Saving seeds from your own crops saves money. And it also helps to preserve the traditional crop varieties which grow in your region.
Farmers always used to save seed from their crops to plant the next season. But many farmers now buy seeds from stores in town or directly from seed companies instead. The problem is that seed companies often do not sell the traditional varieties of crops which are well adapted to your local climate, pests and diseases. These traditional varieties may only grow in your region. So even if you buy some new seeds to try out, it is also a good idea to save and plant seeds from traditional crops. The best way to make sure the traditional varieties survive is for farmers to collect and save seeds themselves.
Buying seeds is expensive, but saving your own costs little or no money. If you depend on buying seeds you are at risk of not being able to plant your crop if there is a seed shortage and the company does not have the seeds you need. And saving seeds yourself means you have them ready to plant when conditions are right, like right after a good rain, and you do not have to first make a trip to town first.
Traditional varieties of seed can easily be saved from year to year. But many of the seeds you can buy are hybrids. You cannot save the seeds from hybrids to use the following season because they will not grow as well as the original plant.
Selecting and collecting seeds
When you want to save seeds from your own crops, the first step is to collect them. You can start when the seeds are drying on their stalks in the field and the seeds are mature.
Decide which seeds to save while they are still in the fields. That way, you can look at the seed head and also the plant it comes from.
You want healthy seeds, so don’t pick seeds that are abnormally shaped, very small, or damaged.
You also need diversity and special qualities. The more diversity you have in your field — that is, the more different qualities the plants have — the safer your crop is. Diversity makes crops less vulnerable to disease, pests, and unusual weather conditions. You are more likely to have a crop failure if all the plants in one crop are too much alike. The seeds you can buy from companies usually do not contain as much diversity as seeds you collect yourself. Instead they produce plants that are very similar. As a result, they are more vulnerable to disease, pests, or bad weather. That is another good reason to save your own seeds instead of buying them.
To make sure that you get both diversity and special qualities in the seeds you collect, you should choose seeds three different ways.
First, you should look for seed from plants that have particular characteristics that you like. For example, you might collect seeds from plants that stayed small, because they will need less water to grow. Or you might choose plants with multiple seed heads, or plants whose pods or grain heads are large. You might also look for plants that suffered less pest damage than others. Seeds from these plants are likely to produce more plants the next season that have these same special qualities.
Second, choose seeds from plants that are different from each other. Pick seeds from plants of different colours, sizes, or with differently-shaped leaves.
Finally, you should select some seed from each area of the field, from a many different plants. Just pick whatever seeds you come across, at random.
Picking seeds from plants with special qualities that you like helps improve your crops from year to year. And choosing some seeds that are slightly different from others in the field provides the diversity the crop needs to do well.
Differences between plants are not always apparent when you look at them. For example, you might not know from looking at a plant that it is drought-resistant. You would not find out until a dry year, when the plant survived and others did not. Some of the diversity which helps plants to resist pests and diseases or adapt to changes in climate is contained in the seed itself. That is why you should collect some seed at random. The random sample makes sure that you get a good mix of different qualities, including ones you cannot see.
Selecting and collecting good seeds from your crops is the first step in saving seeds — but it is only half the job. Once you have the seeds, you need to store them properly so that they will last until next season.
This script was written by Harvey Harman who was a community development worker in South Africa for several years. He is now a farmer in North Carolina, U.S.A.
This script was originally published as script 1 in DCFRN Package 29.
- The community seedbank kit, 1986, 15 pages. The Rural Advancement Fund International, P.O. Box 655, Pittsboro, NC 27312, U.S.A.
- Food from dryland gardens, by David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, 1991, 387 pages. Centre for People, Food and Environment, U.S.A.
- ILEIA Newsletter, Volume 3, No. 2, July 1987, and Volume 5, No. 4, December 1989. Information Centre for Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture, Kastanjelaan 5, P.O. Box 64, 3830 AB, Leusden, The Netherlands.