Comment(s)

Springtime usually means an exploding growth of flora, blooming and blossoming in the north-tracking sun while sopping up snow melt from a long, cold winter. Hillsides and valleys burst with flowers, weeds, and wild edibles. They transform the countryside, untended backyards, and even the cracks in the pavement into natural gardens. But not this year. Global warming, toxic chemical warfare, immense radiation, and lack of rain have left the world’s crops in ruins. Nothing grows now in the hard fractured earth but weeds. Last year’s crops offered no yield, and with no yield means no seeds for this year’s crops.

Why Store Seeds?

Thousands of years before the advent of seed companies and agricultural science, people collected, saved, and replanted seeds. It was how a farmer planted wheat or tobacco or vegetables year after year. Seed saving is the reason our current crops came to be. The seeds for the corn at our barbecues and the tomatoes in our salads were cultivated for specific traits over the course of generations. They were traded across regions and continents. This selection lead to a genetic diversity of crops adapted to many growing conditions and climates. It created a large base for our food supply.

Seed saving is central to the ideals of sustainability and food security. It makes your garden less vulnerable to pests, diseases, and changes in climate. Today, if we want to plant lettuce or cucumbers, we would head to the local hardware store. We’d obtain a packet of seeds, and let nature do the rest. What happens when there is no hardware store, no seed packets, and no seed companies to provide them? Of course, then you turn to your private seed bank and begin the season’s cultivation.

What Seeds to Store?

The quality of the seeds your garden will produce depends on the care you take in choosing plants for your garden. Some plants self-pollinate (tomatoes, beans, lettuce), meaning that these plants do not need another plant to produce fruit or vegetables. Seeds from these plants will produce plants similar to the parent plant. These are the easiest seeds to collect successfully.

Many plants cross-pollinate, meaning that pollen has to be transferred from one plant to another. This is done by wind or insects (think a pollen-crusted honey bee). Depending on the specific plant and the proximity of related plants, cross pollination can make it difficult to collect seeds. For example, if you plan to collect cucumber seeds, make sure only one variety of cucumber blooms in your garden at one time. If not, next year’s seeds will produce a cross mix of some or all the different cucumber varieties you had in your garden.

Some plants are annuals and will produce seeds in only one growing season (spinach, beans, squash). Others are biennial (two year life cycle) and you will need to keep some plants in your garden for two years before you will be able to collect their seeds (beets, parsley, mustard).

Heirloom Seeds

There are generally three kinds of seeds: hybrid, GMOs, and heirlooms. Hybrids and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds are specifically designed to offer some sort of favorable traits, such as plant size, fruit size, disease and draught resistance, etc. These are not seeds you will want to spend a great deal of time storing for more than a season or two.

Effort should be focused on heirloom seeds. These are variety of plant seeds that are at least 50 years old (most are pre-World War II). Some have been passed down from the 19th Century. They are open-pollinated, meaning they’re pollinated by insects or wind and without human intervention.

If you are growing a garden with the intent of being self-reliant and saving your own seeds for the next year harvest (or to store for future gardens), then heirloom and open-pollinated seeds are what you want to grow. They will produce a reliable and consistent crop, year after year.

Collecting Seeds

For dry seeds, that is, seeds that come from plants like beans, peppers, carrots, flowers, simply gather the dry seed pods directly from the plants. Separate seeds from husks. Label an envelope and place seeds in envelope.

For wet seeds (like pumpkins, melons, and eggplant) you must let the fruit fully mature on the plant so the seeds will also be mature. Scoop the seeds and pulp into a bowl of water. Live seeds will sink while dead seeds will float to the top. Pour off the pulp and dead seeds, and add water to the live seeds and repeat until seeds are clean. Dry the seeds on a hard surface for several days. Label an envelope and place the seeds inside.

Storing Long Term

When buying a package of seeds, you may notice that there is an expiration date listed on the package. This is usually a year or so from the date of purchase. However, with a little prep work and some equipment, seeds can last a number of years. Some last up into the double digits if properly stored.

That being said, some seeds will naturally store for longer periods than others, with little more preparation than placing them in a cool, dark, and dry place. For example, seeds from onions, sweet corn, parsley, and parsnips are dependable germinators after about a year. Whereas asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, and peppers can last three or four years. Beets, cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, pumpkin, spinach, tomato, and watermelon can be stored for around six years.

But to give your seeds the extra boost into a long existence of patiently waiting to be planted, there are a few things you can do to increase their ability to germinate well into the future.

Seed Drying and Freezing

The best chance your seeds have to survive the long haul in dormancy is if they are dried. Some of the oldest known seeds that were germinated were found in the ruins of the Masada Fortress in Israel. “The seeds probably survived for so long because of the extremely arid conditions of the Masada mesa,” said Cary Fowler (to the Los Angeles Times in 2008), seed preservation expert and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

Looking around your kitchen, you’ll notice a few readily available methods for drying foods: oven, microwave, food dehydrator, and you’ll want to avoid these because there’s no accurate way to control the temperature. Once a seed is exposed to temperatures above 100 degrees F, the chances of it germinating to a viable plant decreases sharply. In essence, hot seeds are sterile seeds.

Rice Drying

One simple method to dry your seeds is to place them in a container with completely dried rice. To completely dry the rice, bake enough rice to fill a mason jar approximately 2/3 full at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Place the warm rice into the mason jar and close the lid tight so moisture cannot be reintroduced. After the rice has completely cooled, place the seeds in a mesh bag and add it to the jar of rice.  After approximately two weeks, the seeds will be bone dry and ready for long-term storage.

Note: Some seeds, such as citrus, large seeds, and some trees are classified as desiccation-intolerant,” meaning they don’t respond well to the drying process and will die.

Silica Gels for Drying

Place equal weights of silica gels and seeds in a well-sealed jar for around 10 days. Then quickly transfer them into an airtight container.

Caution: Drying the seeds thoroughly doesn’t mean removing every molecule of moisture from them. If you do that, they will die. The maximum levels of moisture generally considered safe for the long-term storage are 13 percent for beans, peas and cereal grains (including corn), 12.5 percent for soybeans, 10.5 percent for flaxseed and somewhat lower figures for peanuts and most vegetable seeds.

To measure the moisture content, simply weigh the seeds before and after the drying process. This will give you the weight of the water that was removed. Place that figure over the weight of the seeds after drying and convert the fraction into a percentage.

Freezing

Once dried (either by the rice or the silica), transfer your packets of seeds into small groups and place in well-labeled plastic bags (label the plant’s name and date). It is important to remove as much air as possible, so a good vacuum sealer will help. Place it in your freezer and try not to disturb the packages until it is time to plant them.

Seed Storage Tips and Tricks:

  • For most garden varieties of seeds any kind of dampness is deadly. . . especially if coupled with high temperatures. Onion seeds will lose their viability in a few months in a warm, humid place, but can be kept more than a dozen years if well dried and sealed.
  • Gases, fungi, insects, bacteria, chemicals and light can diminish or destroy a seed’s power to germinate.
  • The optimum temperature for most seed-infesting insects is 80 to 85 degrees F. Outside of that temperature, and many of the insects will become inactive.
  • To insure against insects, dust your seeds with diatomaceous earth (aka D.E.) and sprinkle some into each package before freezing. It is inexpensive and non-toxic.
  • Avoid fluctuations in temperature.
  • Never store seeds in direct sunlight or in a room that has a bright light. When in the freezer, keep them in an opaque container, such as a manila envelop or cardboard box.
  • Keep some desiccant packets with the seeds to further remove any lingering moisture.
  • When taking the seeds out of the freezer for planting, let them gradually warm up to room temperature before opening the package so condensation doesn’t form on the seeds.

Wrapping Up

Once safely in a dark freezer with no air to introduce moisture to your seeds, they should last upwards of 10 to 12 years. If you’ve packaged them correctly, the next planting time that comes, you should be able to cull away a packet or two for your garden without disturbing the bulk of the cache. Like any survival supplies, every time you take away some seeds for that year’s garden, remember to end the harvest with a new batch of seeds for freezing. This will ensure you a perpetual collection of seeds.

Up Next

VIDEO: How to Self-Rescue if You’ve Fallen Through the Ice

Falling through the ice of a frozen lake or pond can be terrifying, but there...