Commercial seed is big business. Traditionally, keeping seeds from one year to the next was a valuable sustainable practice, it saved money and, because other local gardeners were doing the same thing, there was a resource of locally appropriate varieties and growing know how. These days however there are other important reasons to save your seeds.

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It’s thought that over the last 100 years UK gardeners have lost 90% of vegetable varieties. This matters not just because of these heritage crops’ cultural connections, but because it has resulted in a massive reduction in biodiversity. Modern agro-industrial businesses grow monoculture crops on a vast scale. They rely on laboratories to breed resistant strains as well as vast quantities of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Horror stories like the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840’s when one million people died as a result of three successive years of crop failure should make us wary of losing control of the genetic make up of crops, particularly in view of the dramatically changing conditions that the next few decades are going to see.

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By saving and exchanging seeds rather than buying from big multinationals we can, albeit on a small scale,  help to resist the privatisation of plant genetic material and keep seed making in the garden and out of the laboratory.

So how can you do this? Well, this weekend you can go to Seedy Sunday, one of the most exciting events in Cambridge’s gardening calendar! Come along and swap seeds with other gardeners and try out loads more veggie types than you can buy at the garden centre between the orthopaedic shoes and plastic gnomes!

You can also of course come and join us CropSharers this year for more organic veggie adventures. In 2014 we grew 7 different types of squash, including the very yummy ‘Kabocha’ which has a fluffy, chestnut-like texture that’s similar to a sweet potato crossed with a pumpkin, and the very handsome blue/grey-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ which is a great all-rounder.

Unfortunately saving seeds is not quite that straightforward for Waterland Organics’ winter squash crops: Paul and Doreen need to be sure that they are growing the best organic squash for their veg boxes, which means that as well as being yummy they need to keep well once they are harvested. This is key to eating seasonally and not relying on oil-hungry supermarket veg during the ‘hungry gap’.

For other tips about feasting in the hungry gap check out the wonderful Patrick Whitefield:

Permaculture Gardening – Spring time with Patrick Whitefield

The trouble is that because different squash species cross pollinate they can’t be sure that the seeds from a squash that keeps really well over winter this year will grow into a plant that produces the same squash next year. If the squash grown at Willow Farm were all from home harvested seed then each squash would have to be grown in a way that made sure they couldn’t be cross pollinated with a different type. This would mean that each crop would have to be grown more than 1/2 mile apart (which would need a huge farm plus an awful lot of walking from CropShare volunteers!), or one would have to hand pollinate each plant, which would really upset the hundreds of happy CropShare bees and other insects.

So Paul and Doreen do both, they buy in seeds from companies with the same ethics as theirs such as Stormy Hall seeds, whilst also doing a bit of seed experimentation themselves.

One of the best bits of this years harvest was this crazy group of squash, all arising from seed collected in 2013 from a squash that looked like the one in the centre - they saved the seeds as it was a curiosity at it hadn't grown true to type and kept really well over the winter months. we’re waiting to see how well the offspring keep...

One of the best bits of last year’s harvest was this crazy group of squash, all arising from seed collected in 2013 from a squash that looked like the one in the centre – they saved the seeds as it was a curiosity; it hadn’t grown true to type and then kept really well over the winter months. We’re waiting to see how well these offspring keep…

But us CropShare types are adventurous souls and lots of us really enjoy the lucky dip of not quite knowing what our saved winter squash seeds are going to grow into. Harvesting squash seeds is incredibly easy. It is best practice to wait until the squash are fully mature with outer shell hardened before it is cut off the vine, but the seeds continue to ripen once the squash is harvested. There is no rush so don’t cut a squash before you’re ready to eat it—seeds can be saved from most winter squashes many months after harvest (although a few of the long-storage varieties may have sprouted seeds inside after 6 months or so – remember with squash to keep the stalk on as they keep much better that way.).

If you want to keep as many seeds as possible (always a good idea as then you can give some to your friends) cut into the squash carefully, just stick the knife in as far as necessary to cut through the flesh and move it around the circumference. Pull the seeds from the fibres and rinse. Dry with towel and spread out to dry and then save for sowing in May.

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Some of these little beauties are going to be bagged up and taken to Seedy Sunday this weekend to be swapped with other people’s exciting offerings. See you there? Here’s hoping your new veggie friends suc-seed! (*arf!*)