Succeed with seed with selection perfection

Ben Raskin - 25 July 2014

Which plants should I save seed from?

Tagging a plant for seed savingOne of the keys to saving your own seed is the 'selection', or identifying the best of your plants to keep the seed from. If you are aiming to 'maintain' a variety, in other words to keep it as close as possible to the original genetics of that variety, then there will be specific traits you will need to keep (colour, height, pest or disease resistance for instance). Most of just want to ensure the selection performs well in our garden or farm.

Often I will know in advance that I want to save a certain variety (for instance I have been saving Green Zebra tomato for over 15 years), and will plan numbers and planting accordingly. However even if you hadn’t planned to save seed this year, if you happen to be growing some Open Pollinated  varieties then now is the time to be assessing your thriving crops to see which ones to save seed from. You will of course have to wait till later in the season before making a final decision.

Get a system

Taking photos is a good idea. It is quick, easy and allows you to go over them at your leisure. Keeping notes of observations while you are next to the plants is also useful but often difficult to find the time when you know there is so much weeding etc to be done. Finding a simple system of identifying the best plants will pay dividends in the long term.

Coloured string tied to the plants you have identified is a simple way if you just need a quick assessment of which plants are best. If you’re trying to look at multiple traits you might need a bit more information, for intance using labels on which you can make notes. Let’s take climbing French beans for instance: what qualities are you looking for. I might go for early fruiting, slug resistant and tender.

Assuming you had sowed 30 plants and you might keep seed from at least 10 of them. You could tie white label on the plants that slugs didn’t target first, a blue one of the first 20 plants to flower or fruit, and a red one on those that were the most tender. This might give you 5 ideal plants with 3 labels. That is ok but you’ll seed from a few more plants than that. So I might then look at some of the plants that had both a blue and red label even if that meant they might be slug susceptible.

With beans I then leave a few beans on each plant to mature at the end of the season (though if you are in a very wet part of the country you may need to let some of the earlier pods mature to reduce the risk of them rotting in the autumn). 4 seeds per pod, 4 pods per plant, 10 plants – gives you 160 seeds which is hopefully more than enough for growing and sharing on a garden scale.

Unconscious selection

As well as your deliberate selections you will almost certainly also be making unconscious selections. For instance you might be growing in a shady half of your garden so your seeds will be adapted to lower light, a really dry summer will give plants that do better with little rain, you may have a local pest or disease you didn’t know about but end up breeding resistance to, and so on. Over time some of these unconscious ones will either even out, or work to your advantage to give you a 'variety' or strain of vegetable perfectly suited to your situation.

Find out more about the Soil Asssociation's Save Our Seeds campaign at

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Craig Sams
01 September 2014 15:49

If you collect the last seed to mature then there's a good chance you will have a plant with a longer maturation date in future. If you take the earliest ones then the opposite could apply - it's an art, not a science! With open pollinated sweet corn I take the cobs from the plant that produces 2 good sized cobs, then only use the seed from the middle eight rows as they are more likely to come true to the original.

Anna Louise Bachelor
25 July 2014 10:50

Really useful tips in this post. Thank you for sharing them.

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