There are numerous written
guides to seed saving. Most books about
heirloom vegetable growing include some
information on it. But there are some of
particular note. Among them:
Seed," by Suzanne
Ashworth, Seed Savers Exchange, 2002. Long
the bible of serious seed savers, this was
the first---and remains the most
comprehensive---of the books devoted to
the subject. Most bookstores and garden
catalogs carry it. Or contact Seed Savers
Exchange, RR 3, Box 239, Decorah, Iowa
"Growing Garden Seeds," by
Robert Johnston, Jr., Johnny's Selected
Seeds, 1983. This is an inexpensive
brochure that covers an amazing amount of
information in a small space. Contact:
Johnny's Selected Seeds, Box 2580, Albion,
Maine 04910, USA.
"The New Seed-Starters
Handbook," by Nancy Bubel, Rodale
Press, 1988. Although primarily oriented
to growing plants from seed, there is a
fairly extensive section on seed saving,
and the methods used. Available through
bookstores, and in some garden catalogs.
Need For Seed
Guide to Seed Saving
got the seed, controls the feed," my friend Jeanne Lane is fond of
saying. She's more right than she realizes. As a farmer, she objects
to being locked-in to a single seed company, because it represents a loss
of control over her own destiny. Actually, a two-step loss, because she
buys seed from a local supplier, who has decided which seed companies
Jeanne will deal with.
home gardeners face a similar situation. As long as they
purchase hybrid seeds, they are locked in to criteria
chosen by somebody else. The seed company has decided what
size, shape, color, rate of ripening, and resistance to
blight the seed will have.
This more than limits your choices. The majority of seed
destined to home gardeners is not bred for that purpose.
It is the same seed developed for ag-business, repackaged
for the consumer.
Heritage gardeners, on the other hand, have their crop
destinies in their own hands. Because they save seed, from
one year to the next, they are not locked-in to the
varieties, and seed treatments, that others decide on.
They grow precisely the variety they like, chosen with the
criteria they have in mind, or for historical reasons, or
just because it seems interesting. When they find one they
really like, it becomes a permanent part of their family
Saving seed is fundamental to heritage gardening. True,
the major reason is to provide seed stocks for next year's
crops. But heritage gardeners, for the most part, trade
for new varieties, rather than buy them. Saving more seed
then they personally need provides them with trade goods
to share with others. And last, but not least, many
gardeners grow-out heritage varieties for no other reason
than to preserve and protect them from extinction. Seed
saving is the sine qua non of their gardens. Very often,
such gardens are a patchwork of small plots, each devoted
strictly to seed production.
There's more to seed saving, however, then just
picking out the seeds and tossing them in an envelope. True, with
some types of veggies you can do that. But most of the time seeds
need to be dried in a particular manner, and stored safely. In
some cases---tomatoes are a notorious example---the seeds require
special treatment or they won't germinate.
Seeds drying on
With the exception of field-dried
varieties, such as beans, legumes, and corns, seeds should
be dried on racks built for the purpose. If you lay seeds
out on, say, paper towels, to dry, they will stick to the
paper; be difficult to remove; and maybe get damaged.
Seeds should be dried on screens or wire-mesh of
Some seeds, especially larger ones, do not have to be laid
out. After blotting off any surface moisture, they can be
put in baskets or bowls to dry.
Frequent mixing is required, though, to assure that
all seeds dry thoroughly. The seeds can be stored in the same
containers they were dried in, so long as you protect them from
vermin---especially mice and other rodents. The first seeds I ever
dried I did on an old window screen. Although this worked, it was
rather awkward. Now I use racks I designed for the purpose.
Basically, they are wooden frames supporting the screening or
There's nothing sacred about measurements.
I make mine 12 x 18 inches for seeds, and 2 x 3 feet for
large items like garlic. And I like them to be stackable,
too. So a 3/4 inch inner frame holds the screen. This is
inserted (with the screen downward) 1/2 inch into an
outer frame that is 2 1/2 to 3 inches high. The screen
frame protrudes upwards 1/4 inch, which makes stacking
The outer frame, by the way, has numerous holes drilled in
it to facilitate air-flow.
Seeds are spread on the screens in a single layer, and
periodically stirred and turned, to make sure all surfaces
are exposed to air. The racks should be kept in a warm
place, but out of direct sunlight. After several weeks,
the seeds will be ready.
How can you tell? Hit one with a hammer (or try bending
larger seeds, like those from squashes). If it shatters,
the seed is dry enough.
Seed should be saved from only the best plants of their
type. Consider the whole plant, not just the size of the
fruits. Those that show the best conformation are the ones
you want to use for seed production. Although there are
notable exceptions, larger seeds are a better choice than
And do not save seed from just one plant. You need a
cross-section in order to retain species vigor. Each type
of vegetable has a recommended number of plants from which
seed should be saved. Corn, for instance, should be saved
from at least 100 plants.
and, to a lesser degree, cucumbers and some squashes, are the most
difficult seeds to save because of how they grow. In order to keep
the seeds from sprouting in the moist, warm environment of the
tomato itself, the seeds are imbedded in a gel. This gel, among
other things, contains an anti-germination compound that must be
do so, you ferment the seed
mass. Mix it with an equal
amount of water in a wide-mouthed jar or other container.
Sit it in a warm place, stirring at least once daily. The
seed mass will start to ferment (caution: it smells
awful). Mold might even form.
fermentation takes place, the viable seeds will sink to
the bottom. Bad seeds and everything else will float. When
all the good seeds have dropped out, carefully pour off
the moldy mass from the surface. Drain the good seeds,
wash them in clean water, and lay them out on racks to
handle cucumber seeds the same way. In theory, winter
squash seeds should also be fermented. But I've found that
merely washing them, rubbing the seed through my fingers
while they soak in a deep tub of water, removes the
coating. And it's a whole lot less messy.
enough, melon seeds do not have to be fermented. You would
think so, given their moist, warm growing environment. But
they lack the gelatinous anti-germination coating found on
tomatoes and cukes. To treat melon seeds, put them in a
tub of water, and work the seeds between your fingers to
remove any pulp, strings, or other matter. Add enough
water so that this excess matter and hollow seeds float,
Pour off the detritus, and do it again. It might take
several such washings to leave only clean seeds behind.
that produce their seeds in pods---such as beans, peas,
radish, and carrots---usually are harvested dry. That is,
the seed is allowed to dry on the plant while it's in the
garden. Seeds and husks are separated by threshing and
winnowing. That is, the pods are broken apart, using
various methods ranging from machinery, to putting them in
sacks and stomping them. The seeds and chaff are then
separated, usually by the use of moving air.
Seeds should be stored in a cool, dry space. Nowadays, many
gardeners simply put them in plastic bags, and freeze them. Not
only is this safe, some seeds actually benefit from freezing. And
many potential diseases carried by the seeds are destroyed by the
It is crucial, however, when you defrost the seeds, to not open
the containers until everything has reached room temperature. If
you open them before that, condensation can form on the seeds, and
effect germination rates.
more in store
What's the best way of storing seeds? Ask
a dozen seed savers, and you'll get 15 different
answers. The final answer probably has more to do with
your space and personal idiosyncrasy than anything
else. However, seeds should be kept as far from heat,
humidity, sunlight, and vermin, as possible.
If you have freezer space, this is probably the best
all-around situation. Dried seeds should first be put in
clearly marked envelopes, which are sealed. The
envelopes then go in plastic bags (I like zipper-bags
best), sealed, and put in the freezer. Remove them at
least a week before you intend planting.
Most heritage gardeners do not bother with freezing
their seeds. Instead, the dried seeds are put up in
marked envelopes which are themselves put in larger
containers, and stored in a cool, dry place.
A controversial subject is the use of silica gel. Some
swear by it, others swear at it. The idea is that any
moisture that could be absorbed by the seeds is actually
captured by the gel. Sounds good in theory. But the
counter argument is that the gel can dry the seeds too
far. Seeds should contain 3-5% moisture while in
storage. If they go below that, germination can be
An alternative to silica gel is dried milk powder.
It, too, absorbs moisture from the air,
but not as effectively as the gel. Proponents say it
does not effect the moisture content of the seeds.
For most of my seeds, I skip the desiccating agents. The
seeds are put in marked envelopes. These, in turn, are
stored in small fiber cans with plastic lids, arranged
by category. The fiber containers are recycled from the
grocery store. I happen to use those that Chinese
noodles are packed in. But you can even use empty coffee
cans for this.
The container-filled seeds are stored in the same cool
room I store my home-canned vegetables.
Many gardeners skip putting seeds in envelopes. Instead,
they pour the dried seeds into home canning jars, label
the jars, and let it go at that. This is okay unless you
are trading seeds, which should be put in envelopes of
some sort, and labeled with the name of the variety,
when it was saved, and your own name and address.
Others say even loose storage in jars or cans is too
much trouble. My friend Sharon, for instance, dries her
seeds in small woven baskets. These baskets are then
stored in her seed room, with no further packaging.
"It's the way native peoples have done it for
thousands of years," she points out. "Who am I
to try and improve on that."
Elliott is a fulltime freelance writer and marketing
communications specialist. He is available for writing, marketing,
and public relations assignments.
Contact him at: Box 519, Richmond, KY 40476