Some Myths About Seeds, by M.J.E.

I keep coming across misinformation on some of the prep sites I’ve encountered and thought it would be helpful to set some things straight with regard to seeds, seed storage and growing food and other useful plants. Here are some myths I’ve encountered and my attempts at clarification. While the misinformation may not endanger you, it can prevent you from using all resources available or create some false expectations.

Myth 1: If you save seeds from hybrid plants (commercial seeds, not heirloom), you’ll starve.
Seeds from hybrid plants, in my experience, will not fail to grow – they’re just not likely to produce what you expected. Hybrids do not breed true because a certain proportion of the off-spring will revert to the type of the parents. What you get will depend somewhat on what parent plants were used to produce the hybrid and what pollen your plant encountered when it was blooming. The resulting plants may not be hearty or continue to prosper after a few generations, but some will do just fine. It’s a bit of a crap shoot what you’ll end up with. I’ve had volunteer plants of various kinds grow in my compost heap, and it’s always amusing to see what strange and interesting produce appears from the seeds of hybrids I grew the year before. I got what looked like a white acorn squash one year and another volunteer was a particularly weird kind of melon of uncertain origin. They were still very tasty. You can pollinate your plants by hand (with a little paint brush substituting for a bee to carry the pollen) if you want to control what your plants encounter, or you can trust nature to find a stable strain that works for you. Open pollination encourages genetic diversity, and that’s a good thing in the plant world. 

Myth 2: You should keep fruit seeds and nuts for growing trees.
Fruit trees can produce wildly different types of fruit from the same tree’s seeds. Fruit trees for sale from your nursery are not produced from hybrid seeds. Fruit trees and some other fruits like grapes are made to produce consistent fruit by grafting the desired plant from a single source onto a hearty root stock. All the trees are exact clones of the original. You can grow fruit plants from seeds, but there’s no telling what the fruit will be like. If you have a tree that has fruit you really like, you can perpetuate it by grafting. Grafting isn’t very difficult, but may require a little practice. A sturdy, disease resistant base plant is essential (in the 1870s France’s vineyards were saved from near total destruction from a parasite infestation by grafting their plants onto resistant grape vine root stocks from Missouri). Another thing about fruits: some will not self pollinate (apples, for example) and a second plant of a different variety (called a cultivar) may be required within a specified area to allow you to have fruit. Of course, you will also need pollinating insects to carry the pollen between trees, and ideally the trees shouldn’t be further than 300 feet apart. Mulberry and olive trees are wind pollinated, but for mulberries you need a male tree to pollinate your female, fruit bearing trees. Nut trees aren’t as much of a problem with regard to breeding true, but nut trees that grow here in Missouri must be about 10 years old before they begin to produce useful nuts. It’s best to have mature trees scoped out on or near your property or to plant them now to get them started before you need them. Nut trees are wind and self pollinating and should be within 50 feet of each other to allow good pollination for successful production.

Myth 3: You have to have a garden to produce fresh food.
The quickest way to get something fresh into your diet, especially in the dead of winter, is by sprouting. Seeds and beans sprout within days and are loaded with nutrition — far more than the seeds alone. Sprouting requires a little water, a tiny bit of daily attention, and a container that lets you wet the seeds without allowing them to mold. I use a large glass honey jar with a bit of fine mesh (a scrap from a wedding veil) held in place with a rubber band. Spicy sprouts like radish can add snap to bland preserved food. You can even sprout seeds while you’re bugging out by using a mesh bag to carry the sprouts (hikers sometimes do this — a sort of garden on your back).

Myth 4: You have to buy seeds.
If your plants are heirloom varieties or you’re sprouting potatoes from your existing harvest or you’re growing herbs, you can perpetuate your plants nearly indefinitely. As I said before, if you’re willing to take some risks, you can get seeds from hybrids as well. Annuals like mint grow almost like perennials because they reseed themselves so readily. Herbs grow happily from seeds you gather or from the ones the plants themselves drop. Perennials like asparagus, rhubarb, garlic and cane berries such as raspberries only require a bed and occasional fertilizer like manure (human will do) to keep feeding you for years. Some perennial herbs don’t even need fertilizer and are hearty and drought resistant – you’re more likely to be beating them into submission to prevent them taking over your garden than worrying about how to keep them growing. Many plants can be grown from cuttings, runners, tubers and other asexual reproductive processes making plants that are genetically identical to their parent source. This has a bit of danger in that if all your plants are only one variety and a disease hits them, your whole crop will be wiped out (as happened during the Irish potato famine). Diversity is never a bad idea. Having at least two varieties of any kind of plant you like is preferable.

Myth 5: You can’t store seeds forever.
Well, this isn’t quite a myth, but seeds that are dry and stored away from moisture, excessive heat and light in air tight containers can last years. The germination rate may go down a bit after a few years so you might want to plant a few seeds per pot when getting them started, then transplant when you know what you’ve got. You can always check your germination rate by wetting seeds and sprouting them to see what percentage will be successful. I’ve had years old seeds that looked dead germinate a week after they would ordinarily been expected to. I guess they just took longer to wake up than fresher seeds. While seeds can germinate after years in storage, it’s ideal to periodically grow some new plants from your old seeds and save a fresh batch of seeds from the resulting produce. Always label the seeds with the date and rotate out your seed stores periodically if you can, but don’t panic if the only seeds you can find are from five or ten years ago. Chances are pretty good some of those will germinate and even one successful plant can produce many new seeds with good germination rates. After all, the oldest seeds to germinate have been 1300 (lotus) and 2000 (date palm) years old.

Myth 6: You should have seeds for these plants: (someone’s list follows)
Maybe, but if it includes things you and your family would never eat, that list is not very useful. Some things may not grow in your area or in your soil. If all you can grow is a container garden, some varieties of plants won’t work for you at all. Your personal list should be plants you can use and you have experience with. Add a few new plants to your garden each year if you can, or if your space is limited, rotate in new plants and retire out previous successes. Experiment, let things go to seed, learn as much as you can about the life cycle of your plants so you’ll know what to expect. A few years with a variety can teach you a lot about what changes in temperature and water can do to your harvest. Like me, one year you may be dumping cucumbers on anyone who’ll stand, still then begging for the favor returned the next year. On the other hand, my tomatoes and herbs never fail, my eggplants never succeed.
Having said that one list will not serve for all, I believe some plants are incredibly versatile and really deserve your consideration. Radishes make great sprouts, both the greens and the roots are good to eat, and the seed pods are a spicy treat that can be used like snow peas or other pod vegetables. Flax seeds can be sprouted or used for oil (linseed oil) for cooking, burning in lamps, or in wood finishing; and the fibers from the plant can be used for lamp wicks, rope and cloth; and an added bonus, flax flowers are quite pretty.
There aren’t too many things that corn hasn’t been used for including as a vegetable, a source of oil, and for meal and flour; but other grains and plants can be equally versatile and are often less resource intensive. Nuts can provide butters for eating, and the oil that separates out can be used for cooking or burning in oil lamps just as the ancient Romans used olive oil. These lamps are not as bright as kerosene but burn with little or no smoke or odor. If you remove enough of the oil from a nut, the flour remaining is high in protein and can be used to supplement grain flours.

If one final myth you believe is (Myth 7) you must grow domestic garden plants, let me say a few words in praise of the more nontraditional garden.  I need not mention the “weeds” growing in your yard that are good to eat as this has been handled by other writers, but don’t forget dandelions, wood sorrel, violets, and other edibles. You can also have mushrooms in your basement, a key lime tree on your sun porch and pots of herbs on your kitchen window ledge. But there are other plants that might be in your yard that are sources of food, too. Day lilies are grown as an ornamental, but you should experiment with eating them as a vegetable. They require no attention and come back every year. All parts of the plant are edible, as are all parts of the cattails that are growing in your pond or water feature – just make sure the water they are growing in is not contaminated. Rose hips, the red fruit on the rose bushes after the flowers have gone, are loaded with vitamin C, an essential nutrient that can be in short supply in some preserved foods. Redbud tree blossoms and seed pods are edible, and the trees are hearty and self sustaining. Many plants that are grown as ornamentals are good food, as long as you’re careful to identify them correctly and not confuse them with the sometimes toxic things that also can grow in yards and gardens. Experimenting with edible landscaping can increase your available resources without much added effort to your gardening as well as helping to disguise your supplies to protect them from thieves. There’s no reason why food can’t be beautiful, sustainable and very nearly free.