Heritage varieties & seed saving

I’d like to write a little about heritage varieties of fruit and veg and saving your own seed.

Back in the ’good old days’ people would grow their own vegetables to sustain themselves and their families and as a routine they would dry and save the seeds from the best crops to use again the following year. It seems an obvious way to do things, doesn’t it? After all, that’s what seeds were there for.

It was even more obvious in a time when there were no 29p packets of Pumpkin seed available in the local Aldi. When you couldn’t order exotic varieties of whatever took your fancy from a well-stocked mail order company.

Unfortunately, much of the seed available today on the shelves of your local supermarket or garden centre don’t allow you to do this, and a tradition which has been in use for thousands of years is becoming rarer and rarer.

I’ll let The Real Seed Company explain a little further:

“Hybrid (“F1”) seed is the result of a cross between two different , but heavily inbred parents. Seed you save from these plants will either be sterile or a give a whole mix of shapes and types, usually producing a poor crop. […] Yes, there are a few exceptions, but in general, the hybrid seed business has been a public relations victory over the small grower. For example, you will soon see more and more hybrid leek seed offered to you. This is because the supermarkets have set incredibly rigid limits on leek size, and the only way to achieve this is through hybridising two inbred varieties, so all leek seed production is switching to hybrids.

You will be told that these new leeks are ‘more uniform’, ‘straighter’ and so on. But what about flavour and adaptability? People seem to forget that we want to eat & enjoy these things – food is not just a commodity!”

By growing ‘heritage’ varieties of vegetables which allow you to save your own seed, and then selecting the most vigorous, disease-resistant plants to keep the seed from, you can end up with varieties that you know will do well in your soil and climate and year-on-year can really lead to reliable, hardy and heavy-cropping vegetables. This was no-doubt more important at a time when a vegetable plot was to put meals on the table, rather than something to do at the weekends, but keeping the skill alive is as important today as ever.

That’s why I’m moving my vegetable growing over heritage varieties where I can, and am saving my own seed of the varieties that do well in my plot. I like to save Champion of England peas, a strain of which has been grown and saved for generations locally to me in Lincolnshire. Champion of England are not available from any of the big distributors (such tall pea plants aren’t much use to commercial growers as they are hard to harvest and cultivars such as this have gradually fallen out of fashion with the big seed companies).