save your seeds and do just that

Unlike our flower borders, which contain a mix of annuals, perennials, shrubs, bulbs and more, most of the plants in our veg patch follow a similar seasonal process: sow, grow, harvest, remove. With few exceptions, their life cycle is less than a year, and the great majority of plants start that cycle as seeds.

Buying seeds is relatively cheap, but anyone hoping to assemble a large mix of produce and plant varieties will end up shelling out a significant sum, often with no real certainty that they’ll produce the goods. Therefore, it makes sense that—if your growing efforts reward you with successful veg you'd like to grow again the following year—the best way of doing this is to save its seeds; giving you a great chance of repeating that success and decreasing your seed buying bill.

Saving seeds is easy, but there are a few basic pieces of advice worth following, which we’ve outlined below. It’s also important that you only collect seeds from true breeds—hybrids behave in a random manner and you’re unlikely to germinate the same quality of plant you started with. You may also find that different varieties of the same plant grown close together will cross pollinate causing similarly random results

 

These techniques will work on other plants from your flower borders but, for this post, we’re concentrating on the veg patch:

 

1. Use healthy plants

We’re not sure why anyone would consider saving seeds from plants that have performed badly, but when choosing your seeds make sure they come from the healthiest specimens. If you want to grow giant marrows, pick seeds from the biggest marrow you’ve grown; if you want the tastiest tomatoes, then find the tasty tomato on the vine; and if you want the most productive beans, pick the best-looking seeds from the healthiest plants. To further avoid the risk of infections, take produce that is blemish free—insect holes or any signs of disease are to be avoided.

 

2. Know when to pick

With most forms of gardening us humans are merely lending nature a helping hand to do what it does best, and so it is with seed collecting—we simply wait until the plant is ready to distribute its own seeds before nipping in first, giving them the opportunity to be sown in the most effective conditions.

Fleshy fruits, such as tomatoes, are designed to protect seeds in the best conditions—the underdeveloped fruit is too acidic to eat, looks unappetising and is tough to penetrate. But at the end of its growing season it suddenly flashes its wares to passing wildlife with bright red hues. It’ll be soft enough for tiny teeth and beaks to gorge on, and has a delicious sweet and juicy flavour. The hope is that wildlife will devour the flesh and distribute the less easily digestible seeds on its travels. So a tomato at maximum ripeness is also the best time for seed savers to start picking.

Other plants without fleshy seed protection, such as beans, simply shed their seeds when they’re ready to go it alone. If you’re after a bean harvest for sowing all you need to do is wait for the pods to dry and are easy to crack open before picking and shelling ready for storage.

 

3. Clean and store

In order for you to be able to store your seeds until sowing time they need to be cleaned and thoroughly dried so they can survive the months, or even years, without going moldy. There are many ways of doing this, depending on what type of seed you’re collecting. Seeds that haven’t been encased in soft flesh are the easiest. Simply rub off any dirt or plant debris and if they’re still a bit damp (for example, if you picked them in the rain) spread them out somewhere warm with good airflow (a greenhouse or conservatory is ideal) until they’re thoroughly dry.

For fleshy veg, such as our tomato, you have to manage the full drying process yourself. One method would be to separate the seeds as best you can (not always as easy as it sounds) and lay them out to dry in a warm, aerated place, carefully cleaning off the excess fleshy bits once fully dried. Another method is to scoop out the flesh with the seeds and soak them in water for a day or two – the gel surrounding each seed will eventually break free and float while the viable seeds will sink to the bottom. Rinse and dry as above. You could even try making your own mini seed mats by drying them straight onto discs of filter coffee paper – the seeds will stick to the paper and can planted, along with the paper, when it’s sowing time (although you won’t be able to store them for the subsequent years).

Seeds ready for storage can be placed in a paper bag or envelope (easy to seal and label) and kept somewhere cool and dry until sowing time—fridges make an excellent storage location if you have room. Make a note of what you’ve collected and, if you have a surplus, swap with your neighbours or fellow allotmenteers to share your growing success.