The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Why Save Seed?

by our seed bank curator, Debbie Hebbard

There are many important reasons to save seed, however personally, the idea of “localising” my food crops is especially interesting.

By choosing the best plants in the garden, to save for seed, I am selecting the plants that are best suited to my unique garden environment.Resowing these seeds each year will result in the crops being adapted to my area, climate, soil, and even my gardening techniques (like watering habits). Such strong, healthy (and delicious) plants should suffer few problems.Sounds good to me!


After reading “The Seed Saver's Handbook” you would be able to save almost anything, however like most things, starting small is a wise approach. As you gain skill and confidence you can expand your varieties saved.

It is important that you save seed from open pollinated, not hybrid varieties. Also the plants need accurate labels so that you are actuallysaving what you think you are! Hybrid plants will not throw true to type or they may set sterile seed.


Generally the technique for collecting seed depends on how the plant produces its seed. Many different seeds are collected using similar techniques.

The beginner may be confused by the factors that can influence the purity of seeds in their garden. As a general rule of thumb, if you only allow one variety of plant to go to seed at any time, then it should not be able to cross pollinate with any other variety. However, this does depend on what is going on next door!

Some seeds are easier to start with so let's look at the practicalities of saving seeds from tomatoes, lettuce, beans and parsnip.


The best tomatoes are produced on vigorous bushes that mature early (for that particular variety). It is a good idea to mark these bushes, a bright ribbon tied to them works well. As the fruit ripens choose the best ones (they are generally on the lower sets). The seed is ripe to save when just over ripe for the table. The seed is held in the wet pulp and must be cleaned and dried.

Scoop the pulp into a jar with a little water. Label the jar with the variety and the date. Leave in a warm spot for 2 to 3 days until a foam appears. This process of fermentation destroys seed born diseases. It is important not to over ferment as the seeds may begin to germinate.

Now rinse the seeds in a sieve until the water runs clear. Drain. Spread seed thinly on paper to dry. Moving it around shall speed up drying and stop seeds sticking together. Place seed into a paper bag, label and hang to dry a few more days. Store seed for 3-4 years. You now have seed to start your tomatoes nice and early next year.


Lettuce is easy for begining seed savers. To save the seed you need to collect it just before the plant self sows. To save the best plants choose lettuce that are slow to bolt. Heading varieties may need to be cut across the top to allow the seed stalk to come up.

The plant shall take about 8 weeks to develop the seed stalk, flower and ripen the seed.

When about two thirds of the flowers have turned white cut the whole stalk off and leave to dry on a piece of paper.

When dry, rub seeds between your hands to remove seed from the chaff. The chaff can be separated using a sieve or by winnowing.

Package, label and store for up to 5 years.


Separate bean varieties by 2 metres when planting, this ensures that different beans with the same coloured seeds are not mixed up at harvest.

Mark several of the best individual plants with ribbons and avoid picking beans from these. These bushes should show no signs of leaf discolouration. The beans are left to grow past eating stage until the pods are dry and rattle. They may be picked when the pods are yellow and dried inside if the weather is wet.

Often the beans are podded and dried further, however they can be stored in the pod until ready for planting. A simple test for dryness is to bite the bean gently. Any marks suggest more drying is needed.

The beans are then ready to store (up to 3 years), or to be used in the kitchen as a nutritious addition to winter soups and stews.


Parsnips are biennial plants that will readily cross pollinate with any other Umbelliferae. They are not the easiest seed to save but are worth the effort as they are very short lived and often commercial seed germinates poorly.

When harvesting parsnip for the table, select several to replant. They can be planted in any spot that you choose so long as it is well drained. Parsnip produces the root in the first season then the flower stalk develops and sets seed the following spring.

When the seeds turn brown the stalk is cut and dried on paper. The best seed is said to come from the centre umbel.

The seeds shall drop when ripe. They can be sieved to remove the dust, packaged, labelled and stored. You will have fresh and viable seed for next season.


Seeds are living things and they must be stored to maximise their life. Ideal storage is cool, dark and with low humidity.The most important thing to ensure is that seeds are completely dry before they are placed in paper bags then sealed in jars.

Dried milk powder can be put in the bottom of the jar to absorb moisture.

All seeds must be clearly labelled with the variety and the date saved. Even the best memory can lapse!