Growing vegetables and herbs for their seed rather than for their leaves, fruits or roots is fun and satisfying, but presents challenges to the backyard gardener beyond the usual run-of-the-mill ones all we gardeners face. It’s Spring here in southern Australia and hot and dry – just the sort of weather that tempts one out of the garden periodically for a tea-break, virtuously self-justified by the secondary activity of jotting down a few seed saving ideas for the novice…
Saving seed requires that you grow vegetables long after you would normally have tossed them out and replanted that space with something else. Why do it? And do you need to do it, given the plethora of standard and heritage seeds available at every garden shop?
In the first place, growing vegies from seed is economical because you get about 20 seeds in a packet for the price of a single seedling in a punnet. If you then take the next step and save the seed from the best few plants raised from that packet you purchased, then you can cut down on one of the major costs of gardening (the others being the cost of compost, mulch and water – more on these another day). My garden has between 80 and 100 different vegetables and herbs in production during the warmer months – purchasing that number of seed packets anew each year runs up a bill of some hundreds of dollars. I can afford that expense now while I’m still working, but I’ll need my seed-saving skills to be well-developed by retirement, when I’ll need to live more frugally.
Besides that sense of independence that seed saving gives the gardener, it’s more fun to plant out your own seed – which you normally have in abundance – that to open an expensive commercial seed packet only to find out that the manufacturer has been miserly to the point of insult.
Saving money aside, some other really good reasons for saving seed are these: -
Growing vegies right through their life-cycle brings Mother Nature into that small space down your back yard for you to enjoy; vegetable and herb flowers are attractive, colourful and often aromatic, attracting all sorts of interesting insects and birds to your garden. Not to mention humans! So few folk have seen carrot flowers standing two metres tall, alive with tiny insect pollinators and smelling a deep rich creamy smell that’s both delicate and fragrant. These pollinators also visit your other crops; so you feed them, and they work for you.
Shelling, processing and storing seeds is a reflective and peaceful activity that can pass the hours in a far more satisfying way than sitting in front of the television set, helping you to unwind in simple manual activity after a day or week in the office or factory. Do it with a friend.
Seeds make a very personal and valued gift to another gardener, and swapping seeds is a pleasant way to meet and mix with others, and to try new varieties. The Hills and Plains Seed Savers group has demonstrated this simple philosophy time and time again, with almost none of the complex overheads like committees, agendas and clubrooms that polarise other types of club.
You can never grow and save all the seeds varieties that are in the seed catalogues; you are going to have to choose! By all means, experiment and try them all, then pick the ones that work in your soil and your climate, and that you will actually eat and enjoy. Often enough, too many of the one type (like pumpkins) will cross-fertilize, and ruin your original stock – once you’ve settled on your tried and true favourites, stick with them and grow them on. It can be fun raising rare or little known seeds, but only if they work for your area and your table.
Finally, you don’t need to save every seed variety every year, but seed stocks need to be refreshed to be viable. This year I’ve weeded out all those old seeds I’ve had for up to five years (over 100 varieties) and I’m regenerating those that did well before. I have, for example, about ten different chilli varieties, and I’m having a ‘chilli year’ to freshen up my seed stock. True – I don’t eat much chilli, but they’re pretty plants for swapping, and appreciated by our Indian neighbours.