Saving More Than Just Seed by Brian Clarke

How many of us have heard the story ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’? I’m guessing quite a few, but how many went on to ask whether those five magic beans were F1 hybrids or open-pollinated? Does it matter? Well, it may have to Jack’s mother, especially if she intended saving the seed from that huge beanstalk to grow it again next year!

The majority of seeds for sale from well known seed suppliers are classed as ‘F1 hybrids’, meaning they are the result of a cross between two different parent plants. The filial 1 hybrid (F1) is the first generation of offspring that produces a new uniform, predictable plant that will have a combination of characteristics from the parents. If you then save seed from that F1 hybrid plant the genes are recombined in all sorts of new combinations. The next generation could be very different from the F1 plant you saved the seed from, so there is little point in saving the seed. A commercial seed producer might consider this to be a good thing? Not so for Jack’s mother, if she wanted another cloud punching beanstalk next year, she would need to swap another cow for fresh seed!

Now, if those five magic beans had come from an open-pollinated plant, that would have been another story – and Jack’s mother could keep her cows and look forward to holidaying in the giant’s castle every summer henceforth!

Open-pollinated varieties are genetically variable; this subtle variation enables the plant to adapt to different growing conditions, such as climate or soil conditions. Year on year your plants evolve and improve as you select the strongest, true to type examples from which to save the seed from.

How easy is it to save seed, you might ask? French beans, peas, lettuce and tomatoes are all straightforward plants to save seed from. For bean and pea plants, allow their pods to brown and dry on the plant and then shell the pods to access the peas/beans. A single lettuce allowed to develop a ‘flower spike’ can generate a huge amount of seed. Likewise, a single tomato, left on the stalk until full maturity, can be cut up and the seeds placed on a piece of kitchen towel to dry. Once fully dry, the seeds can be stored away until the following year. Larger amounts of tomato seed are best preserved by a method called ‘fermenting’.

For those seeking to take it further, then getting a good seed saving book is recommended as there are many things to consider, such as are they biennial and flower in their second year (like carrots or cabbage)? Will they cross with other crops nearby? How many plants do you need to grow to preserve genetic diversity?

Soon, you could be preserving rare varieties like ‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce, or some with regional significance like the tomato ‘Kenilworth King George’. You’ll be rewarded with some of the tastiest produce available and, because you can save the seed to replant next year, you’ll be saving money too!

Increasingly, growers and gardening enthusiasts are getting together around the country and organising seed swap events where you can go and exchange your surplus seeds for others that take your fancy! Not only will you have access to some truly unusual and heritage varieties, but you’ll meet like-minded individuals ready to pass on tips and advice.

The Bedworth Seed Swap will be held on Saturday 13th February 2021, at St Giles Church, Ash Green, Coventry, CV7 9GZ. Further details can be found on our Facebook page, or by e-mailing us at: bedworthseedswap@gmail.com.