Saving and Caring for Seeds

Author Photo
By Cindy Conner

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Inexpensive thermometer/hygrometer.
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Digital thermometer/hygrometer with remote sensor.
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Mississippi Silver cowpeas with 80 percent germination. Two days later, they achieved 100 percent germination.
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Seed packet showing 98 percent germination from a test done in March 2013.
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In “Seed Libraries,” Cindy Conner shows how seed saving is the first step on the road to reclaiming control of your harvest, as well as a first step toward ensuring the future of our food supply is healthy, vibrant, tasty, and nutritious.

In Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of People (New Society Publishers, 2014), author Cindy Conner reveals to readers how seed companies have monopolized the seed market and thus harmed small businesses and the abundance of plant varieties. Conner calls on gardeners to move away from the big businesses and save their own seeds in order to expand the available stock of heritage and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables through community-based projects. Here, she explains more in-depth about how you can save seeds by creating a library for seed storage, testing collections of seeds, planning for the future of plant populations, and more.

You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Seed Libraries.

Seeds are basic to life. They have the potential to not only grow into food, flowers, bushes, and trees, but to reproduce themselves abundantly. Some cultures hold them sacred, as all cultures should. If we don’t value our seeds, we don’t value all of life surrounding us. Seeds connect us with our past and with our future. City dwellers may find it hard to imagine just how important seeds are if they never see the food they eat or the flowers they bring home actually growing in the ground and producing seeds. The closest many people come to confronting seeds is when they clean out a pumpkin for Halloween. If that is your experience, take a moment to hold those seeds in your hands and picture the people who once depended on winter squash as a major food source. Think about how they would clean the seeds and store them until the next growing season. Notice the difference in the seeds themselves. You could sort the seeds according to their size and plumpness, then do a germination test on each group of seeds. The results of those tests would teach you what to look for when saving seeds of not only squash, but other crops as well. (More about germination tests later in this chapter.) The book Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden is good to read if you are pondering pumpkin seeds. It relates the agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, featuring sunflowers, corn, beans, and squash; the story is told by an elderly Hidatsa woman who kept to as many of the old ways as she could later in life.

When native lands were taken over by newcomers, one of the ways of controlling the natives was to control their food. This is still going on today, but now it is the corporations who are controlling the food — YOUR FOOD — but only if you let them. We are all eaters. Even if you never grow anything, what you choose to eat determines whether you continue on the corporate-controlled route, or you get back to your roots. If you have always lived with a food supply brought to you by the governing corporations and don’t recognize any roots or heritage food, now is the time to change that. When you plant seeds, particularly when they are given to you by someone else, you are putting down both kinds of roots. Even if you move, you can take them with you — both the seeds and the memories. If you move to a different climate, the old seeds may or may not do well. Look at it as an opportunity to find out what grows well in the new place and to make new friends to share seeds with.

In our melting pot of a nation, even before the boats first floated to the shores, people have relied on the seeds that they grew up with. Unfortunately, when the newcomers came to America, they didn’t recognize the importance of the indigenous crops that the natives were growing. They didn’t recognize the importance of the natives, either, and pushed them off their ancestral lands. If you are not a grower but are searching for a root heritage, buy your food from growers who understand this and have established their own roots. They will bring you into the fold.

Where to Find Seeds

When you start a seed library, you will need a quantity of seeds to get the ball rolling. If you are patient and plan far enough ahead when setting up your project, you can contact gardeners and farmers at the beginning of a growing season and ask them to save seeds for you. That way, you will be starting with varieties that grow well in your region. I wrote about the importance of saving seeds that do well in your particular area in Chapter 2. I will not be telling you how to save seeds, since there are already many books and web resources available that do that. You will find some of them listed in the “Resources” chapter. Have as many of these resources available to your potential seed growers as possible. Make sure the donated seed is not designated as PVP or protected by a utility patent (I explained PVP and utility patents in Chapter 1). Seed catalogs usually have that information in their variety descriptions.

If your project has been funded, you could buy seeds, especially if there are specific varieties you want to acquire. However, at the end of each year, seed companies have seeds left over that they cannot sell the next year. They are still good, at least for a while, but being another year older, they may not meet the standards for sale by the seed company, and the company might be willing to give them to your seed project for free. Some companies ask you to pay the shipping and some don’t. With the recent surge in seed libraries, community gardens, and school gardens, seed companies can’t always keep up with the requests for free seeds. Keep in mind that, as much as they would like to be charitable, they are businesses that need to make a profit to keep going. Be respectful of that and don’t depend on their handouts to keep your seed library going after the first year.

You should acquire seeds from companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. The Council for Responsible Genetics maintains a list of such companies on its website. In order for people to save seeds to bring back, you need to avoid hybrid seeds. In Chapter 1, I explained the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seeds. The seeds saved from a hybrid plant won’t necessarily grow out to be the same as the parent. You can get some interesting things from hybrids, but you need something you can depend on for a seed sharing project. You need to have seeds that are open pollinated and not genetically modified.

Care of Seeds

When acquiring seeds, pay close attention to the source. Just like with people, the health of the parent plants affects their offspring. The best seeds need to be saved from healthy, robust plants. When the plants are forming seeds, the weather, the amount of nutrients available to the plants, and competition from weeds all affect the health of the seeds.

It is extremely important to remember that seeds are alive. Even if they appear dormant, they are still respiring, giving off oxygen and taking in carbon dioxide. The conditions you keep them in will determine how long they stay viable (able to grow when the conditions are right). Seeds need to be kept cool and dry. Heat is usually detrimental to seeds. Ideally, seeds should be stored at 32–41 degrees Fahrenheit (0–5 degrees Celsius). If you are storing seeds at room temperature, consider the guideline that for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius) the storage temperature is lowered, the length of time the seeds will stay viable is doubled. You could store seeds in a freezer, but you need to make sure they are very dry. Too much moisture in the seeds could rupture their cells when they freeze. Very dry seeds can withstand extremes of heat and cold better than seeds with more moisture. For every one percent increase in seed moisture, longevity decreases by half. A guideline to use is to add the relative humidity of the storage area and the temperature ( degrees Fahrenheit). Ideally, those two numbers should add up to less than 100. In reality, I don’t believe my seed storage areas have ever met those criteria. You can monitor your seed storage areas with a combination thermometer/hygrometer.

Hot humid climates are hard on seeds. Nevertheless, even though I live in Virginia which is hot and humid, I don’t take extreme measures to save seeds. I dry them at room temperature, leaving them set out on plates or in bowls in the house, stirring occasionally. We do not have air conditioning. After a few weeks, or when I think they are sufficiently dry (timing depends on the seeds and the atmosphere), I store them in airtight containers, usually glass canning jars. Glass jars with lids with rubber seals, such as canning jars, are the best. You can store seeds in paper envelopes and put many envelopes in the same jar. Always clearly label everything, keeping different lots of seeds separate if you think it will be necessary to know the difference in lots later. Seeds that came from different lots of parent seeds, or were grown, harvested, or stored differently might behave slightly different when grown out, or the germination rate might differ. Particularly if you have some seeds that you suspect might not be as viable as others, keep them separate and label accordingly. Or, you might have seeds from some plants that did exceptionally well and you want to keep track of their progeny.

Seeds that have been stored in a refrigerator or freezer need to come to room temperature before the packages are opened; otherwise, the moisture in the air will quickly be absorbed by the seeds. For this reason, seeds stored in bulk in a library for patrons to package themselves should be kept at room temperature. The bulk containers could be kept out during the months they are needed for planting and stored in a cooler place the rest of the year. If the desire is to keep a seed cabinet stocked all year for patrons, in the off-months a limited number of packets could be kept in the cabinet with a note that more is available in storage.

I have to admit, since I succession plant through the gardening year, I tend to let my seeds sit around in the house in places not ideal for long-term viability, but convenient for me. However, I know that since I save many varieties each year, my supplies are replenished often, so it is not a problem. A seed library, though, should hold itself to the highest standards it can (although they may not be the highest standards possible), since the patrons are depending on the library for good seeds. If your seed project is in a public building, the relatively cool, dry conditions that generally exist will be fine for most seeds for a couple of years. You do what you can with what you have. From the beginning of your project, it is good to label the seeds with the year they were grown by the donor or packaged for sale by the seed company. A seed library should strive to have a regular turnover of seeds, which may take a few years to establish. A seed bank, on the other hand, stores seeds for the long term and not everything is grown out every year or two. A seed bank would need more strenuous regulation of their storage facilities than a seed library. Books on seed saving and Internet resources have charts5 available that will give you an idea as to the longevity of the seeds of each crop, but the best way to tell if they are still viable is to do a germination test.

Germination Test

Doing a germination test is a way to predict how well your seeds will sprout in the garden. If you have ever sprouted seeds to eat, the concept is the same. Keep the seeds moist and they will grow. With a test, you need to be able to count the number of sprouted seeds to determine the percent of germination. Most directions suggest using paper towels to do a test, but I prefer using a coffee filter, so that’s what I’ll refer to. With a pen (no water-soluble ink), write the name of the variety and the date on the coffee filter, along with any other information that you want to remember about the seeds. Thoroughly wet it, then press out the excess water. Place a minimum of ten seeds on the filter. The more you put there, the more accurate your test is, but make sure to record the number. Seed companies use 100 seeds at a time in their tests. Fold up the damp filter with the seeds inside and put it in a container with a lid to keep it moist. Numerous tests can be put in the container at the same time. After a few days, take a look at what is happening. If 8 of the 10 seeds germinated, you have an 80 percent germination rate. If you started 20 seeds, 80 percent germination would have resulted in 16 seeds germinating.

Some seeds take longer to germinate than others, and you will have to put the folded filters back in the container and check again later — adding some water if necessary. Be patient. Pepper seeds, for example, can take as long as three weeks to germinate. When you are sure all that is going to germinate has done so, record the count. Label your supply of those seeds with the date and germination rate. When seeds are donated from a seed company, they may have the date and germination rate from the last test on the packaging. Sometimes they are labeled as having poor germination. When you distribute those seeds, make sure your patrons know that. I once acquired some cabbage seeds that were rated as poor germination in a seed swap, and, in fact, nothing grew. It was good to know from the beginning that the problem was with the seed and not something else. Poor germination may be due to the age of the seeds; however, it can also be due to other factors. Some seeds require scarification to help crack the seed coat; other seeds need light to germinate. Research the requirements of the specific crops you are working with.

There is a minimum legal germination rate that seeds have to meet before they can be sold. The seed projects involved with this book don’t involve sales of seeds, but it is good to know what those rates are — and how different the rates can be for some crops. For example, it might be interesting to know that the minimum legal germination rate of cucumbers and lettuce is 80 percent, tomatoes 75 percent, and carrots 55 percent. You can find the minimum legal germination rates for seeds in the Master Charts in How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. The germination rate needs to be taken into account when distributing seeds to your patrons, whether they are distributed pre-packaged or the patrons help themselves. Not every seed can be counted on to grow. However, with good, fresh homegrown seed, you just might have some with 100 percent germination.

Plant Population Numbers

For the most genetic diversity, you would want to save seeds from as many plants as possible, not only the best ones. Plants with genes that allow them to do well with less water will do the best in the dry years. Conversely, plants with genes that allow them to thrive with more water will do well in wet years. And so it goes for other characteristics. You want to preserve as diverse a variety of genes as possible because each year is different. Save from the best plants, but also save from a cross section of plants to preserve the genes that express themselves the best under conditions that are not present that particular year. There will likely be some rouging (taking out anything that is not true-to-type), so that needs to be allowed for when deciding how many seeds to plant. Familiarize yourself with the common characteristics of each variety you are working with so you know what true-to-type is. The descriptions and photos in the seed catalogs will guide you.

How each crop produces seeds affects the minimum number of plants necessary for good diversity. With self-pollinating plants (also known as selfers), such as peas, beans, and tomatoes, 20 plants are enough to save seeds from if you are trying to preserve the whole variety. If you save from fewer or only one plant, you will be saving a sub-line of that variety, otherwise known as a strain. For plants that are pollinated with the help of the wind or insects, such as corn, kale, and sunflowers, 40 to 200 plants are recommended to maintain the variety. Most home gardeners save from far fewer plants than that each year. But if your seed library has more than one gardener bringing back seeds of the same variety, those seeds combined could make the necessary number of plants saved from. I knew a gardener once who saved his own squash seeds, but in some years, he would buy seeds to grow along with his saved seeds. He said it added diversity to his squash. On the other hand, if you are developing a local strain with certain characteristics unique to your area, this seed-breeding effort might begin with only a few special plants. You can learn more about that from Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe. The danger of cross pollination and isolation distances — how far apart to plant to prevent cross pollination — is found in most seed saving resources, and this is information you want to make sure your seed savers have.

Seed Saver Organizations

Fortunately, some forward-thinking folks have recognized the necessity of saving seeds and have established organizations to do so. Sometimes, rather than having a plan, they were simply following their hearts. In Chapter 1, I briefly introduced you to Seed Savers Exchange. The gift of family seed and the knowledge that they were the only ones concerned with preserving it sparked an interest in Diane and Kent Whealy to connect with other seed savers. In an effort to trade seed with like-minded folks, they began the True Seed Exchange in 1975 with 29 members and a six-page listing of seeds and the gardeners willing to share them.

The name was changed to Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) in 1979, and the listing of seeds available from seed savers became the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, available to all members. Through the annual Yearbook, gardeners and farmers with no family member interested in taking over their seed collections finally had a place to share their seeds with people who would grow them. Gardeners now had access to heirloom seeds that had a connection to a person and place. In those days before email, True Seed Exchange/Seed Savers Exchange received many hand-written letters from gardeners telling their stories, with or without the seeds themselves. Although the Whealys’ intent was to facilitate exchange among growers, people began sending them seeds. In at least one instance, they were able to unite a woman with beans descended from the ones her grandmother had contributed 15 years earlier.

Well aware of the loss of varieties and of seed companies, in 1984 SSE began acquiring endangered varieties to maintain in their collection, eventually establishing a practice of seeking varieties that were only offered by one company. That project was assisted by Kent Whealy’s work compiling a list of all mail-order seed companies in the US and Canada and the non-hybrid varieties they carried. This became the Garden Seed Inventory and is a resource for finding varieties offered by only a few sources. The sixth edition of the Garden Seed Inventory was published in 2004. When the final source stops carrying a variety, for whatever reason, it is just gone unless someone, such as a private seed saver, has been working with it. If you are getting into seed saving and want to make a difference, you might follow the Whealys’ example. You could choose a variety offered by only one source, grow it out to seed, and share it with others through your seed library.

In 1992, Seed Savers Exchange began offering seeds for sale. Anyone could purchase them, even non-members. Today Seed Savers Exchange is run by a board of directors and there are demonstration gardens, a visitors center, heritage breeds, and an annual gathering at Heritage Farm, its headquarters in Decorah, Iowa. You can follow their work through their catalog and website. You will find seed saving tips in the catalog. Become a member and you will receive the Yearbook. Anyone can view the Yearbook online to see what is available, but you have to be a member for total access. Through their Herman’s Garden Seed Donation Program, Seed Savers Exchange offers seeds to established community and educational groups who promise to freely share the harvest and save seed for others in need. The donated seeds are those returned from retail outlets or are overstock seed packets from the previous year.

Seeds of Diversity Canada, also briefly introduced in Chapter 1, had quite different beginnings. In 1984, the Canadian Organic Growers held a conference with Kent Whealy as a keynote speaker. The Heritage Seed Program developed from that, under the umbrella of the Canadian Organic Growers. The Heritage Seed Program eventually changed its name to Seeds of Diversity Canada, becoming an independent charitable corporation operated by a volunteer board of directors. It is bilingual, with Semences du Patrimoine as its French name. A list of seed swaps in Canada is maintained on its website. An annual Member Seed Directory is published following the same format used by Seed Savers Exchange with their Yearbook. When accessing seeds from either the Canadian or Seed Savers Exchange directories, growers are encouraged to save seeds to exchange with others after growing out the ones they receive.

One of the projects currently underway by Seeds of Diversity Canada is the Canadian Seed Library, which is a collection of seeds that backs up the work of member seed savers and Canadian heritage seed companies. Samples of Canada’s rarest seeds (and some not so rare) are stored in low-humidity freezers to keep them viable and available for future gardeners and farmers. Another Seeds of Diversity project is Pollination Canada, a project that encourages conservation of native pollinators. In 2008, Seeds of Diversity held a meeting with Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds (Vermont) as speaker. That was the catalyst to form the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network, an independent association geared toward helping growers to produce top-quality certified organic seeds in Canada. Seed saving organizations have been formed around the world, including the Heritage Seed Library in the UK, the Irish Seed Savers Association in Ireland and the Seed Savers Network in Australia.

One organization that is truly regional is Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S), a nonprofit seed conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona. It was founded in 1983 by Gary Nabhan, Mahina Drees, Barney Burns, and Karen Reichardt. The focus of NS/S is to preserve genetic diversity in crops from the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico regions by establishing a seed bank; over half of the accessions are corn, beans, and squash. This is where freezing seed for longevity is important. Grow-outs to regenerate the seed for the seed bank are done at the NS/S Conservation Farm in Patagonia, Arizona. More about seed banks in Chapter 10.

Native Seeds/SEARCH has a seed grant program for organizations working on educational, food security, or community development projects in the regions where their seeds are best adapted. NS/S offers free membership and limited quantities of free seeds to Native peoples living in the Greater Southwest region. NS/S accepts memberships to support their work, has a seed catalog, and operates a retail store in Tucson, Arizona. In early 2012, a seed library was added to the retail store.

Seed School

Several of the seed libraries I researched mentioned their seed librarian had been to Seed School. Seed School began in 2010 under the direction of Bill McDorman and Belle Starr in conjunction with their seed business, Seeds Trust, in Cornville, Arizona. Their ultimate goal was to build a broad network of regional seed systems. In 2011, they joined Native Seeds/SEARCH as executive directors and brought Seed School with them. Seed School continues with McDorman and Starr through the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. To quote from the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance website: “Students walk away from this innovative learning experience with the knowledge and inspiration to start their own independent seed initiatives, such as community seed libraries and exchanges, seed growers cooperatives, heirloom seed businesses, and participatory plant breeding projects”.

The original Seed School was a six-day affair. McDorman and Starr now have a one-day Seed School that they coordinate throughout the Rocky Mountain West; they also accept invitations to conduct the one-day or six-day versions elsewhere. McDorman, Starr, and John Caccia (a graduate of their 2010 Seed School) formed the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance in 2014. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to strengthening seed and food security in the region. It will help train and support a regional network of community-based seed stewards to grow, store, and distribute seeds for a wide variety of edible vegetables, grains, herbs, native wildflowers, and grasses. Every region should have such an organization. At Rocky Mountain Seeds you will find information about the Seed School and a list of small, bio-regional seed companies started by, or purchased and run by, the students and teachers of Seed School. The Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA) hosted a Seed School in February 2014. David King, founding chair of SLOLA, attended Seed School in 2011.

In Hawai‘i, The Kohala Center recognizes that the state imports nearly 90 percent of its food and 99 percent of its seed, and it wants to change that. This independent, not-for-profit, community-based center for research, conservation, and education launched the Hawai‘i Public Seed Initiative to help farmers and gardeners select, grow, harvest, sort, and improve seed varieties that thrive in Hawai‘i’s unique conditions. The first Seed Production Basics for Farmers and Gardeners workshops were held in 2011. The Hawai‘i Public Seed Initiative has broadened awareness among growers, farmers, and consumers statewide of the need to save and share the most viable and vulnerable varieties of seeds best suited for Hawai‘i’s climate and soils. By empowering networks of committed individuals on Hawai‘i’s five major islands, the Initiative supports Hawai‘i’s aspiration for greater food production and security.

Finding seeds that are unique to your area and culture will be one of the adventures you will take on when establishing your seed library. Businesses that sell food and other products of seeds need to be concerned with money. Production is top priority for them. Seeds have much more to offer besides monetary profit. The health we come to know from working with seeds and plants and from eating nutritious food grown from them should take top priority for us. Growing plants can trigger all of our senses and bring us much pleasure.

More from Seed Libraries

Why Save Seeds?

Reprinted with permission from Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of People by Cindy Conner and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store:Seed Libraries.

Published on Oct 11, 2017