The Joys of Seed Saving

ALFI’s annual “Seedy Saturday” is next Saturday (4th February, 10am-12pm, Alton Methodist Hall). Please bring your seeds to swap; if you have none to share, you can still participate and collect seeds for a small donation to ALFI. Tea, coffee, biscuits and advice will be available.

“Seedy Saturday” is with us again, and so I’ve been busy reviewing my saved and purchased seeds, and sorting out which to share, which to keep, and which need to go to the “big stale seed-bed in the sky” [see our seed-saving guide].

Looking through my records (actually, just the hand-written labels on the little plastic bags I’ve re-used for many years), I’ve been saving seeds since at least 2007, probably a little longer, starting only a couple of years after taking on my first garden.

One of the first things I remember saving on a regular basis was French marigolds (Tagetes), picking the faded heads and drying them indoors, before pulling the weird little match-stick like seeds from their papery casing, and putting them away for the next season. Over the years it was fascinating to see them gradually change from their original bright yellow to a mix of orange and deep red, presumably reverting to an earlier, more natural form. I saved the seeds like this for several years, somewhat uselessly naming each packet after their parent plant things like “mostly red, with orange” or “red with lots of orange”, despite the fact that their progeny could be coloured pretty much as they chose!

But then one year, perhaps due to the weather, or maybe daunted by the prospect of the many nights of torchlit slug-hunting it would take to keep them safe, I missed sowing them, and my little packets of seed sat forlorn. When I returned to them in a subsequent season, no plants emerged: their fragile life had faded. It turns out that Tagetes seeds only really last a year, and that their increasingly unique DNA, surviving for so many years in my seeds, was only one careless (or busy) gardener away from dying out for ever.

French marigolds are ten-a-penny, and my failure to save mine is no great loss to the gene pool, but there are many varieties of edible and non-edible plants that are much more special, and have survived only by being handed down in an unbroken line from gardener to gardener for many, many seasons, in pretty much the same way that humans have selected and persisted crops for thousands of years.

These ‘heirloom’ varieties might not attract the commercial grower, being perhaps too difficult to harvest with a machine, or having too short a “shelf life” once picked, but they have been preserved by gardeners because they have something special: perhaps they crop a little earlier, or later; tolerate a sticky local soil or tricky climatic conditions; have a uniquely coloured flower or fruit shape; taste that little bit different, or just because they are a sentimental, yet tangible link to the past.

While few of us in this country lack the money necessary to buy seeds (though there are sadly those who do), and we’re always tempted by the offer of new varieties from the seed producers, with their reassuring silver-lined packets, bright photographs and bizarrely accurate instructions (“sow 7mm deep”!) , there’s also something quite satisfying about collecting those little capsules of life yourself, and popping them safely away in labelled packets through winter, to be rediscovered, remembered, and tended back to life come spring.

Sharing with your friends (and strangers) not only enhances the enjoyment, but also adds a bit of insurance, a little bit of protection, from bad weather, and bad gardeners!

Come along to our “Seedy Saturday” on Saturday 4th February, 10am-12pm at the Alton Methodist Hall, and bring your swaps. Don’t worry if you have nothing to swap yourself, you can still pick something up in exchange for a small donation to ALFI.

As well as locally saved seeds, we’ll also have some commercial offerings that we will divide up and share, making better use of our resources. Remember also that our “Seedling Swap” is in early May, so if you end up growing too many, or too few, you can also swap there.

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