Grow your own seeds

- a bit about seed cultivation

There is no mystery to growing your own seeds since the plants take care of most things themselves. They want nothing more than to go into flower, form seeds and spread as many of them as possible. And by simple means, we can help the chosen plants and also improve our seed, through selection, year after year.
For millennia, farmers have gathered their chosen seed, without relying on either synthetic drugs or genetic engineering. Without our ancestral curiosity, insight and drive to survive, plus the desire to change and improve, we would now have very few of the cereals, vegetables, fruits and flowers, which we today take for granted. Only a few of the plants we consume can be found in the wild.
Any one of us who has a bit of experience of farming, can easily get together their own seeds of several species. Seed cultivation doesn't need to be complicated. But it can also, if you want, grow to a very complex and constantly changing expression of life's design.

Why should we grow seeds ourselves?

1. After a few generations, we have a strain of the variety that is better adapted to our climate and soil.
2. We often get a more consistent and uniform crop. After all, we have, every year selected the best plants for propagation. Within the seed industry this is often the elite, that never comes out in trade.
3. Far too much of what we pay for the seeds fall into the 'wrong' pockets. The seed industry is controlled by multi-national economy, with strong links to the chemical, pharmaceutical and oil industry. Maximum profitability is at the top of the wish list.
4. Within the industrial seed industry there are no restrictions on the level of herbicides and insecticides used (unlike the food industry). Nor is there a time-limit for how soon after spraying, the seeds can be sold. In conventional, industrial-scale seed cultivation, it takes a lot of toxins to hold out against all attacks and weeds.
5. To see our common vegetables in full bloom, is exciting. Many are very beautiful and stately. Many smell good, and they all give lots of seeds.
6. The home-grown seeds are almost free.
7. The surplus can be shared and maybe traded for some other variety.
8. In order to obtain the opportunity to sow organic (and ecological) seeds, that are grown in your region for your conditions!
9. Getting to follow and participate in the natural cycle close up, is a great experience that effects us in many ways. The change and movement is apparent to all. It feels good to cultivate and afterwards savouring what we have grown.
10. One by one we contribute, albeit in a very small scale, to help future generations to survive on this planet. Our species, variety and strain, carries within them genetic material, which can be useful sooner than we think.
11. Many standard varieties are now disappearing every year from the official catalogues and replaced with patented varieties; after a few years they are completely gone. Forever.
Approximately 2000 varieties have disappeared since the 70s!

Why shouldn't we grow our own seeds?

1. The climate is not the best, therefore some species must be grown in greenhouses or, at least, beneath other protection. However, many species thrive in our latitudes, and have time to give good seed.
2. It's difficult as it's only for experts. However, many people have been harvesting their own seeds for centuries!
3. We can spread unwanted varieties and cause inbreeding.
Sure, we could leave everything to 'wild nature', but with simple measures we can get seeds of high quality.
4. You are not allowed to sell your excess seeds. These restrictions are strict and make it virtually impossible, without violating the law - but no one can stop you giving away your own seed.
5. Seeds are cheap to buy so there's no point in growing it yourself. Sure, but money is not everything, and many seeds are actually quite costly.
6. If you own shares in the pharmaceutical, chemical, oil or food and transportation industries, you can come into conflict regarding the profitability of your seed production. :-)

A little biology lesson

It is the flowering plants that provide seeds. Stamens (the male part of the flower with anthers at the top) produce pollen, which, when it reaches the female style (with its sticky stigma at the top), sends down a tube to the ovules in the carpel. Then the pollen tube lets a fertile nucleus (microsporangium) travel to the ovule to fertilize it. There may be many ovules in the same ovary, which then develop into a fruit with ripe seeds in.
Plants that can handle this conception all by themselves, are refered to as autogamous. Their conception often occurs even before the flower has opened.
Cross-fertilizing plants, however, must be assisted by insects or wind to carry pollen from one flower to another. Either on the same plant or to another within the same species.

Annuals live for one year: they flower and provide seeds during that year.
Biennials live for two years: they bloom and give seeds during the second year after wintering outdoors or in storage.
Perennials live for many years: they flower and provide seed year after year.

Risk of Cross Fertilisation - Isolation

If you want to save seeds that will produce plants for you next year, that look and taste just like their parents, the conception can only occur within the same variety (cultivar). Different families can not interbreed with each other, neither can the different genera, such as cabbage with radish, but the different varieties within the same species may well mix their genes.
The self-fertilizing (autogamus) plants can grow pretty close together, without any major risk of interbreeding, unless you require absolute purity.
But the cross-fertilizing plants can spread their pollen far away, so the different varieties must grow properly separated from each other, or be grown in a way so that they do not bloom simultaneously. Alternatively, they can be protected against unwanted conception by preventing insects reaching the flowers, by covering the plants with bags or tunnels for example.

Selection

To get the best seed possible, it is important to just let the best plants flower and form seeds, i.e., those that grow best in our soil and climate. You would select the healthiest and most well formed; the tastiest and earliest, etc.
The qualities we favour in a plant are individual, but through our selections we have great opportunities to improve the variety according to our wishes - even after only a few years.
When you are deciding what or which varieties you want to produce seeds from, choose amongst your favourite varieties or those that thrive in your area.

Vitality

The genetic variety amongst cross-pollinating plants are necessary to prevent inbreeding. If you have too few parental plants, soon the seed will deteriorate, with weak plants and poor harvest as a result. So even if you just need a small amount of seeds, you need to grow several seed-plants for variety's sake.
Self-fertilizing plants are a very different story. With those, inbreeding is natural and completely harmless. The seeds from a single, unusually fine plant have great opportunity to bring their talents to the next generation.

Hybrids

F1 hybrids are produced commercially by two heavily inbred parents that are crossed with the help of humans. The offspring, the F1 hybrid, is in most cases, a consistent and big plant, that outshine the corresponding standard variety.
Sure, you can save seeds from a hybrid, but in the next generation, the old parents' genes come out in an odd mix. Weakened and deformed plants are common, so we recommend you to avoid hybrids in your seed cultivation.

Seed Harvest, treshing and cleaning

Sometimes, our growing season here in the North is on the short side for some species, but most of them have time to ripen well. If the seeds are not ripe when the frost comes, they may be damaged.
They should be harvested in dry weather when the seeds are fully developed and almost fall off by themselves. Often, not all seeds ripen at the same time, but may be harvested in batches. Fruity vegetables that will provide seeds, such as tomatoes, may remain on the plant until they are almost over-ripe.
After harvesting, the seeds may have to dry further before they are threshed and cleaned, but there is no need for special tools or machines to thresh in a small-scale operation. If the production is a bit bigger, a common flail is of a great help for many kinds of seeds. Often, it is easy to separate the seeds from the dry plant with bare hands.
In fruity vegetables, like tomatoes or cucumbers, the seeds must first be removed before they can be dried.
The large debris is easily removed by hand, and the smaller parts can often be blown away with the help of the wind, when slowly pouring the seeds from one container to another on a moderately windy day.
Sifting the seeds through a screen, removes additional debris. It is useful, though not necessary, to have a few screens with different mesh sizes. Often it is sufficient to gently shake the seeds down an inclined pan or similar as most of the debris remains and the seeds roll down in the corner.

Drying and storage

The seeds have to be really dry before they are stored in bags or jars. Firstly spread them on a mesh or newspaper, stirring them occasionally and replacing the newspaper after some days. The airier they are, the better. Indoors is fine, but many species would ideally be outdoors in the sun during fine autumn days. If you want to speed up the drying process with a hair dryer or a fan, be careful with the temperature, as the seeds are damaged when they get over 43°C.
When the seeds feel completely dry, let them lie a further day or two, before packing them, marking the bags carefully and keeping them dry and cool. As long as the seeds are thoroughly dry, it is perfectly fine to have them in an airtight container in the fridge, or even in the freezer. But let them reach room temperature before opening the package, otherwise there will be condensation moisture. Peas and beans are the exceptions, they keep best in non-tight paper bags.
The longevity of the seeds depends on how ripe they were when harvested, how well they dried and how they were stored; in other words, good storage can mean the difference of several years.

Testing the seed

If you can be bothered, first remove seeds that look bad, immature, deformed or discoloured. Then spread 100 (or 50) on a damp paper towel. For large seeds like peas, beans, corn and squash, a piece of strong cotton fabric works better. Moisten, fold and insert each roll in a plastic bag at room temperature, or put them in a jar / bucket and make sure they do not dry out. It is of course possible to sow the seeds in a pot with soil as well.
It takes between three days and several weeks for different kinds of seeds to germinate. Count how many (of the 100 seeds) have germinated after the specified number of days for that particular species, and you end up with the germination percentage.

Soil, fertilizer and climate

Generally, a somewhat lighter soil is preferable to a heavy clay soil as it gets warm faster in spring and the plants will be ready for seed-harvest earlier in the autumn. But it is fully possible to grow good seeds in clay soil too.
The most important thing is that the soil is in good shape and well fertilized. Strong, healthy plants provide good quality seeds that will last long and bring the good qualities to the next generation. Among the major nutrients, it is primarily phosphorus, calcium and potassium that are needed for seed development. Avoid nitrogen fertilization in late summer and autumn.
A well-matured, rich compost is a safe way to give the soil the nutrients it needs in order to supply the plants. Suitable sprays with appropriate extracts, applied during the growing season, stimulate development.
Early frost in the autumn is the biggest threat to the maturing of seeds. Many species can withstand almost no frost at all. A sheltered, warm position in full sun is a big help. Strong winds can also cause great damage when it blows away the mature seeds.
Read more about seed cultivation for different species under their headings in the catalogue and website.

Country specific varieties - local varieties - retainers - workhorses.

In England and the United States they are often refered to as 'heirloom varieties' which might be the word that best match the traditional varieties that are not used anymore in modern day large-scale agriculture.
To use groupings like landrace, local- and standard varieties becomes clumsy in everyday speech and the boundaries are often uncertain. Many end up in between and can be both local and standard variety or both landrace and local variety.
To just call them 'old' varieties isn't very useful either. A workhorse of the 30s is not old compared to a 1700s variety and does not get older just because it ended up outside the official lists. But the reason why they should be maintained is that they are 'workhorses'. They have shown that they thrive here and provide reliable harvests.

Find out more about organic seeds and their production at:

http://www.kokopelli-seed-foundation.com/index.html
http://campus.extension.org/course/view.php?id=377
http://www.savingourseeds.org