Sowing New Seeds is a fabulous project organised by Garden Organic in order to investigate and highlight the diversity of exotic crops grown in the UK by ordinary people on their allotments and in their homegardens by saving their own seeds.

In Bradford we were lucky enough to participate in a series of events with the inspiring project led by Anton Rosenfeld and Sally Cunningham.  Anton regularly visited Wibsey Park Community Gardens, a BCEP (Bradford Community Environment Project) who participated in, and hosted the project locally in Bradford.

Anton gave us a short history of Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, which was formed in response to the EU seed law in the 1970’s.  You could only sell seeds which were on the EU registered list and they had to conform to DUS (Dinstinct, Uniform and Stable) testing.  This meant that only seeds sold on large scale would remain available to be sold to people; effectively only commercial varieties and lots of varieties became instantly unavailable to people.  These types of seeds work on a commercial scale because all the plants would come into fruit at approximately the same time, making them easier for chain gang work, whereas on smaller scales with other varieties of seeds, the crops would come into fruition in stages and they would be picked over time.

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People can pay to belong to the Heritage Seed Library  and in that way can access seeds.  In this way the library is not ‘selling’ seeds.  Each year members can try 6 new varieties, which are not the same every year.  In February or March the seeds are delivered.  The Heritage Seed Library has some contract growers who grow the seeds for them, as well as saving some themselves.

F1 hybrids are preferred by commercial growers due to their uniformity and vigour, however, you cannot save reliable seed from these.  You would end up with some like one parent and some with traits of the other.

In order to save seed you need open-pollinated varieties.  There are annual and biennial plants; meaning with some they produce seed in the first year and with others you wait until the second year.

Whilst tomatoes are the easiest to save seed from carrots are very difficult.

When thinking about seed saving it is important to note how the plants are pollinated and to think about whether the plants you are wishing to save seed from can be cross-pollinated with something else resulting in a different plant.  For example, maize plants have very fine pollen which can be spread for miles on the wind.  Beetroot, amaranth and chard are also wind-pollinated.  It is normally plants which don’t have showy flowers which are wind pollinated (as they don’t need to attract pollinators).  Bees can only carry pollen for less than a mile, so as long as nothing similar is growing within a mile radius you are likely to save seeds true to variety.

One of the key questions if you are wanting to save from seeds is:   ‘How many plants do I need to grow?’  We need to think about inbreeders, which accept pollen from the same plant and outbreeders which need pollen from other plants as they need genetic diversity to sustain their populations.  If they don’t have the variety required plants can end up with inbreeding depression.

So, for tomatoes which are mostly inbreeders you can save from 3-4 plants, whereas brassicas which are outbreeders you need about 20 plants to save seed from and sweetcorn you need approximately 100 plants to save seed from.

When growing plants for seed it is important to think about whether it will cross with other things.  If there are plants of the same species flowering at the same time they can cross and some plants cross more than others.  One of the best sources of information on the topic is from Real Seeds.  You can download a free printable leaflet or buy their book.

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Curcubits (Curcubita pepo) squashes, marrows and pumpkins cross easily.  Brassicas also cross easily, so it is worth growing only one variety for seed that flowers at the same time.   Tomatoes can grow next to each other and will not cross, apart from beefsteak tomatoes.  Lettuces will be fine at either ends of the greenhouse.  Beans however will also cross easily and in order to save true broad bean seed you need a mile between them.  Runner beans will also cross and need cages for saving them.  French beans are also less likely to cross and will not if 20-30m left between them.  As other people are unlikely to be growing yard long beans or lablab beans on an allotment then there is less of an issue with crossing.   It is also important to look out for wild relatives with which your crop might cross, such as carrots with Queen Anne’s Lace, radish and charlock or cultivars with their wild relatives, such as wild cabbage and wild parsnip.  Anton advises to limit the number of exotics to just grow 1 each year.

Dudi flowers required an interesting process to save the seed as firstly they are night pollinated by moths and have more pollen when wilting.  To save the seeds you need to pollinate it by hand and use a chastity belt which could be tied up again.  Early in the morning is the best time to do it.  The fruit cn then be marked with a ribbon – you can try this 4-5 times on a plant and not always be succesful.

With most exotic seeds you need to leave them as long as you can to ensure they are ripe and mature, especially in the UK where it is less warm and sunny.  With amaranth you leave them as long as you can (until they are just about to drop) and then put a paper bag over them to catch them.

The next stage is selecting and roguing your seeds.  It is important to weed out any disease and only save seeds from the ones you would like to grow again.  For example with lettuce, as they bolt easily it would be advisable to save the seeds of the ones which bolt last.

In order to save seeds from cucumber you need to squeeze the seeds out of the cucumber and place them in a sieve and wash off the slimey texture around them.  These then need to be dried carefully.

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Thanks to Anton for all the information and many informative workshops.  I think I can safely say all the local participants enjoyed these sessions very much.  Too see more photos of the Sowing New Seeds Workshops please visit our flickr photos