GARDENER: Seed Saving Prior to the Nineteenth Century©


This is part of our series on eighteenth century occupations prior to, and following, the wars.  Gardening was necessary and before one can grow vegetables, herbs, grasses for forage, or flowers he must have seeds.  Saving seeds from one year to the next was economical and perpetuated select varieties when properly harvested. 

For those of us who rely heavily, or all together, on heirloom and open pollinated seeds the following information taken from primary sources is as accurate today as it was two centuries ago and would serve any gardener well.

For saving flower and vegetable seeds a 1758 source gave sound advice.  “The Care of saving Seeds for a next Year’s Crop, should come early into the Gardener’s Mind:  he should mark the strongest plant as soon as they come into Flower, and not suffer this to exhaust itself by too large a bloom:  he should cherish the ten or twelve Flowers that first open, and take off all succeeding Buds.  Then the whole Strength of Nature being in a most perfect Manner, and his next year’s Plants will very well shew the Effect of his Care…

The Time of saving Seeds [published in June] from many of the Kitchen Garden Products is now come; and let the careful Gardener here imitate, in some degree, what we have directed for the Florist.

Let them always stand upon the Plants till well harden’d; and then be thrown upon a Mat or Cloth, in an airy Room to dry in their Pods for some Time, before they are rub’d out of them.

When clear’d from the Husks, let them again be thin spread out several Days; and they will thus get that perfect hardening, which will render them fit for keeping or sowing, according to their several Natures”.

It was important to keep seeds pure, otherwise they produce quite differently from the plant the seeds were saved from.

“The truest plants should be selected” for saving seed.  In other words, save from plants that exhibit the characteristics you desire – the biggest flowers, the desired color flower, strongest stems, etc. and the same holds true for vegetables. 

“Effectual means must be taken to prevent a mixing of the sorts, or, to speak in the language of farmers, a crossing of the breeds…”.  There can be no crossing between a cabbage and a carrot, but squash and cucumbers, gourds, pumpkins, or melons can cross.  When a watermelon is insipid instead of sweet and juicy this may be why.  Corn will cross producing more than one color grain in the ears.  These are but a few examples.

To prevent crossing, varieties must be planted far enough apart that the wind doesn’t blow pollen from variety to variety and insects don’t travel between the plants carrying pollen from one to another. 

“To save the seeds of two sorts of any tribe, in the same garden, in the same year, ought not to be attempted; and this it is, that makes it difficult for any one man to raise all sorts of seeds good and true.

However, some may be saved by every one who has a garden; and, when raised, they ought to be carefully preserved.  They are the best preserved in the pod, or on the stalks…

They should stand till perfectly ripe, if possible.  They should be cut, or pulled, or gathered, when it is dry; and, they should, if possible, be dry as dry can be, before they are threshed out”.

Once seeds are threshed, they must be stored where they will remain perfectly dry until planted.

If one man saves beans he may swap some of his seed with his neighbor who saved squash or melon seeds so that each man may have a variety of vegetables the following year”. 

By the 1740s seeds were readily available for purchase but their quality varied greatly.  “…Gardeners about London…will never buy any Seeds…if they do not know how they were saved”.  That writer referred to, “seed of your own saving, or from a Friend that you can confide in…”. 

Seeds do not last forever and such fantastic stories of planting seeds hundreds of years old found in caves or some such are just that – stories.  “Seeds, if they be old very old, and yet have strength enough to bring forth a plant, make the plant degenerate…and therefore skillful gardeners make trial of the seeds before they buy them, whether they be good or no, by putting them into water gently boiled; and if they be good, they will sprout within half an hour”. 


“Eden:  or, a Compleat Body of Gardening”.  London.  1758.

Cobbett, Wm.  “The American Gardener”.  1821.

Miller, Philip.  “The Gardener’s Dictionary”.  1748.

Miller, Philip.  “The Abridgment of the Gardener’s Dictionary”.  1771.

Published by thehistoricfoodie

I write articles for various magazines and books about foods and cooking techniques. My work centers primarily around historic foods and I travel throughout the country doing cooking demonstrations at various local, state, and national venues and teaching an occasional period cooking class. I've done cooking demonstrations on national and local television, including Chicago's WGN.

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