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A brief introduction
Heritage seeds have been around for hundreds of years and with proper selection, harvesting and storing - so could yours!
Natural growing plants adapt to their local environment slowly and over many generations. They do so by being pollinated in a natural way, generally either by wind pollination or insect pollination; and when they do so they are said to be open-pollinated.
Heritage (or heirloom) plants are those which have been produced over many generations and remain true to the parent plant. They are always open pollinated.
Hybrid plants are created by crossing plants of two different varieties, where pollination is generally carried out by human interaction. Commercial seeds are almost always hybrids by design so that they produce higher crop yields or are more pest resistant for example. Hybrid plants can occur naturally through open pollination when one plant crosses with another.
If you want to produce pure, true-to-type seed you need to prevent cross pollination between different plant varieties in the same species. Planting just one variety is the best way of doing this although have an isolation distance between different plants is another. Isolation distance varies depending on the species of plant.
The process of pollination - where pollen is transferred from the male part of a plants flower to the female part of another, or same, plant - enables fertilisation and the subsequent formation of seed. Some flowers are self pollinating, meaning they are able to pollinate themselves; whilst others will only accept pollen from another plant carried either by insects or the wind.
Knowing how your plant pollinates is important when saving seeds and preserving it's heritage.
Harvest seeds only after they've reached maturity. For many vegetables this is long after the plant is ready for eating and often into it's second year.
Plan ahead when deciding how to lay out your garden for seed saving.
Consider whether plant variety isolation is necessary so that cross pollination does not occur. Isolation can be achieved by physically separating plants over a distance, or by separating by them in time by growing them after each other.
Isolation can also be done by caging or bagging.
Caging involves putting a large cage of tight-knit mesh over each of the varieties that can cross pollinate. For insect pollinated plants, cages are removed from one variety on one day and then a different one on another day. This allows insects to pollinate only from the intended variety.
Bagging is similar to caging but instead small bags are used to cover individual plants or flower buds. Bagging works well for smaller batches of plants.
Carefully clean and store the seed you've collected. Seeds are either harvested dry or wet, from pulp plants, depending on the plant species.
Dry seeds are generally those that are left on the plant in their husks or pods until mature and dry. They may also need to be threshed or winnowed to separate the seed from the chaff.
After harvesting, the seeds are further dried typically by placing in a jar filled with dry rice for a fortnight. Dry rice has the effect of drawing the remaining moisture out of the seeds. Once fully dry the seeds can be stored in an airtight container preferably in a cool, dry and dark place.
Wet seeds should be left on the plant until fully mature, which is often when they are too ripe to be eaten. Harvesting involves scooping out the seeds into a bowl of warm water and leaving for a short while so that the pulp and dead seeds float to the top whilst healthy seeds sink to the bottom. The healthy seeds are then put in a strainer to remove more water and then placed on a ceramic surface and left to dry out.
Further dry and store the seeds in the same way as for dry seeds.