Saving Seeds of Heirloom Vegetables

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag


I’m writing this as the incessant drizzle outside my window officially declares the start of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere! The vegetable patch has given up most of its summer goodness and, if I’m completely honest, things are beginning to look a little tired. It’s not exactly time to hang up the garden fork and head indoors, but it definitely feels like a turning point in the gardening calendar.

To me autumn always has an air of melancholy – something to do with all that droop and decay and the nights steadily drawing in. But over the years I’ve come to embrace the switch of seasons. There’s a grace and beauty in nature as she slows down and catches her breath. While it looks like plants are throwing in the towel for winter, they’re actually laying the groundwork for next spring’s rebirth.

Why You Should Save Seeds

Seed production is, of course, the obvious way that flowering plants prepare for the next generation. And while that child-like excitement of bingeing on the new seed catalogues never diminishes, it’s great to be able to save a few of your own seeds from some of our old friends: the heritage or heirloom varieties that make growing your own food so compelling.

Packets of saved seed

Heirloom vegetables are, by their very definition, rooted in gardening history. But unlike museum artifacts, these are living, breathing testaments to the horticultural heritage we continue to enjoy to this day. By collecting and storing ripe seeds of at least easy-to-save vegetables – the likes of self-pollinating tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans – you can do your bit to keep this history alive.

F1 Hybrids vs Open Pollinated Varieties

Many modern vegetable varieties are specially bred as F1 hybrids. These seeds promise greater vigour, better uniformity and other desirable traits such as disease resistance. Trouble is, new seeds of F1 hybrids can only be produced within a highly controlled environment, from two separate parent varieties that are kept isolated and then crossed – usually by hand! This makes them expensive. You could think of these seeds as the slick sports cars of the gardening world: good looking and high performance, but pretty pricey!

By contrast heritage varieties are all open pollinated using parents of the same variety, so there is no need to isolate the parent plants from each other. This makes open-pollinated seeds a lot cheaper, and while the plants they produce may be less uniform, they are full of enough character and charm to ensure they’re always worth growing. Heritage varieties, then, are like the classic Volkswagen campervan: colourful and much loved!

Sowing saved parsnip seed

Saving heritage varieties makes sense because not only is it straightforward enough to do so, by getting into a regular, yearly seed-saving habit you can actually take these varieties a step further. By selecting only seeds from your best-performing plants, you are in effect continuing the subtle breeding process. Those desirable plants you are saving from are obviously better suited to your garden’s unique growing conditions – your soil, weather and microclimate. So it stands to reason that the offspring from these plants will be a little better suited than the generation that went before. Keep this selection process going, and over time you’ll breed the perfect strain of seeds for your specific location.

How to Save Seeds of Heirloom Varieties

Much has already been written about how to save seeds, including heritage or heirloom varieties. This article serves more as a reminder that, if you’ve still got some plants hanging onto their seeds, now might be a good time to get out there and nab them before they drop. My previous article offers a few pointers for first-time seed savers, while Barbara has some very useful words of encouragement for anyone wanting to take part in a seed swapping session next spring. (Highly recommended for anyone looking to swell their seed store with some truly quirky heritage varieties.)

Climbing bean seeds

I for one will be saving my usual cache of climbing bean seeds. Cracking into the crisp-dry pods to reveal the almost shiny beans inside brings a raw sense of wonder. Then next spring, when it’s time to sow them, I’ll think back to this autumn and all the autumns that have gone before. And so the special bond between generations of gardeners will continue.

In our ever-increasingly industrialised food system, safeguarding heritage varieties is never more important. What seeds will you be saving this autumn? Let me know below and share the joy that saving seeds brings.

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