Story of Seed Saving
Human beings have been saving seeds since we first interacted with plants. Animals also save and assist in seed dispersal (the traveling of seeds through various methods). In fact, plants have developed skills over time to benefit their reproduction and survival. Seeds are resilient.
If you are a seed saver or seed steward you are also a plant breeder! Every time you select for a specific trait you are carrying those genetics into the future
What is a Seed? A seed is a living embryo. Seeds are dormant until they germinate (first stage of plant life cycle). They have a lifespan and will survive for a LONG time if kept cool, dark and dry.
Types of Seed
Heirlooms // an open-pollinated variety that has been grown and shared from generation to generation within a family or community
Hybrid // a plant or variety created by crossing two stable, genetically distinct parental populations; of or related to such a plant or variety; also called an F1 hybrid
Open-pollinated // a variety that, when allowed to cross-pollinate only with other members of the same population,produces offspring that display the characteristic traits of the variety
Plant Life Cycles
Annuals // a plant that completes its full life cycle—including germination, reproduction, and death—in one growing season
Examples: Corn, Watermelon, Tomatoes, Wheat
Perennials // a plant that can live for more than two years, usually producing flowers and seeds for many years
Examples: Herbs (sage, oregano, mint), Fruit Trees, Berries, Grasses
Biennials // a plant that requires vernalization (prolonged exposure to cold in order to accelerate flowering when it is planted) and usually completes its life cycle in two growing seasons, vegetative growth during the first season, undergoing vernalization, and producing flowers and seeds and dying during the second season
Examples: Onions, Leeks, Brassica oleracea crops - collards, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, Turnips, Rutabaga, Chard, Beets, Celery, Carrot, Parsnip
What is Seed Selection? Selecting is when you notice something particular about a crop and then choose to save the seed from it based on that. There are two types of selection; selection characteristics and selection traits. You get to decide what you select for, and that is what makes seed saving a world of endless possibility + adventure!
Selection Characteristics // Unidentified complexes of genes. For example: regional adaptability, freeze tolerance, cold tolerance, heat tolerance, UV resistance, winter hardiness, early maturation, vigor, and flavor. Selection Traits // Specific features traceable to identifiable genes. For example: vine growth (bush or tall), seed texture (wrinkled or smooth), disease resistance (from fusarium wilt, mosaic virus, powdery mildew, etc), and color- traits can be traced to DNA.
Seed Dispersal //
Wind Examples - dandelion, milkweed, sycamore
Water Examples - water lily, coconuts, mangroves
Animal Examples - blackberry, cherry, apple
Force/Explosion Examples - peas
Fire Examples - prairie grasses
Planning for Seed Saving
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Seed Saving
What do you like to grow/what feels easy to grow?
What do you want to eat/what will your family/household eat?
What are new things you want to try?
What seeds do you want to learn how to save?
What is the lifecycle of that seed (is it an annual, perennial or biannual? How does it reproduce?)
What is the minimum population of that seed (minimum number of plants you need to grow to ensure genetic diversity)?
What is the isolation distance of that seed (how far away does it need to be from a different variety)?
Can you create isolation in your garden by other methods besides distance?
Flowers borders, corn borders, bean borders
Grow in blocks and save seed from the center
Other barriers to wind like houses, thick bushes
When the seed is ready to be harvested?
How do you process the seed?
Methods of Seed Saving
Dry Seed Saving
Dry seed saving is by far the easiest of the various seed saving methods. In essence, you are selecting seeds that are completely mature + dry and then you are separating that seed from what is called the chaff (the rest of the plant material that is not the seed).
Materials >>Paper bags >>Plastic totes
>>Envelopes >>Clippers and scissors >>Set of seed saving screens Harvesting Techniques
Clip off seed pods using scissors or clippers. When pods are completely dry you must take care as the seeds can pop out from the pods quite quickly. Seeds like radishes for example can pop open and all seed will be lost. When waiting for seeds to dry completely make sure you check them each day. You can also hand collect seed gently if the plant stems are dry enough. Every seed is different so you must pay attention to each individual plant. Seeds can be placed in plastic totes or brown paper sacks as they are being collected and then sorted using paper plates or seed screens and finally put into envelopes. When you are separating the seed from the chaff it may be difficult to identify the seed at first. At this step also seeds need to be sorted through to make sure they are not wet, moist, or displaying any noticeable disease. Prairie seeds are usually quite small and more challenging to save. Focus on crops like grasses, peas, beans, corn, and annual flowers to start.
Make sure to label the envelopes or paper sacks with the plant name, variety, and
Lettuce, Rocket Mix, Lactuca sativa
Beans, Rattlesnake, Phaseolus vulgaris
What if the seed does not mature fully on the plant, can you still save the seed?
Great question! If there is not time for the seed to mature fully you want to harvest as much of the plant as possible from the field (including the roots if able) and hang the entire thing to dry in a cool, dark place until the seeds fully mature and dry.
Sorting is just that, literally picking the seed away from the chaff. This is a great process for larger seeds as it is very easy. This is also great for milkweed which is covered in fluff and sometimes difficult to process.
Sifting is the process of laying seeds flat on a screen and shaking them slowly until the chaff separates from the seed.
Threshing + Winnowing
Threshing is a term used by seed workers to describe the process of separating seeds from chaff, small, remaining pieces of pods or coverings. Flailing is the process of fracturing or crushing seed pods in order to free the seeds. This can take the form of everything from simply rubbing broccoli pods between hands to walking over bean vines.
Winnowing is an ancient technique used to clean seeds. Seeds and chaff are poured through moving air which blows the lighter chaff aside, allowing the heavier seeds to be collected below.
Seeds that are Easy to Save //
Beans Peas Radishes Most annual flowers Prairie grasses if you can identify them Calendula
Wet Seed Saving
Some seeds are not harvested/collected dry, instead they need to be processed; Seeds such as tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and melons are considered wet processed.
In nature crops fall to the ground if left will decompose over time- leaving the internal seeds to the earth. In wet processing we mimic that process- using fermentation (chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria) Fermentation reduces risk of disease, separates seed from pulp and increases seed germination.
Tomato Example /
Scoop out seeds and gelatinous layer into glass jars, cover with cheese cloth or paper towel and let sit for 1-3 days, no need to add water unless liquid evaporates before fermentation is complete, a layer of while mold may form on the surface, fermentation is complete when gelatinous seed coats float to the surface, add water to the jar and stir, mature seeds will sink to the bottom while immature seeds will float to the top, pour or scoop off pulpy mixture and immature seeds. Keep the seeds that sink to the bottom of the jar. Scoop mature seeds into a mesh strainer and wash with running water. Spread the seeds out on a paper plate- towel- or bag- and allow them to fully dry.
How to Store Seeds After seeds are harvested/collected go over the proper way to store seeds. First, make sure the seeds are dry enough using the following test. If not, lay seed on screens and let it dry fully.
Drying Test - Seeds must be very dry before storage otherwise they will mold and rot.
Cannot be in temperatures above 80 degrees, below 50 is best, 25% or less moisture
Envelope test with a few seeds (dry enough if they don’t mold in an envelope) Snapping the seeds with your fingernail to test dryness. There are two primary ways to successfully store seed;
Dry Storage // Store in paper (envelopes, paper bags, glass) inside a wooden or plastic container that will not receive any moisture in a cool + dark place. Do not store seeds in direct sunlight.
Freezer Storage // Store seeds in paper envelopes inside ziploc bags. Do not place it in the freezer anywhere they can get moist/wet. If your freezer is particularly moist do not use this storage method.
Most seeds will last 3-5 years if stored properly.
Why Save Seeds?
Growing from seed (planting) to seed (saving) has always been the experience of humans as we’ve come into relationship with seeds and plant species.
It is an important and sacred practice of Indigenous people across the globe, as well as agrarians/agriculturalists. Seeds are part of celebration, ritual and tradition
Saving your own seed provides you with more resilient genetic material- to promote and restore biodiversity
Saving seed saves you $$$
Saving seed allows you to select for what you want in your crops (yield, taste,look)
Saving and sharing seed is an act of resistance as more and more varieties are becoming patented (PVP and PVPA) and not legal to save
Creating- to create a new variety- or select for traits you love like taste and hardiness
Preservation- to save or maintain the genetics of a specific variety
For resistance to seed companies profiting from something that should be free and widely accessible to all.
Tips for Seed Saving
Harvest only mature seeds. Seed must be completely mature to be viable and grown again.
Seed must be completely dry, brown is usually a sign of this, you should be able to crack it with your finger. If it is completely brown but your fingernail makes an indentation it is not ready yet.
Do not harvest seed from diseased plants or plants that have pest pressure. You want to select for healthy plants
Save from open-pollinated heirlooms. These seeds will be true to their parent crop.
A note: All heirlooms are open-pollinated but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms
Where to Buy Seeds
Support seed growers that have an open-source commitment! Seeds are for everyone.
>>Meadowlark Hearth - Scottsbluff, Nebraska >>Seed Savers Exchange - Decorah, Iowa >>Buffalo Seed Company - Kansas City, MO >>Seeds Trust - Colorado >>Prairie Moon Nursery - Iowa
>>FedCo - Maine >>High Mowing - Vermont
Where to Get Free Seeds
OPL Common Soil Seed Library (anyone with a library card can access 10 free seed packets every month)
Annual Seed Share in Omaha, NE (usually in February)
Additional Seed Saving Resources + Guides:
>>seedsavers.org: seed saving guide
>>southernexposure.com: growing guide