The Land Rover Owners Wife

Saving the Seeds: Sweetcorn

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Hung up to dry out: the hopes of next season rest on this cob.

Hung up to dry out: the hopes of next season rest on this cob.

One of my goals with the vegetable patch is it be able to cut back on the yearly purchase of numerous packets of seeds by saving, wherever possible, seed from my own produce from which I can grow the following seasons crops. The fact that the type of seed I was buying might be the cause of some of the failures in my garden, was something that only dawned on me, slowly, over several seasons. In fact it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a reference to a seed bank and the importance and benefits of seed saving, that I began to consider the inherent difficulties of using the ‘one size fits all’ seed, that is available in garden centres and seed catalogues.

Much of the seed available to the home gardener in main stream shops and garden centres, are of hybrid stock which means, for the most part, that if you take the trouble to try and save seed from them for next season, you will more than likely be disappointed with the results. The clue is in the word ‘Hybrid’ – a hybrid seed is the result of crossbreeding different varieties to try and produce seed that will harbour the best qualities and strengths of the contributing plants. So if you then try to save seed from hybrids and grow from them, the resulting plants are unlikely to look or perform as well as the parent plant (aka the plant you grew from the Hybrid seed). That said, I do buy hybrid seed occasionally but not if I want to try and save the seed from that particular crop.

Putting Hybridism aside, another issue with main stream seed purchases is the ‘one size fits all’ mentality behind the choices made for the home grower by the seed companies. If you think about it logically, a set of seeds that does well in North Lincs may not do as well in the extreme north of Scotland or even in the furthest reaches of the south of England and vice versa. Yet have a look in any seed section the length and breadth of the country and you will find the same varieties available and the main stream seed catalogues will happily send out their seed to the far flung corners of the country.

My prime specimen almost ready for harvesting

My prime specimen almost ready for harvesting

On the other side of the coin is the thinking that by saving seed from your own crops, you are helping create stronger, more productive crops in successive years. How? Well it’s simple really – each generation of seed collected is one season more acclimatised to the specific set of environmental markers for your garden, whether it’s soil type, climate or even pollution levels. Also, by saving seed from your own crops you can choose the healthiest, biggest, fastest developing or even tastiest specimens to collect seed from.

Okay so that’s my thinking behind  and understanding of the benefits of saving seed and I think it does make sense. So over the last couple of years, I have started to save some seeds. I started off with just bean and pea seeds, saved from both gardens and so far this has worked and each year (this is the third season using saved seed), the seeds have germinated, grown and produced more pods.

This year, in addition to the beans and peas, I also started Cayenne and Patio chillis off from saved seed and both varieties have produced bigger and stronger plants with an abundance of chillis on all of them: more than in previous years I would say but that in itself could be down to the weather rather than any adaptations from last season….. or it could just be wishful thinking on my part. Only time will tell, as I will save seed from these plants again this year and sow them next season.

Carefully pull back the husks and remove the silks

Carefully pull back the husks and remove the silks

This season has also seen my first ever attempt at growing carrot tops for seed and so far things are progressing nicely. There are a pleasing number of flower heads per plant which should yield a healthy amount of seed for next year, if of course, I manage to catch the seed before it falls into the bed and creates a potential nightmare of dozens of carrot seedlings popping up next year.

One of the things we love to eat from the garden is sweetcorn but over recent years I have really struggled to produce a successful crop which has been disappointing and frustrating for all of us. This year, I decided to try a new variety for us called ‘Special Swiss’ which had been bred in Europe and which, according to the Real Seed Catalogue, had even proved successful in the UK during 2012s’ dreadful, very wet, summer.

I have to say that this years crop is looking pretty good, with ears on at least two thirds of the plants, although, to be fair, the last few weeks have been warm, with lots of sunshine which will have helped with the development of the ears and so I decided to try and save some seed from this years corn. Everything I have read about saving sweetcorn seed, has said that it isn’t worth the effort unless you have room for at least 100 plants.

Hummm, I have around 40, so that’s not ideal I guess but as long as the plants can produce ears, then surely the seed will be viable, after all as I understand it, the fact that the ears have swollen in the first place is because pollination was successful which should surely mean that the seed on my cobs is just as likely to be viable than those in a stand of 100 or more! Also according to the content I have read, the ear needs to be left on the plant, long after its’ contemporaries, to dry out completely before they are harvested but you see, to me, that increases the risk of damage to the seed due to pests, diseases or even the weather. I do know growers who take their seed cobs at the ‘eating’ stage, dry them over the autumn/winter and have successfully grown from the dried seed and so I have decided to follow this route this year and see how I get on.

I used wool to make a loop ti hang it up with: looks yummy doesn't it?

I used wool to make a loop ti hang it up with: looks yummy doesn’t it?

As it happens, the first of my plants to develop cobs, also happened to develop two of them and so immediately became prime candidate for seed saving. I hand pollinated the silks of the ears using pollen from several of its’ neighbours and then watched as the ears began to swell. The topmost ear grew to impressive proportions, the biggest cob I’ve ever grown to be honest, and much to the disgruntlement of the rest of the household, I marked this one for seed saving. It had all the hallmarks of a good choice: first to show, big fat cob, double eared plant!

I have watched it carefully for signs of problems and finally, last weekend, I decided to pick it and start the drying out process. Carefully peeling back the husk, I was absolutely delighted by how healthy this particular ear looked and there was more disgruntlement from certain quarters when I hung it up to dry because it really did look good enough to eat. I have removed the silks and bunched the drawn back husk below the cob and then tied some wool around these with which to hand the cob, to help prevent any damage to the corn itself. Over the next few months I will keep an eye on the kernels, removing any that look to be bad and, hopefully, by next spring, I will have a good number of healthy seeds to sow.

As with the other seeds I have saved in the past, there will be a long wait until we know for sure whether or not I have succeeded but you really do need to try these things, in my opinion, and who knows, maybe I will prove that 40 plants are enough (if you hand pollinate) and it isn’t necessary to leave the ear to dry out on the plant itself. Wish me luck.

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