Four ways city growers can help save our rich seed diversity

A beautiful heritage variety of bean, 'black and white'. French beans, like tomatoes, are another easy crop to save seeds from in small spaces.

In the last 100 years, 80% of the crop varieties in Europe – 75% in the World – have been lost.

This is huge: we need a rich diversity of crop varieties for our future. Not just for the wonderful stories and diversity of flavours that each variety brings, but also for the genetic variety. The more genetic variety we have, the better our chances will be of finding varieties to grow well in the changing climate of the future.

One of the major causes of this loss is the “F1 hybrid”. F1 hybrid seeds have been filling more and more of our seed catalogues for the last forty to fifty years.

What does F1 hybrid mean? An F1 is created by breeding two different lines of a crop together to create a cross or a hybrid. (NB F1s are different from genetically modified or ‘GM’ crops. The issues of GM are a seperate issue and well publicised).

F1 hybrids have become popular because they are usually more vigorous than their parents, and will often produce fruits of a more consistent size and shape.

So why are F1s a problem?

There are at least two major issues with F1 hybrids.

  1. F1s are nearly all bred for commercial growers not home growers or container growers. Commercial growers want uniform produce to satisfy supermarkets. They also want the crop to ripen all at the same time as this makes harvesting easier. But neither of these traits are useful or desirable for most home growers. Most of us would prefer our veg to taste better and crop longer!
  2. You cannot save good seeds from F1 hybrids. The plants that grow from them will be different from their parents, often weak and unproductive. As a result the skill of saving seeds, once practised by nearly every grower, is being lost. We are all becoming totally reliant on the seed companies. Good for the seed company, not for diversity, not for us (as seed saving can be a richly rewarding part of growing).

And because F1s are profitable, seed company’s invest their research into breeding exclusive new F1 varieties – rather than breeding superior versions of traditional varieties (which is possible but less commercially attractive).

The result? As the seed industry focusses on F1 hybrids, traditional varieties (sometimes know as ‘open pollinated’ or ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are being lost. This rich and wonderful diversity – developed by farmers and growers over hundreds of years – is simply disappearing, fast. The problem is not really F1s themselves – a few would do little harm – it is the sheer number of F1s and how they are replacing traditional seeds.

New laws like the EU seed law, which could actually make it illegal to sell many of our heritage varieties, put diversity at even greater risk (for a summary of the current situation, see Ben Raskin in the Guardian here)

Peter Brinch, of Open Pollinated Seeds, explains more about F1s in this short video:-

What can you do to help?

If you’re growing in the city, you may be wondering if you can do anything worthwhile to help protect our rich seed heritage.

The answer is YES!

You may be growing in a small space but there are an ever growing number of us ‘city growers’! Together, I truly believe we can help change things.

Here are five ways you can help seed diversity.

1. Try to avoid buying F1s

How can you tell if seed is F1?

By law it must always tell you on the packet somewhere.  Usually ‘F1’ is written on the front but sometimes on the back. If the pack does not say F1 you are OK: it will be a traditional or open pollinated variety. The Open Pollinated Seeds website has more info on the benefits of open pollinated varieties.

Some crops – like sweetcorn, spinach and cucumber – can be more tricky to find as non F1. They do still exist in some catalogues and are worth searching for if you have the time.

 

The packet on the far right say F1. None of the others do - so they are all open pollinated types.

The packet on the far right say ‘F1’. None of the others do – so they are all open pollinated types.

 

2. Support small independent seed companies

Particularly those that sell mostly open pollinated or heritage varieties. In the UK these include: Stormy Hall Seeds, Real Seeds, and Tamar Organics.

3. Learn to save your own seeds

There is a skill to saving high quality seed but, for many crops, it is not difficult to learn. It can also be fun and hugely rewarding. An easy one to start is the tomato – you can find a detailed video to show you how here.

Seven varieties of tomatoes - all grown in just four window boxes.

Seven varieties of tomatoes – all grown in just four window boxes.

4. Write to you MEP

If you live in Europe, write to your MEP for example – here are some ideas from the Soil Association on what you could say.

Your turn

If you’ve grown an open pollinated or heritage variety that has done well in containers, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. By learning from each other we can discover great new things to grow in containers.

 

13 comments… add one

  • I never buy F1 seeds and I am learning how to save my own. I find this very important. We have fine results with these outdoor tomatoes: Paul Robeson (Russian) and Principe (bush). Some bush tomatoes have a tendency to ripe all the fruit at the same time, but our Principe plants does ripe over a long period of time, we picked from them until end of october last year : )

    Reply
    • I will look out for Principe, they sound very fine! Thanks for sharing your experience, Bente.

      Reply
  • Hello Mark,
    Really enjoying reading your blog!
    Have you tried the tomatilloes from realseeds? I grew them in a medium sized ‘pound shop’ plastic pot and even with neglect they went completely bonkers! I had so many more than I could use (and I’m really greedy) and they look so ornamental and lush while growing.

    Reply
    • Hello Sunflower, yes I have, and I keep planning to mention them in a post! It’s useful to hear that you found them as productive as I did – thanks very much for writing to share that.

      Reply
  • Mark

    I came to this conclusion a few years ago and I have been making seeds now for 4 years.

    I have a fantastic strain of Shirley which I’ve grown outdoors for 4 years and made seeds each year. Last year was the most vigorous and heavy crop of the lot.

    I also had success last year with my own Alicante seeds.

    This year, I’m sowing about 12 sets of seeds made by myself, including:

    Maskotka, Black Cherry, Glacier, Sub-Arctic Plenty, Super Marmande, Riesentraube, Black Krim (well it’s a Black variety from Russia, but whether it’s Black Krim or something else I don’t know: it tasted fantastic!), Ailsa Craig and a beefsteak which was incredibly vigorous but wasn’t what was on the label.

    The aim is to make these strains well adapted for growing outside in pots in the SE of England.

    I sow them indoors and pot them up into 8cm and 15cm pots inside, then they go outside into 30cm pots.

    Each year I also grow one in the ground and I’m getting better results each year doing that as I learn how to prepare the ground properly and feed properly.

    The first four strains I sowed this year on 5th February were fantastic seeds, being really tall after 6 days. They are now transplanted into 8cm pots on the window sill during the day and in an interior cupboard at night.

    Reply
  • Are F1s not just things that have been randomly naturally pollinated? I always keep a few ‘pure’ seeds, bit I’ve pretty much given up on making sure they don’t cross pollinate. I just let nature do its own thing now.

    Reply
    • Hi Sam, if you have one variety of veg and it cross fertilisers with another variety, yes, you will in effect have an F1 – and the offspring will probably show different traits from the parents. But if you are only growing one variety of veg then you will not get F1s when they cross pollinate (as long as bees aren’t carrying in pollen from other varieties grown by your neighbours!) – and the seeds should produce offspring with the same traits as their parents. I’m finding it a bit hard to explain in words, does this make sense?

      Reply
  • It may not be that important for Brits and less for Americans, but I would like to draw your attention to the association that led the campaign against the prohibition of uncertified seeds in the EU successfully recently. It’s Arche Noah (“Noah’s Ark”) of Austria (https://www.arche-noah.at/). They sell seeds and plants too, strictly non-F1. I made very good experiences with their basil, chilis, marjoram, and Malabar spinach, and I’m looking foreward to make more.

    Best wishes for Candlemas (2/2), the traditional start of the garden year!
    Stephan, Vienna, Austria

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing that link Stephan, and good to hear about your successful non F1 crops. I’ve not tried Malabar spinach myself yet, I will look for some. Did you grow yours in a container?

      Reply
      • Yes, I grew my Malabar spinach in two balcony flower boxes. The one I took in over winter is still growing. They did not grow that well in the cool spring (under 15°C), but when all the other plants suffered under the 35 °C July, I thought I heard them shout hooray.
        They only need little soil, warmth, a generous gush of water, and something to climb, and are grateful and almost indestructible.then.

        Reply
  • Great post Mark – well put. I’ll send people to it when they want to know why I say no to F1’s.

    Another resource is the Heritage Seed Library http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl/.

    I’ve been growing a heritage pea, Lativan, for a few years now. I originally got it from HSL. It’s incredibly juicy & prolific and an absolute favourite. Peas are a good crop to start seed saving with as fairly straight-forward. My next challenge is I’m going to try saving D’Eysines carrot seed, which I got from Real Seeds. They are a great seed company to use and they always send instructions on seed saving with any seed order you make.

    Reply
    • Hi Julieanne, thanks for the pea tip – I will keep any eye out for that one – also for the reminder about the Heritage Seed Library, a valuable and interesting resource for UK growers.

      Reply

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