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Victory Heirloom Seed Company - Preserving the future, one seed at a time!

 "Preserving the future,
one seed at a time."

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Resource Guide

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 to 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 52101, USA.

"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.

The Need For Seed

A Guide to Seed Saving

By Brook Elliott

"Who's 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.

Most 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.

A Heritage Garden
Growing Heirloom Varieties

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 food inventory.

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.

Drying Seeds

Seeds drying on window screen
(insect screen)

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 appropriate size.

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 mesh.

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 more secure.

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 smaller ones.

Seed Drying Tray

Seed Trays

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.

Tomatoes 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 removed.

To 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.

As 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 dry.

I 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.

Oddly 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.

Plants 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 freezing process.

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.

There's 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 effected.

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."

Brook 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

Article text copyright 2000 by Brook Elliott. Reproduction in part or full without prior permission from the author is prohibited.


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