Saving seed from one year to plant the next is an age-old tradition. It may sound like extra work but the results can be extremely rewarding and save you money in the process. Saving vegetable seeds can help preserve the particular variety you are growing (for example if you are growing an heirloom variety). It can also help vegetables adapt to the local conditions in which they are grown and this can increase yields.
Some vegetables produce seeds more easily than others and are more likely to produce good yields. For example, it is generally not recommended that you save seed from vegetables in the squash family, as the same variety will rarely grow the following year and what does grow can be inedible. On the other hand, it is easy to save seeds from peas and beans and the seeds produce good plants the following year.
Saving seed involves three steps: selecting seeds from the most suitable plants, harvesting them at the right time and storing them properly until you need to sow them.
Selecting Which Seeds to Save
It’s easy to save seeds from the following vegetables:
These plants have self-pollinating flowers and produce seeds that require little attention before storage.
Plants with separate male and female flowers (such as squashes and sweetcorn) can cross-pollinate and hybridise, making it difficult to keep the variety pure. Cross-pollination can affect the flavour and shape of the vegetable and quality of the seeds produced. For more information on cross-pollination, see our Pollination guide.
Seeds from biennial crops that take two seasons to produce seed (such as carrots or beetroot) are harder to save because you need to keep the plants in optimum conditions for two years.
Open Pollinated or F1?
Make sure you only save seed from open-pollinated varieties and not F1 hybrids. Open pollinated vegetable varieties are often heirloom varieties that have naturally evolved over the years and been passed down through generations of gardeners. The vegetables produced from the seeds are similar to the produce of the parent plant and gradually evolve to cope with local conditions such as moisture levels and high or low temperatures.
F1 hybrid varieties are commercially produced seeds that combine certain traits of two parent plants such as resistance to disease, pests or bolting and a tendency to produce heavy yields. F1 varieties can usually be identified by the variety name or by a close reading of the seed packet. Saving seed from F1 hybrids will not produce seeds that ‘come true’ when they produce vegetables. F1 seeds can be infertile and some will produce different traits from the original parents that are less favourable to the ones for which the hybrids were initially developed.
Only save seed from the most vigorous plants with the best fruit and avoid using seed from weak or unusual looking plants. In this way you will be naturally selecting the traits you wish to encourage in your crops.
Tomato seeds: Allow the fruits to fully ripen on the plant and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Place in a jar of water and leave for a few days, swirling them in the water daily. After a few days, the seeds should have come free from the pulp and sunk to the bottom. Pour the liquid away and rinse the seeds. Leave them to dry on a paper towel and, when fully dry, store in an envelope in a cool, dry place.
Pepper seeds: Harvest seeds from peppers after the fruit has fully ripened on the plant and started to wrinkle. Remove the seeds from the peppers and spread them out on paper towels to dry. When fully dry, store in an envelope in a cool, dry place.
Peas and Beans: Allow the pods to ripen on the plant until they are dry and start to turn brown. Remove the pods from the plant and spread them out on a tray indoors, to dry. Leave them for at least two weeks before shelling the pods or wait until you are ready to sow the seeds the following spring.
Seeds should be stored in individual envelopes, in an airtight container and in a dry place above ground level. This prevents moisture from spoiling the seeds or animals such as mice eating their way through your supply
It is important to label your seeds correctly, including the name, variety, and date you collected them. Not only does this ensure that you know which seeds you are sowing but you can also evaluate how successful each seed-saving project was.
Seed swaps amongst allotment holders are still held in many parts of the country. You might want to share a particular variety that tastes superb or be given one that does well in your area. But be warned - the elusive search for the perfect variety of your favourite vegetable may have you hooked for life!