Seed Saving for Food Security

, written by gb flag

Seed Saving for Food Security

Most gardeners will remember all too well the struggle to acquire seeds this past spring. Demand soared to an incredible ten times normal levels in some areas, shops (while they were still open) sold out, and online seed suppliers’ websites crashed under the strain. En masse, millions of people decided to take charge of their food supply and turned to gardening as an at-home source of interest and exercise – and the result was meltdown.

Things have recovered somewhat, but without wanting to get all doom-and-gloomy, if there’s another major spike in COVID-19 cases next year then I expect we’ll see a similar pattern of panic seed-buying. This, in tandem with already-strained seed supplies, means that we may not be able to reliably acquire our favorite seeds again for a while. So it’s only sensible for gardeners to take matters into our own (grubby) hands. There is a way to avoid seed-sourcing calamities, and you can do it even if you’re unable to travel beyond your own back garden.

Seed saving is a simple but effective way to improve your food security

Plants for Seed Saving

Saving your own seeds means you can be assured of a consistent seed supply, no matter what chaos is raging in the world outside your garden. While planning for seed saving really needs to begin before you plant in spring, there are opportunistic ways to save seeds even at this late stage.

Before you start, first make sure that the plants you want to save seed from are open-pollinated varieties – that is, not hybrids. Hybrids can be identified on the seed packet by the annotation F1 after the variety name.

F1 hybrids are bred from two parent plants to produce a named variety, but seed saved from the hybrid itself will not reproduce the same variety. That’s not to say you can’t save hybrid seeds – just that the results are unpredictable and highly variable, so the next generation is unlikely to closely resemble its parents.

Seed saving
Only save seed from open-pollinated varieties

This variability means that every year the same two parent varieties must be crossed again to produce the hybrid variety, which partly explains why hybrids are so much more expensive than open-pollinated (also known as heirloom) varieties, which breed true every time.

Isolation Distances for Seed Saving

So, now you’ve dismissed any hybrids you might be growing (or not, if you’re feeling adventurous!), the next thing to do is to work out what you can feasibly save seeds from. It’s not just us humans who need to practise social distancing – any plants you want to save seed from do too. If you’re growing more than one variety of the same plant in your garden, chances are your chosen mother plant will cross-pollinate with a sexy stranger from another variety so your baby plants may not resemble their mama as much as you’d like!

Some plants that are largely self-pollinating – for instance tomatoes, green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), peas and lettuce – are more likely to breed true, even in a smaller garden. In these cases, the mother plant needs to be flowering no closer than 10 feet (3m) from compatible varieties.

Wind-pollinated plants like beets and spinach, however, need to be isolated from other plants of the same type because they have extremely light, fine pollen that is easily carried far and wide on air currents – potentially miles! So even if you’re only growing one variety, there’s a good chance they’ll cross-pollinate with plants growing in other gardens, on farms, or with related wild plants.

Leek seedhead
Insect-pollinated flowers like leeks may need containing until their seed has set

There are methods you can use to isolate your crops besides physical distancing. Placing barriers such as fences or swathes of flowers between related crops may help to disrupt the path of pollen on the wind and reduce the likelihood of pollen-laden insects travelling between varieties, but this technique can be quite hit-and-miss.

Containment measures – shielding, if you like – are more reliable for crops like alliums and carrots that are typically insect-pollinated. These containment measures can be as simple as tying a net bag over a flower or truss to prevent insects from gaining entry, then taking it off only briefly to hand-pollinate the flowers. Or cover a whole plant with netting, and on alternate days cover any different varieties of compatible plants while leaving the plant you want to save seed from uncovered and able to be freely pollinated.

It’s important to be aware of which crops your plants could potentially cross with, because it’s not always as helpfully straightforward as ‘tomatoes will cross with other tomatoes’. Related species sometimes cross too – for instance, celery and celeriac will cross with each other, as will beets with Swiss chard; many brassicas are compatible; squashes may cross within their own genus (Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima, C. mixta or C. moschata); and to make it even more complicated, some cultivated crops will cross with wild plants too, such as carrots with Queen Anne’s Lace.

Saving seeds
Just a few plants can supply more seed than you’ll need in one season

Seed Storage Life

The great thing about saving seeds is that you often get an awful lot of seeds from very few plants, and in many cases they will keep for yonks, which means you can really slash the cost of your seed bill even if seeds are readily available.

So, using the table below you can see that you’ll need to save seeds of parsnips, leeks, onions and shallots at least every other year, while the chunky seeds of squash only need re-saving every six years (assuming you have gathered enough seed to last you that length of time of course!).

Parsnips2 years
Leeks, onions and shallots 2 years
Peppers (sweet and hot) 3 years
Sweet corn 3 years
Fava beans, green beans and runner beans 4 years
Peas 4 years
Tomatoes 5 years
Eggplant 5 years
Beets and Swiss chard 5 years
Cucumber 5 years
Lettuce 6 years
Brassicas (eg broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, radishes etc) 6 years
Carrot 6 years
Celery and celeriac 6 years
Squash (winter, summer, pumpkin) 6 years

Do you have any seed saving tips for your favorite vegetables? Please share them with us and other gardeners below!

Plants Related to this Article

< All Guides

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

Show Comments


"Have a lot of old seeds in my refrigerator. Decided to plant the Burpee stringless green beans packed for 2001 and used about 15 seeds. They ALL germinated and I harvested about 3 gallons of green beans in the early part of summer 2020 and I'm waiting to see if they'll get going again with the triple digit temps cooling down to in the 90s here in early September. In late July, they started regenerating by putting out new leaves and blooms, and even developed beans. Most of the beans have stayed immature, which I chalked up to heat effect. But I was very surprised to see 19-yr old bean seeds do so well."
Beverly on Saturday 5 September 2020
"Must you always keep saved seeds in the refrigerator?"
Brenda on Saturday 5 September 2020
"Wow Beverly, 100% germination on 19 year old seeds - I'm impressed! It's a shame that they haven't produced well, but as you say it's probably down to weather conditions."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 15 September 2020
"Brenda, refrigeration can help extend seed life but keeping them somewhere cool and dry is fine for most seeds. For instance I keep mine in paper envelopes stored in a tin in my shed. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 15 September 2020
"Hi Ann Marie. we have started a seed library at our Community Garden in Perth, Australia. Our garden is quite massive, about 1200m2. We like to practice permaculture where possible and it is always nice to see plants that have self-sown pop up. This brings me to the question of cross-pollination. I would assume a lot of cross pollination occurs naturally in nature. What are the downside effects of cross pollination ? We seem to get heaps of celery and fennel growing wildly in the garden. The celery is sometimes not all that tasty, but it is still edible. Happy gardening !"
Andrew Benson on Sunday 7 March 2021
"Hi Andrew. If you want to make sure the next generation of crops resembles the previous one with regards to taste, vigour, and other traits, it's important to limit cross-pollination with other varieties. Cultivated varieties have been bred for specific qualities over generations, and allowing them to cross-pollinate freely could result in those qualities being lost as there's no way to influence the end result. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 9 March 2021

Add a Comment

Add your own thoughts on the subject of this article:
(If you have difficulty using this form, please use our Contact Form to send us your comment, along with the title of this article.)

(We won't display this on the website or use it for marketing)


(Please enter the code above to help prevent spam on this article)

By clicking 'Add Comment' you agree to our Terms and Conditions