Episode 143: Saving Our Seeds

Hello and welcome to this episode of the podcast, where I’m speaking to Madeline McKeever, owner of Brown Envelope Seeds. Madeline’s company produces organic, open-pollinated seeds, which are harvested from crops grown on site at the Brown Envelope Seeds’ HQ, a farm in Skibbereen in County Cork. Madeline talks about why open-pollinated seeds are essential in the fight to feed people and for greater food biodiversity, the benefits of seed saving and sourcing seeds locally and how you can harvest your own seeds.

P.s. for those expecting exotic plants and sunny climes as promised last week, apologies! The course of podcasting never did run smooth – hopefully next week!

Dr Ian Bedford’s Bug of the Week: Overwintering moths

What we cover

Brown Envelope Seeds and how Madeline started the company

Why organic seeds? Why open-pollinated?

On the Brown Envelope Seeds website, Madeline writes that open pollinated seeds “are naturally pollinated – by insects or wind; not enforced pollination or in-breeding”. She expands on what she means by this.

Food plant biodiversity

Why you should try to buy seeds from a seed producer in your region or from one who has similar growing conditions

Saving our own seeds

If we save seeds each year, are the resulting plants are getting better and better?

What to look for when saving seed

Potential problems with seed crops that can affect the quality of the seed

The situation globally with seed production and seed sellers?

About Madeline McKeever

Madeline began Brown Envelope Seeds in 2004 with 25 varieties. Since then, the company has grown, along with the amount of varieties offered (especially tomatoes!) to a family business supplying organic and open-pollinated vegetable seeds to Irish growers. 

Madeline’s mission statement is to enable people to grow their own food and she believes producing and saving seeds is a vital part of that. She is doing her part to preserve and safeguard the future of food diversity in Ireland and by sharing her knowledge and expertise, is helping this happen on a global scale. 




Other episodes you might like:

Episode 12 – Esiah Levy’s SeedsShare Project 

Episode 12: Esiah Levy’s SeedsShare Project

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Madeline McKeever 0:01

Well, it started really as a hobby, you know. And because I was taught that, like, I was a dairy farmer, and I like gardening and you know, like growing food for my family. So I would save seeds, because I couldn’t get some that were available in America. And I liked a lot of the things you could get there that really were quite rare here like squash and things like that. So I just started saving for myself at first. And then yeah, then gradually started selling them on the market. We started at the Farmers’ Market in Skibbereen. And then in the winter, I didn’t have a lot to sell, so I started selling seeds.


Madeline McKeever 0:38

Okay, and what sort of seeds do you sell now?


Madeline McKeever 0:41

All kinds of vegetables. I haven’t actually counted how many but I just tried to put all the tomatoes on a new set of shelves, and they didn’t fit. There are 1,2,3,5,6 shelves, and there’s another 10 That won’t fit on there. So I’m a bit obsessed with tomatoes. But I also have all the ordinary things like peas and beans and leeks and onions and courgettes and squash and cabbages and kales and chilies and all sorts of ordinary vegetables.


Sarah Wilson 1:20

So and all open pollinated? Is that right?


Madeline McKeever 1:24

Yes, yes, yes. And they’re all grown in Ireland. I only buy in seeds from from one other person who’s an Irish grower. So they’re all Irish seeds, which is a unique selling point, really. And so if they grow for us, they should grow for everyone else.


Sarah Wilson  1:40

Okay, so why open pollinated?


Madeline McKeever 1:45

Because I suppose my mission statement initially was to enable people to grow their own food, and save their own seeds. So it was more about empowering other people to grow food than supplying commercially. And I know, I know that some of the F1 hybrids are fantastic for producing and everything, but they’re not what I want to grow, really.


Sarah Wilson  2:10

And I think you’re all organic as well.


Madeline McKeever 2:15

Yes, and so’s Jason, who also grows for me.


Sarah Wilson  2:17

So you state on your website that open pollinated seeds are naturally pollinated by insects, or wind, and it’s not enforced pollination, or inbreeding. And I wondered if you could just explain what you meant by that.


Madeline McKeever 2:31

I suppose if I explained what a hybrid is first, you know, things that aren’t hybrids are open pollinated. So I’ll explain how hybrid is produced. That might make it clear, so a hybrid is produced by inbreeding two lines of a vegetable. So you’d keep pollinating it back to itself or close relatives, until you essentially have homozygous you have two sets of chromosomes that are identical on the plant. And then you cross that with a different homozygous plant. And so you get your F1 hybrid, which has one set of chromosomes from one parent and one set of chromosomes from the other parent, and all the plants will be pretty much identical. Whereas in an open pollinated, it’s more of a population, you know that so it’s like, I don’t like comparing it to people because it gets into eugenics… But it’s more like having a population that has a bit of variation within it. I mean, still to be a variety, it has to be distinct, uniform and stable. But it would have a certain amount of variability, which means it can adapt a little bit to the environment.


Sarah Wilson  3:47

And having a small gene pool makes it slightly more fragile in terms of health or future-proofing?


Madeline McKeever 3:55

Yes, it’s I mean, it’s like the Cavendish tomatoes, because they’re essentially clones. The Potato Famine was caused really by the fact that most people were growing the same clone of a potato.


Sarah Wilson  4:18

So thinking about the pollination and natural pollination. I’m assuming then, that your type of seeds are pretty dependent on the health of the pollinators that are in the surrounding area. Can that have an impact on seed production? Have you noticed that?


Madeline McKeever 4:34

Yes, well, luckily, I have a lot of wild pollinators and I actually have very few honeybees. I mean, we’ve had some populations. Honeybees are very poor here, but we have a lot of other pollinators, but also a lot of vegetable self pollination. And they don’t need any bees at all; things like french beans, peas, tomatoes, they all self pollinate. So you need pollinators for things like broad beans, all the cabbages. And so far I don’t have a problem with the pollinators because I live in a kind of wild area. And, you know, there’s a lot of natural vegetation around me. So we seem to have enough to pollinate.


Sarah Wilson  5:19

And is it dependent on weather? Does that sometimes affect what pollination takes place?


Madeline McKeever 5:24

There ae some things like broad beans that won’t start to pollinate very early in the year if it’s cold weather. Obviously, there aren’t as many bees and things if it’s wet weather but you know, I have other problems, but not really pollination.


Sarah Wilson  5:48

So why is food plant biodiversity a good thing?


Madeline McKeever 5:54

Well, I think it’s a good thing, especially in terms of changing climate that we need a lot of biodiversity because our summers are different than they were, you know, certainly the spring is later here. The winters are milder and wetter. And, you know, I used to be planting peas and broad beans on Patrick’s Day, you know, traditionally we planted potatoes and Patrick’s day here. And also I would try and get my peas and beans, peas and broad beans in in March, but in the past few years it’s been mid April before the ground is dry. And then we hardly had a frost here. Now this winter there’s potatoes up to my knees in the polytunnel because it’s been so mild.


Sarah Wilson  6:36

Yeah, it’s it’s definitely very strange. Obviously, having this biodiversity helps in terms of health of the crop, or their resilience in different climates. I mean, I would assume it makes sense if you were going to source open pollinated seeds, that you would get them from maybe a supplier who was near you, or who was growing in a microclimate similar to yours. But is that not the case?


Madeline McKeever 7:06

Yes, absolutely. I think a lot of the reasons that sometimes we buy seeds, and they don’t do all that well is because they’ve been grown in warm, sunny places. I mean, most seeds are produced in warm, sunny climates, you know, the Mediterranean and Israel and North Africa, places like that. It’s where most of seeds are grown. Because there’s no country of origin on seed packets, you know, if you buy a bunch of radishes, it has to have all kinds of details about how it’s grown. But there’s no legislation that says you have to say what country a person is producing the seed from. So probably, when you’re buying, Mr. So and So seeds or whatever, they could be coming from anywhere in the world. And you have no way of knowing where they’re from, but they’re probably coming from somewhere warmer and sunnier than here.


Sarah Wilson  7:57

So you would assume they might have not quite so good germination rate? Or do problems not get expressed until the actual veg starts growing or forming a vegetable, is that when you would see the effect of maybe planting something that was harvested in somewhere very warm, and then trying to grow it in the UK? When do you notice that kind of manifesting?


Madeline McKeever 8:19

Yeah, I think it would be a very interesting experiment to take some seeds, something normal see it germinated at lower and lower temperatures, selecting only the seeds that grow at low temperature, and I bet it would adapt quite quickly to germination at low temperature. But if you’re going to get a commercial seed to grow, you just go where can I grow the most seeds most easily? And you’ll say, Oh, I think I’ll do it in Spain or Italy, because it’s got a nice climate. Well, this is a bit of a rubbish climate for doing lettuce seeds in the polytunnel, because, and even then I have to overwinter the lettuces, and let them flower the following year, because if you sell them in the spring, by the time they flower, it’s sort of the weather’s getting August September and was getting damp and mouldy. And they immediately get covered in mould and die. So I think that by growing lettuce here, I will be adapting it to this climate, or the level of self pollination. So it’s quite inbred, and there isn’t much interest specific interest. You know, there’s not much variation within the variety of lettuce because it’s so inbred.


Sarah Wilson  9:32

And does that mean that if I buy from Mr. Whoever, I get their packet of seeds, I’m guessing I’m buying because of uniformity and, and you know, resilience maybe to certain diseases and things. If I buy open pollinated seeds, do I necessarily know what I’m getting in that packet then or is there going to be some variation between the plants?


Madeline McKeever 9:55

Yes, I mean, they should still be within the variety you know, I mean, if you’ve bought a sweetcorn that’s yellow, it should all be yellow. I mean, the differences in plants aren’t always that obvious. Some of them would be invisible, such as you know, ability to germinate at low temperature, you wouldn’t even see.


Sarah Wilson  10:16

Should we be aiming to save our own seeds?


Madeline McKeever 10:19

Absolutely, yes, yes, definitely. Because I think one of the things that between the pandemic and Brexit last year, made people realise how fragile the food was, certainly the seed chain was, you know, most of the commercial growers had bought in their seeds, and they were okay. But the people couldn’t get seeds very easily because seeds weren’t coming out from the UK the way they normally did. And so it was really very busy, and especially as Northern Ireland you can’t buy seed from mainland Britain anymore.


Sarah Wilson  11:06

How is the global seed production industry? And you know, if you think about the big seed sellers, what does the face of seed production look like, at the moment?


Madeline McKeever 11:16

We’re not really in touch with it, because you know, I’m in touch with more of the small independent producers, because we are all in touch with each other. Because you have some great small independent seed companies in the UK, such as Vital Seeds, and Real Seeds, the Co Op, are producing chemical free and organic seeds and sourcing them locally as well. It’s hard to know what’s going on in the world market, because the really big seed companies that produce 99% of the seed don’t really tell you what’s going on.


Sarah Wilson  12:01

And is there an issue with GM seeds as well?


Madeline McKeever 12:11

The main things that are GM are corn, and soybeans. So that unless the corn accidentally could gets crossed, and if it was grown in the country, you know, which we don’t have any GM in Ireland that we know of. And actually, there’s nobody really going corn by close to me. So I’m not particularly worried about that. And soybeans, I have never had much success with them. But very, very few kind of species that are being grown as GM; cotton, corn and soy are the main ones that don’t occur much around here.


Sarah Wilson  12:47

So if I was going to save my own seeds in my head, I’m assuming that my crop is going to get better and better each year, because I’m selecting the strongest or I’m selecting for traits that are valuable to me. If maybe there was a bad year that might affect my my seed stock, for example, or the quality of it. Apart from that, what else should I be looking for if I am going to save seed myself?


Madeline McKeever 13:12

Choose seeds from the best plant obviously, because the temptation is to pick the biggest leak for supper. But if you’re a seed saver, you’re leaving the biggest leak and you’re eating the rest. And anyone else can pick the leak for you, but they get afraid of you soon enough and they don’t bother trying! But you’re always leaving the good ones and you get into the habit quite quickly of being more concerned about the seeds than tomorrow’s dinner, like I’m buying carrots now rather than dig up the ones I need to seed. I’m glad to have my best seeds already replanted. My best carrots already replanted for seed next year.


Sarah Wilson  13:54

Yeah. So what do you do? Do you tie a red ribbon on the ones that you want to keep?


Madeline McKeever 14:00

Well, no, we take them all up. Because again, because the climate is not optimal for carrot seed production. We dig up the carrots and select the best ones like the ones that are nice and straight and smooth and have the leaf green at the top. And you just look for the prettiest carrots really and also good size and then replant them in the polytunnel to go to seed. But I do have left one by the outside to go to seed outside because I’ve had some success with that. I tried before but I have had very little success with carrot seed outdoors. I think most people in the UK would be doing the carrot seed indoors. It’s what we have to do in this time.


Sarah Wilson  14:41

And that’s because it’s a biennial and it won’t survive over the winter otherwise?


Madeline McKeever 14:45

It will survive over the winter. But what happens the summer isn’t really warm enough for it to set seed outside and it will produce some seed but very often the plants will get covered in mould and the seeds will kind of fall off and you just get a very small seeds. I’ve got a  German variety that has performed for us. It’s bred by a biodynamic plant breeder called Oh, I can’t think of his name. But he’s been growing this carrot since the 1960s. He’s in his 80s now and he tastes every single carrot and producing the elite seed for taste every single carrot he puts back in the ground. So I’m doing it outdoors this year, and I’ll do a different one in the polytunnel which is half a mile away.


Sarah Wilson  15:38

Yeah, because I guess if you don’t take them up, you don’t know what they look like. I never thought about that.


Madeline McKeever 15:52

People have a lightbulb moment when you know we’re saving because it hasn’t dawned on them that to collect seed from a carrot you have to put it back in the ground for a second year. Or with a cabbage, you have to leave a cabbage there or an onion, it takes two years.


Sarah Wilson  16:06

Are there any plants that are particularly difficult when you were speaking then I thought about the carrot seed and like you were saying they drop off. Are there any that are particularly difficult to harvest the seeds off because they just ping off or they drop?


Madeline McKeever 16:18

That’s not really the problem but Basil has my heart broken because I can grow perfectly nice basil. But again, the plants go kind of black and mouldy before the seed is ripe. I’ve got about two teaspoons of seed this year that seems to be germinating. I don’t know why but I get aubergine seed every year and and they won’t germinate properly. I had some of them germinating reasonably well this year from one right, but I have three varieties and they’re producing seeds, it’s variable. And I don’t know why it’s still a mystery to me. Are they not mature enough or am I not drying it quickly enough? Do I dry it too much? I don’t know. But most things are pretty simple. Most things are really just kind of common sense.


Sarah Wilson  17:05

What happens with the crops? Obviously, you said you eat them, but you’re producing presumably quite a lot of vegetables. Do you eat everything that doesn’t get the seed harvested from it?


Madeline McKeever 17:16

No, not necessarily. Sometimes you just have way too much of something. You either give it away or feed it to the animals or something.


Sarah Wilson  17:26

Yeah, that’s the beauty of having animals I suppose. So I was just going to ask you really, if you were kind of thinking about it, obviously Basil, I’ve got the same problem that I grow lovely, especially purple basil in the polytunnel. But by the time the seed’s ready, it’s got botrytis or it’s just looking manky or is soggy. So I do feel your pain. What are some of the easier ones to save seed from if you wanted to?


Madeline McKeever 17:51

I think tomatoes was a great place to start because they don’t cross with each other much.. Really simple you can leave a bit of your favourite tomato on kitchen paper or something like that, put it on the windowsill to dry and write the name on it. And that’s next year seed sorted. Or if you want to do it more fancy you can ferment them and clean them up. And you’ll have much easier seeds to handle. But I mean, most people only want 10 seeds for next year so that you can just squeeze a few on kitchen towel and dry it. So they’re a very easy seed, and french beans are very easy to because again, they self pollinate. You don’t have to worry about crossing with other things. Anything that’s insect pollinated is more difficult because they can get inbred if you don’t have a big enough population. So something like cabbages, you really want to be letting at least 50 of them go to seed, which is pretty impractical for the average gardener. And a lot people would say 200 for beetroots I would say 100. I mean, you’ll still get seeds the first year but the variety will deteriorate if you inbreed too much.


Sarah Wilson  19:11

I think probably a lot of people know about things like courgettes and squashes and about how they cross to give you something that’s not necessarily edible. Is there anything else you need to watch out for like that?


Madeline McKeever 19:24

You can grow three squashes at a time because there’s like three species that are ok; you’ve got Pepo species of squashes, your courgettes but that also includes your Halloween pumpkins and a few other things. But if you just do a say a courgette, a butternut and some kind of winter hardy one. They’re all three different species so they won’t cross with each other. As a general rule you have a look at the Latin names but it also depends on your neighbours, luckily I don’t have any close gardening neighbours so that I’m not worried about my neighbours’ squash pollinating mine, you know.


Sarah Wilson  20:10

Yeah, so probably wouldn’t work on an allotment?


Madeline McKeever 20:15

Well, no, but you can try covering the flower, especially if you’re just saving for yourself and you only need 10 seeds for next year. And when you see a female fruit form, put a little twisty tie or masking tape around the flower, so it can open. And then the day that it opens, untie your sticky tape, pollinate it and then tie it up again, label it and leave it to mature.


Sarah Wilson  20:57

Cool. That’s excellent advice. So is there anything you’re particularly excited about growing next year? Have you got anything new out? I think probably tomatoes…


Madeline McKeever 21:07

Tomatoes, what else am I so I grew up lentils this year. But I mean, really, I think that you know, people get the best value out of the most ordinary vegetables, you know, for children to grow. Everyone loves a fresh bean, you know, things that are easy to grow. Sometimes people buy too much fancy stuff. And it doesn’t really grow that well. You know, sometimes you can grow tomatoes and peppers and things. I think you’d better sticking with that, reliable things like cabbage and beets and parsnips. And lettuce, salad is great value per square yard.


Sarah Wilson  21:58

Yeah, very true. They’re very cost effective. In terms of cabbages. How do you keep the caterpillars off those, do you cover them?


Madeline McKeever 22:09

The problem I have with cabbages is an awful lot of cabbage root fly. But I don’t actually have a huge butterfly problem because not that many people grow cabbages around here anymore. And so I did have a bit of a problem this year. But I have much worse problem with cabbage root fly. And with aphids on them when they’re flowering.


Sarah Wilson  22:31

And does that disrupt the seed production?


Madeline McKeever 22:35

Yeah, sometimes we get so covered in aphids, that the just the flowers just all kind of shrivel up.


Sarah Wilson  22:42

That’s irritating, imagine growing this amazing show veg to get the seed from and right at the last moment you’re thwarted, must be very, very frustrating!


Madeline McKeever 22:51

At the same time when it does work, you get so much abundance that, you know, I never have everything every year but you know, we keep working away.


Sarah Wilson  23:07

And if people do want to find you and get some seeds, where would they do that?


Madeline McKeever 23:11

And they can go to www.brownenvelopeseeds.com. And they can order a catalogue or seeds from there.


Sarah Wilson  23:23

I’ve got to the end of my questions, have we covered everything you wanted to?


Madeline McKeever 23:28

Yes, I think so. I’ll just mention my other website too, I’ve just started it, it’s a multi vendor site set up called www.seedie.ie You can sign up or message me from there if you want to and you can search for seed on this site. And I’ve got several growers have the seeds up and they they’re selling them there from that site.

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