A survey of vegetable growing and seed saving
Seed saving has always been an essential part of growing our own food. Ever since we started cultivating crops, it has been vital to save seeds to ensure that we can continue to produce harvests for the future.
In the more recent times, many growers have become more detached from this process as we have left seed production to the hands of specialised seed companies. Although this may bring some advantages such as specialisation and economies of scale there are many reasons why growers should have a go at saving their own seed including satisfaction, increased self-sufficiency and cost savings.
The aim of this seed saving survey was to gain a better understanding of people’s seed saving practices and the motivations behind them. A questionnaire was sent out to 164 people and of these 100 people returned responses. The questionnaire contained questions about people’s general seed saving practices, their reasons for seed saving as well as questions about seed saving from individual crop types.
General seed saving practices
How many people save seed?
Nearly all people (96%) in the survey did some form of seed saving, with 70% saying that they regularly saved seed. As a comparison, in a previous study of allotment growers in Worcestershire (Vincent, 2009), 68% of respondants said they saved seeds from year to year. As 69% of people who took part in this survery were members of Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, they are more likely to have an active interest in seed saving so this sample cannot be taken to represent the general public. Also, the sample will have been somewhat self-selecting, as people who practise seed saving are more likely to want to tell us about their practices than those who don’t (despite our efforts to encourage non seed savers to take part). The survey will, however, provide insight into people’s motivations and which crops are most popular for seed saving.
Why do people save seed?
The main motivation for people saving seed was satisfaction with 40% of respondants giving this as their most important reason for seed saving. The second most important reason was preservation of local varieties with 20% of respondants giving this as their top reason. Cost was less of a motivation factor with only 8% citing this as their most important reason.
Another common reason stated by members was improved germination. One member stated:
“Once I started saving seed and often saw 100% germination as opposed to patchy germination, there was no option.” People also commented that it was very satisfying and that “it was a freedom and a right that mustn’t be compromised by big business”.
As the majority of people were seed savers, less people gave their reasons for not saving seed. The two most common reasons were lack of time and space with 43% giving lack of time as their top reason and 36% lack of space. A few people stated that they grew F1 hybrids so did not save seed from them.
Around half of participants (51%) said they swapped seed with other growers. This figure is lower than another survey of 110 growers on allotments (Kell et al, 2012) where 73% of people said that they swapped seed. This may reflect the fact, that in an allotment setting, growers are in regular contact with other growers which naturally lends itself to swapping seed.
Only 27% of participants had been to a seed swap, but 78% said that they would go to one if there was one nearby. Even less people (14%) had been to any training on seed saving but 56% said they would go to training if it was available nearby. This shows that there is a demand for seed swaps and training in seed saving techniques that could be met by increasing the prevalance of this activity.
A previous study of allotments (Platten 2013) found that the proportion of seed sown that came from swaps was 14% on an allotment in Kent and 29% on allotment in London. Swapping seed is important for food security in terms of both plant diversity and conservation of varieties. It increases diversity as it encourages people to try out and grow more varieties, reducing the risk of depending on a small number of varieties. It is also important for conservation of more unusual varieties, as the more people that grow it in a number of locations, the less likely it is to die out.
There were large differences in the amounts of seed saved between the different crop types. People were more likely to save seeds from a crop if it didn’t take too much extra time and effort. This meant that people saved a much higher proportion of seeds from legumes than other crops and far less from crops that needed to be left in the ground for a long time such as brassicas, especially brussels sprouts. This was consistent with the reasons that people indicated for using home saved seed – ease of seed saving was the top reason people gave for deciding whether to save seed from that crop or not. Participants gave information on many crops, but we have only presented data for crops where we got information from 20 or more respondants here. Only true seeds were considered, so potato tubers and garlic cloves were not included in the survey. See Figure 1 below.
Legumes were the most popular crop family for using home saved seed. Most home saved seed was used for runner beans (75%) and French beans (70%) whilst a slightly lower proportion of home saved seed was used for broad beans (55%) and peas (48%). Runner beans and French beans may lend themselves to seed saving more easily as they have a longer harvesting period than peas and broad beans, so more pods may have reached a dry state suitable for seed collection before the end of the harvesting period. Runner beans and broad beans cross readily between vareties, so this can make it hard to maintain varietal purity if no steps are taken to isolate them. This may be a lower priority for home gardeners than those aiming to conserve specific varieties.
Brassicas had a much lower proporton of seed saved than most other crops. Nobody saved seed from Brussels sprouts, presumably due to the long amount of time it would have to be left in the ground. A slightly higher proportion of home saved seed was used for radish (27%) which tends to bolt and produce seeds more quickly than other brassica crops.
Pumpkins and squashes were the most popular of the cucurbits for seed saving, with 35% home saved seed being used. Cucumbers (12%) and courgettes (4%) were much lower. A squash or pumpkin has viable seed in it at the time it is harvested, so taking out the seed seems a logical step. A cucumber or courgette has to be left much longer on the plant beyond the time of harvesting before the seed is ready, so there is less incentive to save seed. All squashes, pumpkins and courgettes cross readily between varieties, so steps need to be taken to isolate plants for seed collection if it is important for them to remain true to type.
Viable seed can easily be extracted from both tomatoes and sweet peppers when they are ready to harvest for eating. Consistent with this 42% of tomato seed and 28% of sweet pepper seed was grown from home saved seed. Tomatoes have the advantage that they don’t readily cross so different varieties grown relatively close together will remain true to type.
A higher percentage of leeks (19%) were grown from home saved seeds than onions (7%). Again this reflects the extra effort required to produce seeds from onions. Leeks can be left in the ground to overwinter before setting seed, whereas onions need to be harvested, overwintered, replanted and grown for a second season.
Only a small proportion (7%) of carrots were grown from home saved seed, and this reflects the complexity and time needed to produce carrot seeds, with the carrots needing to be replanted and overwintered before being planted back out to flower in the second season. Seed saving from parsnips, on the other hand was more popular, with 21% of seed sown being home saved. One of the main motivation factors for this was obtaining fresh seed that would germinate well. This is essential for growing successful parsnips, as seed that is more than a year old shows markedly reduced viability.
A high proportion (45%) of chard grown was from home saved seed. Chard is often productive over a long period before it bolts, then the seed can be collected. Far less beetroot seed sown was home saved (6%). A beetroot takes more effort to save seed as it has to be replanted and overwintered.
From this survey it is evident that a significant proportion of growers practice seed saving. The two top reasons for saving seed were satisfaction and preserving local varieties. Varieties adapted to local conditions are important for food security and we have seen evidence of varieties that are repeatedly home-saved markedly outperforming commercial varieties.
The work highlighted that there was a demand for more events providing people with the opportunity to swap seeds and learn more about seed saving. Both of these are important for longer term food security and genetic conserving genetic diversity. Seed swapping increases diversity and increases the chances of varieties being conserved. Saving seed is important for the conservation of more unusual varieties that may have useful traits and promoting the selection of varieties adapted to localised conditions.
Kell, S., Rosenfeld, A., Cunningham, S., Dobbie, S., Maxted, N. (2013). Benefits of non-traditional crops grown by small-scale growers in the Midlands. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/sns-resources. [Accessed 19 June 2017]
Platten, S. (2013) Plant exchange and social performance: implications for knowledge transfer in British allotments. In Understanding cultural transmission in anthropology: a critical synthesis, edited by Roy Ellen, Stephen J. Lycett and Sarah E. Johns. [Methodology and History in Anthropology, 26] New York, Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 300-19.
Vincent, H. (2009) A Vegetable Survey of Worcestershire Allotments. Mres Thesis, University of Birmingham.