Swapping plants has to be one of the joys of gardening. If you peer over the hedge, envious of the plants that are thriving in your neighbours garden, they are often only too keen to thrust a cutting or division of their successful colonisers in to our hands and, as we know, they are likely to thrive in our garden just as well.
Next spring, my local horticultural society will be holding a ‘Seed Swap’ event, and now is the ideal time to start collecting seeds from the garden. These events provide a great opportunity for gardeners eager to get the gardening year started. In spring my head is full of ideas of things I would like to grow, so a seed swap provides fertile ground for my imagination. The seeds are free after all, so I won’t suffer from the guilt of buying too much.
Seeds are a great way of swapping our success. These tiny packets, full of horticultural promise, are the ideal way to distribute successful varieties. Few jobs in the garden are filled with as much emotion as sowing seeds. The excited anticipation of sowing, the joy as they burst through, the anxious nights as they harden off ready to be planted out and the pride as we look out at the fruits of our labours in the garden can have few comparisons.
By selecting the seeds of plants that thrive in our neighbourhood, we are automatically choosing the plants best suited to growing in that area. Over the years this was how the original varieties of fruit and vegetable came into existence. Through careful selection at the gardeners hand, many wild plants have been improved and transformed into the many thousands of varieties we can find today, each one with its own unique characteristics.
Collecting seeds is easy. The main tools are a paper bag (better than plastic as it ‘breathes’) sharp scissors and, most importantly, a pen. In the late summer, resist the temptation to deadhead every flower or pick every bean, and leave a few on the plant. As the seeds start to ripen the plants will signal when they are finally ripe by revealing themselves. The top of a poppy’s seed pod will stand up, ready to release the tiny seeds held inside, the bean pod will brown and start to split or the tomato will (finally) start turning red. This is the ideal time to collect. Snip off the flower head, pop it in the paper bag and remember the most important part – label it; you will never remember what it is when you find a crumpled paper bag in your back pocket months later.
Some seeds, like tomatoes will need to be prepared by washing in a fine sieve to remove the pulpy coatings. They will then need to be allowed to dry naturally for a few days before being carefully stored. Paper envelopes, labelled, and stored in a cool dry place, will keep the seed viable for a surprisingly long time – seeds from over 20 years ago have been successfully germinated in the past – but many plants of the umbellifer family (like fennel, parsnips or carrots) degrade quickly and will need to be sown as soon as possible, and replaced every season.
The work of home-gardeners saving seeds in this way has enabled organisations like Garden Organic to set up a heritage seed library of varieties which are no longer available in commercial horticulture. Some of these unusual varieties could be the repositories of genetic code which, when used in breeding programs, could confer desirable traits like disease resistance on to the next generation of vegetables. The ‘Glass Gem’ corn shown above only exists today thanks to the work of an American ‘corn enthusiast’ who wanted to rediscover his Native American Indian past through the history of this staple cereal crop.
Saving our seeds is not just a great way to save money, but provides us with a historical record of our gardening culture and provides us with an indispensable genetic reserve of biodiversity for the future.