Small farmers all over the world practice seed preservation and local smallholders will find it easy to do.

Why Save Seeds?

Why is seed preservation important?

If we are preserving seeds from plants that have thrived in our vegetable garden, they are proven to do best in our area, soil type and climate. They will also have shown resistance to pests and disease.

This is part of building resilience in the face of climate change.

Obviously it’s cheaper than buying from commercial seed companies.

Preserving our local heirloom varieties of seed enhances our seed genetic diversity and supports biodiversity and agro-diversity.

Legislation such as the Plant Breeders Rights Bill and the Plant Improvement Bill favour the commercial seed developers, but small farmers and smallholders should still be able to continue the practice of collecting and swapping seeds.

Collecting seed

Make sure that the seeds you plant are of good quality and are preferably heirloom or open pollinated. This ensures that when you harvest seeds they too will be strong and vigorous.

Seeds from fruit

Some species, such as tomatoes, peppers and the squashes, contain their seeds in their fruit. To save the seed, allow a well-shaped fruit to ripen fully on the plant. When it is ready, cut it open and scrape the seeds into a flat container.

Separate the seed from any flesh, pith or fibre and set the seed aside in a cool dry place for a few days to dry fully.

preserving seeds
Open pollinated tomatoes are rich in seeds.

Tomato seeds need different treatment. Scoop the pulp into a jar of water and leave it for two or three days. The seeds will separate out and sink to the bottom. Dry the seeds on paper towel. When you are sure that they are dry, put them in an envelope.

Seeds from flowers

For species that release their seeds from their flowers, such as onions and carrots, you will have to allow at least one plant to live as entire life cycle. Set aside a few plants at the end of the bed for this purpose, as you will have harvested the rest of the crop long before. This means that you can use the rest of the bed for a new planting.

Allow the plants to flower and allow the flower to mature and dry out completely before cutting it off.

Over a container pull the flower to pieces, allowing the seeds to fall into the tub. Remove any remaining flower parts, bag the seed and label. If the flower has cut at the right time, the seed should be dry already.

Seeds from pods

Where the seeds come in a pod, such as peas and beans, remove them from the pod before allowing them to dry. If they are on a cob, like mielies, take them off the cob, preferably from the middle.

Some smallholders set up a separate seed saving garden, where they plant one or two plants of each species that they want to collect.

Storing seeds

Storing your seeds is a most important aspect of seed preservation. Store them on a dry, warm day. Keep them in a cool dry place.

Store the seeds in an envelope or reseal-able plastic bag. Some seed savers use small glass jars, pill boxes or plastic containers. Others avoid plastic altogether.

Make sure that there are no insects amongst the seeds. The container should be sealed to keep moisture, rodents and insects out.

Label it with as much detail as you can, particularly if you want to swap some of your seeds. If this is the case, it would also be helpful if you could include a photo of the plant and its produce.

Swapping seeds

It is quite likely that you will collect more seeds than you will need. There is a limit as to how long you can keep seeds, as they don’t remain viable for ever. It varies from species to species, but most seeds will not germinate if they are left too long. For example, Onion or lettuce seeds only last for a year, while you can keep beans, peas, cabbage and carrot seed for three years.

So you might want to consider swapping seeds. There are some websites where you can meet up with other seed savers, such as SA Seed Exchange, Seed Swap South Africa and Sasfox.

You might also set up a community seed bank. Arrange to meet others interested in saving seeds by putting up notices in your area. At the meeting you might elect a committee. Discuss what seeds people have at the moment and where the seeds will be stored. You might decide to set it up as a co-operative.

This is part three of a series on seeds and plant nutrition. For more, click here.

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