Centre for Alternative Technology

Seed saving at CAT

This Clean Slate article (2007) explains why at CAT we think it's important to save our own seed.


Illegal vegetables and how to grow them


I grew some very pretty beans this year. The plants had cream and white flowers and seemed to leap up their hazel stakes. I ate the tender green beans in salads and stir fries – but I’m leaving plenty to dry on the plant. Then I’ll collect the dry pods, shell the beans and store them for sowing next year.

Do you like the sound of this bean? Want to grow it too? I could sell you some seed for a quid. Bargain? Sadly, though, the law does not permit it. It is illegal to sell my bean seed. Why? Do the seeds yield an illegal drug? Is it an invasive species likely to wreak havoc on our natural ecosystems? Does the plant contain some kind of hazardous toxin?

No – it’s just a sweet, innocent, harmless bean, a Climbing French bean with the botanical name of Phaseolus vulgaris. But French beans come with cultivar names too, like ‘Neckar Queen’ and ‘Blauhilde’ and mine hasn’t got one. It’s got no birth certificate. This is the problem. Ever since the passing of the Seed (National List of Varieties) Act 1973, a vegetable seed can only be sold if it is on a special list. To get on the list it has to pass a DUS test. It must be Distinct (different from all other varieties), Uniform (all the plants grown from a pack of seed must be the same) and it must be Stable (the plants should not change from generation to generation). The vegetable seeds for sale today are all on the list. The ones your neighbour gives you may not be.

What all this means is that there are fewer vegetable varieties on sale than there used to be. Old varieties are in danger of becoming extinct. Many seeds for sale are commercial varieties bred for characteristics needed by supermarkets – such as tough skins to survive transport – rather than sweet taste or nutritional content. Hybrid (F1) varieties are especially lucrative for the seed companies as they will not breed true – with F1 varieties you have no choice but to buy new seed each year. It is hard for small seed companies to survive when producing relatively small quantities of seed for the domestic gardener. Many have gone out of business since the 1960s, often having been bought out by larger companies. Hence many people today have a very limited idea of what vegetables look like. Tomatoes are uniformly red, beans are green, and carrots are orange. Not so in a heritage vegetable garden, where purple beans climb above stripy tomatoes next to yellow carrots. Vegetables are wondrous in their diversity of colours, shapes and sizes, as well as characteristics we cannot see, like resistance to pests and diseases.

Having a wide vegetable diversity is fun and gives beauty to our gardens – but it’s also crucial for our future. Vegetables are our food. We need them. We need to be able to grow them whatever the future throws at us. The more diversity in our vegetables, the easier it is to find ones that will thrive in our own local conditions as well as cope in a future with an unstable climate and unpredictable pest and disease patterns. The loss of many of our vegetable varieties hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 1975 there was enough foresight in the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now Garden Organic) to set up the Heritage Seed Library (HSL). Gardeners could no longer ‘buy’ the seeds of their favourite vegetables – but maybe they could just borrow them? Surely that couldn’t be illegal? So the HSL gathered all the non-listed seed they could find and started lending it out. Members are sent their choice of varieties to grow each year and some are also ‘Seed Guardians’ who are trusted to save and return the seed, so replenishing stocks.

The seed saving movement is not just about preserving old varieties, however. If we get new seed each year, grow it, eat it, and then go back for more it means vegetables are no longer evolving in our gardens. They become stuck in time. In contrast, every time we save our own seed the plants are evolving to perform better in our gardens. Even though we may be controlling them to keep the variety ‘pure’ there will still be mutations and some cross pollination to introduce new characteristics. These will be selected for or against. The variety will continue to perform better for us as we select the most productive, tasty or beautiful plants. If you save your own seed you will not only be preserving old varieties, but creating new ones for the future.

Seed saving has become a strong movement in many places throughout the world, and seed swapping events are increasingly popular. At the 2007 ‘Seedy Sunday’ in Machynlleth, Syd Melbourne gave some of his bean seeds to the Heritage Seed Library. Syd had been given a handful of the beans in the 1970s by a friend who knew that the variety was no longer going to be sold. He has been growing and saving them ever since. So this is how I got to grow my very pretty beans – Syd’s bean, which he has named the ‘Melbourne Mini’. While growing them in the CAT display gardens we are recording their characteristics. Each stage of growth is monitored according to the ‘characterisation’ forms provided by the HSL. This could help us find out a lot more about it. It could be an old variety lost to the seed companies in the 1970s; it could be a variety still commercially available, or one held in the seed library. However, over the time Syd has been saving his seed it will have adapted to his particular garden conditions. It might perhaps be the only remaining seed of an old variety or his own strain of another variety. Either way, with the help of the Heritage Seed Library we will be saving the ‘Melbourne Mini’ for future generations.

How to save seed.

We are used to seeing vegetables flower and set seed – peas and beans are obvious examples, as well as plants that fruit e.g.tomatoes. Others we eat before the plant seeds. One of the many advantages of being a seed saver is that you get to see the beautiful flowers of biennial vegetables too – pom-pom type onion heads, umbrella shaped carrot and parsnip florets, bright yellow brassica flowers, lettuce stalks shooting up 4 foot high. Some vegetables (called inbreeders) e.g. French beans, nearly always self-pollinate. This means that it doesn’t matter if you have a similar plant growing nearby – they won’t cross. Others are more promiscuous. These need to be isolated from similar plants. Some vegetables (called outbreeders) e.g. sweetcorn need to crosspollinate, but within their own variety. With these it is important to grow a large number of plants to prevent ‘inbreeding depression’. Seed collection techniques vary – large dry seeds like beans and peas can be shelled by hand. For small dry seeds there are methods such as winnowing, to remove the seeds from the chaff. ‘Wet’ seeds such as tomatoes need to be cleaned thoroughly before storage. However, some vegetables are really easy to save seed from, and once you start it can become addictive.

Further Information
For advice on how to save seed and to join the Heritage Seed
Library go to www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl


Heritage Vegetables – the gardener’s guide to cultivating diversity, Sue Stickland, Gaia Books, ISBN-13: 978-1856750332
Breed your own vegetable varieties – the gardener’s and farmers’ guide to plant breeding and seed saving, Carol Deppe, Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1890132729
Additional material from Chris Moreton and Mel Harvey