There is nothing like a renewable food source, and seeds are one way to guarantee that you have a continuing supply of food. If you don’t save your seeds from year to year, you will eventually run out of stored seeds, and your garden will transform from a renewable resource to a one-harvest wonder. At the very least, seeds can make a great barter item in a post-collapse world.
At first glance, saving seeds might seem obvious and easy, but there are actually many detailed questions that arise. Some include:
- How do you save the seeds?
- What do they look like for different plants?
- What conditions do you need for plants to produce seed?
- When is the best time to harvest them?
- How many do you get?
- Can you eat the same plants that you get seed from, or do you have to keep food crops separate from seed crops?
To compound the problem, the answers to these and other questions tend to be either scattered in numerous sources, or overwhelming with complexity and extraneous information. There are many books and references that can be found on seed saving. However, many of them are overwhelming with family names, cross pollination, and lots and lots of information on things you’re not really interested in or don’t have time to memorize. It is true that saving seeds can be a challenge, if you have large crop operations or you have many varieties of each type of crop, but for the home gardener or small community operation, seed saving doesn’t have to be difficult.
SurvivalBlog readers need the concise guide to seed saving, which I hope to provide with this article. My goal is to provide readers with a foundation for seed saving and tips on how to figure out on your own how to save seeds, without referencing books, or memorizing families after families of related crops.
Where to Start
The seed you start with is perhaps the most important aspect of it all.
With so many choices of seeds out there between grocery stores, catalogs, and the Internet, it’s difficult to figure out where to begin. It’s even more difficult to be motivated to learn to save seeds, because there is such an abundance of them available for purchase, or so it now seems. From one view, it may seem silly to waste time and energy on seed saving when it’s so easy to stock up on an item that takes so little space, and with so many places offering a variety of survival seeds for a very small budget.
But truth be told, this is a huge mistake. First, not all crops will grow in your area. This may seem like common sense, but it needs to be said. If you live in an area with a short growing season, you won’t be making tomato sauce every summer, and if you live in a hot climate, you won’t be growing many dark leafy greens. Second, the viability of seeds reduces with time, even if kept in the best of conditions. Seeds, like all stocked food, should be rotated as time goes by.
The growing season and temperature variables are not all-inclusive in your seed selection. Your elevation will matter, along with the amount of precipitation and type of soil. Rather than getting into detail on how to amend these issues, it is much easier to grow crops that are suited for your local conditions.
Your first decision will be to decide what crops you want to grow. Let’s make a pretend list, and say you want to grow the following:
- Salad mix,
- Sweet potatoes, and
- A nice melon to satisfy that sweet craving.
Let’s start with the tomatoes. There are so many varieties out there, you can get lost in pages upon pages of choices. It can be daunting and cost a lot of money. Here’s what you want to do. Find a few varieties that are known to be favorable for your climate, your elevation, and your soil. Look for disease resistance and look for non-hybrid, non-GMO, heirloom varieties. Also make sure the variety you choose does not require a second variety to pollinate. Most basic garden foods do not, but it’s still good to check. You should pick several varieties to allow you to experiment to see what YOU can successfully grow in your soil and climate. However, there is a key point to this: Experiment with growing ONLY ONE seed variety at a time. Pick one, just one and only one. Plant and grow that one seed variety to start. (I will explain why later in this article.) Follow the same selection process for the other fruits and vegetables, and select only one variety of each to try growing, initially.
Next, you must find where to get your seeds. Some of the varieties might not be available locally, so you may have to settle for a variety that you can find locally. The good news is, chances are if it’s grown locally, it already has most of the features you are looking for.
My first recommendation is to find a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in your area. Contact them and find out if they sell seeds from the locally grown food. If not, find out who they buy from. The reason I recommend a CSA is that it’s local, which means the food is grown in your locale, your climate, your elevation, and your soil. This means that this type of food will actually grow in your area, and these seeds are worth saving.
My second recommendation would be to find local farmers in your area, and see if they offer seeds. You may have to call or drive around a lot to get what you’re looking for, as many farmers specialize in mono (one crop) farming, so you may have to go to several farmers to accumulate what you want to start with.
Lastly, I recommend the Internet, but be careful. Call and ask questions. Find out where the seeds are grown, if they are genetically modified or genetically engineered (GMO/GE), and find out if they are hybrids or heirlooms.
A hybrid is a mix of two different parent plants, and its offspring will not be the same. Hybrids are great for disease resistance and temperature tolerances, but they are not good choices for saving seeds, because the seeds likely will not carry the same properties as the parent, and will not produce the fruit/vegetable you started with. Worse, some hybrids won’t produce seeds at all. When thinking of a hybrid, think of a female horse mating with a male donkey. You get a mule, which is a sterile animal that is a hybrid of its parents.
There are two reasons you do not want to buy GMO seeds. First, there is a significant amount of scientific evidence that GMO “foods” can be harmful to human health. I will not go into that here, as that is beyond the scope of this article, and an entire article could be written about that subject alone. Second, much of the time, GMO seeds are patented, which means that it’s illegal for you to save seeds from these crops and grow future crops using these GMO seeds. There are many situations where farmers have lost their business because their fields were accidentally contaminated by GMO crops, and because these crops were patented, they lost in court. It’s best to avoid this situation, so start with a product that nature created. Finally, note that some GMO plants were designed to not produce seeds.
Some might argue that saving seeds from a watermelon (or whatever) that you purchased at a chain grocery store is fine, but unless you know for sure that watermelon is GMO free, this is not a good idea. Also note, if you try to save a potato or a related family that you purchased in the store, there’s a good chance it won’t sprout because the distributors commonly spray them with a chemical to suppress the hormones that occur naturally in the root, which normally would cause the root to sprout. Depending on what chemical was used, you may be able to soak the tuber root in water for an hour prior to planting, but this is not a guaranteed method. So it’s really best you start off with something that is a sure thing with known qualities. Store-bought produce is a gamble. Potatoes you get from a CSA will probably sprout before you have a chance to use them. This would be a better option.
I also usually do not recommend starting with transplants. Usually, these plants have started off with ideal conditions that include a heating mat, moisture control, and whatever disease preventive spraying that took place. Unless you know exactly how that plant was treated from seed, and you can replicate these conditions for its offspring, do not buy it for seed saving.
Where the Seeds Are and How to Save Them
We are so used to buying products that are processed, that it’s difficult for the inexperienced to know how a cabbage or a carrot will develop seed. Some produce is obvious. A tomato is filled with seeds when you cut into it, and potatoes sprout. Those seem easy, but what does a cabbage or a carrot do? Some crops need two years, and some crops need the right temperatures to “bolt” (go to seed).
A tomato is fairly easy. You plant the seed, your plant grows, it develops tomatoes, they mature and turn red, and you eat it. Tomatoes are one of the fruits that you can enjoy eating and still save seed. You don’t need much; a few tomatoes will suffice. The tricky part is getting the seeds to store for a long period of time.
Tomatoes are special, because they’re one of the few plants where you will elicit the help of fungus to help you with your seed. The tomato seeds are covered in a gelatinous concoction that keeps the seeds from germinating inside the tomato. When gardening there are many cases such as this, when it is helpful to ask yourself a very important question: What would nature do?
At one point during life on Earth, plants reproduced without the help of humans, and nature helped these plants along the way. So when thinking about how plants might spread their seeds in nature, ask yourself: if you were a tomato, what strategy would you use to spread your seeds so that you would reproduce? First, you have to get the seeds out of the tomato and then you have to break down the gelatinous concoction so that they can sprout. Next, you have to disperse the seeds. So how would you do that?
Nature, or tomatoes, developed an amazing process. Imagine an animal ate the bright red (ripe) tomato, and then the tomato would be digested in the stomach of the animal as it moved to another location. The seeds did not break down during digestion, due to their protective coating, and then the animal would defecate in another location. Fungus would then help break down the gelatinous concoction, and the seeds would be firmly planted in the perfect roll of soil. Thus, the next generation of tomato would grow.
It doesn’t exactly work as simply as that, but close enough for the purpose of this article. The problem is it’s highly impractical to depend on wild animals to digest your tomato seeds to meet your needs. The solution is that you place the gelatinous-covered seeds in a container of some sort, add some water, cover partially, and let stand for 24 hours. The fungus that comes with the seeds will break down the gelatinous concoction. All you have to do after 24 hours is rinse, dry on a towel or paper plate, and store. No wild animals are needed. The important part is that you do not store the seeds until they are fully dry after rinsing them. I usually allow mine to dry for a couple of weeks on a flour sack towel. As a side note, some will argue that you need to keep your tomato seeds soaked for several days. However, recent research has shown that 24 hours is ideal, and allowing the seeds to soak longer reduces viability.
Carrots are a very different produce. If you eat the carrot, you can’t get seed. This is okay though, as you don’t need to save many carrots to get enough seed. One carrot can produce quite a bit of seed. The trick here is time.
Carrots need two growing seasons to produce seed. The first season they will produce the root vegetable that you would eat. If you leave it in the ground, then the second season, you will have flowers, then eventually seed. Again, you have to look at nature and what strategy nature, or the carrot, has employed. When you look at the flowers of the carrot you will quickly realize that whatever seeds develop will be very susceptible to the wind. This is where you have to beat nature and collect the dry carrot seeds before the wind scatters them. You may have to check your seeds often to see if they are ready. Watch the weather to make sure you don’t miss your opportunity to a windy day, and collect between rainy days, so that they are already dried on the plant. If the seeds don’t fall off in your hands easily, they need more time to mature. If you pick too early, they won’t germinate. It can be a bit tricky to learn when the time is right, and you may have to collect the seeds more than once from the same plant to get the most viable seeds.
Spinach requires that you learn yet a different strategy of nature. Spinach is a cool weather crop, and often times, unless you get a variety that is slow to bolt, spinach will go to seed if the temperature gets hot enough. With some varieties this can occur as low as 80 degrees Fahrenheit. With most spinach, you can harvest the leaves up until it bolts. This is nice, because you get the best of both worlds: you get to eat the spinach, and you get to save the seed. Just don’t eat the leaves once they bolt, as they won’t taste good, and the plant will still need to undergo photosynthesis through its leaves in order for the seeds to mature. I suppose if you have nothing else to eat, and you don’t need the seed, then go ahead and eat it, but again note that the flavor becomes much different once spinach bolts.
Spinach is unique because it requires two plants: a male and female. Spinach also requires wind to pollinate. This means that when planning on saving seeds, you need to save double the plants as you would for any other plant that doesn’t require both a male and female. The wind pollinates the spinach, and the seeds develop on the female once pollinated. The trick here is again time. The seeds usually turn dark brown when ready, but need to be dry. Because of the length of time to mature, some gardeners collect the spinach stalks, tie them in a bunch, and hang them upside down in a paper bag in a garage or other dry place. Then several weeks later, they shake the stalks and watch the seeds fall to the bottom of the paper bag. This method can also be used for collecting seeds from other plants, too. Exercise your judgment for when this method is appropriate.
Broccoli and cabbage are two plants that you do not get to enjoy and also save the seed. You have to pick one or the other: food or seed. I list these together because they are in fact in the same family. More on that shortly.
With broccoli, the very part that we eat (the “florets” or “crowns”) if left uncut long enough, will eventually turn into flowers. These flowers would then be pollinated by small insects (such as mason bees or certain flies). Once pollinated, they turn into pods, then mature, and then dry. Inside each pod you will have a few dark brown seeds ready for planting.
With cabbage, if the “head” (the part we eat) is left without cutting, it eventually splits open and grows flowers from the opening. The flowers are pollinated, then turn into pods, then mature, dry, and again, inside each pod, you will have seeds ready for planting.
It is a more difficult question to answer what strategy nature would use to spread cabbage or broccoli seed. Any plant that produces flowers, entices bees and other flying insects to pollinate it, which is great, but once the pods are dry, what animal would want to eat it? In these cases, no animal is required. The pod will continue drying out until it splits, and the seeds will simply fall out onto the soil and grow anew. All you have to do is collect the dry pods when they crack easily in your fingers. It is best to remove the seeds from the pods before storage.
Cucumbers are another crop that you can not both eat and save the seed. The seeds in the cucumbers that people eat are nowhere near ready for planting. Cucumbers must over-ripen, and the seeds will finally develop inside the over-ripened cucumber. In the wild, or nature, or whatever you want to call it, a cucumber would mature, become heavy, then start to dry after it falls off the vine. The seeds inside would continue to mature until the cucumber rotted, and then the seeds would be able to take life again, using the mixture of rotting cucumber and soil for nutrients.
To save the cucumber seeds, you want to let your cucumber over-mature, but not rot. Cut it open, remove and wash the seeds, and then let them dry. One way to tell viability is to see if the seeds float or drown during washing. Think about it this way. If it’s an empty shell, it’s likely to float; if it’s full of life, it’s likely to sink. Dry the sinkers for a few weeks, and store away.
Everyone likes a good salad with tomatoes and cucumber, and generally, salad of any sort is easy to grow. You pick it, and it grows right back. It’s a great crop to have around, and the best part, is that you can cut and cut, and still get seed. Once salad greens (most varieties) bolt, they become bitter and most gardeners stop harvesting. However, if you let them go, flowers spring up from the center stalks, the mason bees pollinate, and seeds develop over time. They produce lots of seeds, but you have to beat nature by collecting them before the wind sets them free. Just like carrots, you have to wait until they dry and fall off easily.
Potatoes can have seeds, but the viability of these seeds is usually not great. It’s really better to give up a few servings of mashed potatoes, and save some tubers for planting rather than trying to save potato seed. Again, if you consider the strategy of how potatoes will reproduce in nature, the potato has to do nothing but stay in the ground.
Eventually, the eyes of the potatoes will grow sprouts, and those sprouts will then grow new potatoes. The same will occur for sweet potatoes. The flowering period is usually an indicator of when to harvest the potatoes– six weeks after flowering. The same also applies for sweet potatoes.
So here’s your homework. What strategy would a honeydew melon use to spread its seed?
Too easy you say? Okay, what strategy would corn use?
What Family is What?
The best way to determine if different plants are related is by looking at two things: growth patterns and flowers. If two plants follow the same growth patterns and their flowers develop and look about the same, it might be that they are related. It’s best to choose only one of the plants to go to seed at the same time. If you allow two plants, let’s say broccoli and cabbage to flower at the same time, the bees just might cross pollinate. In this case, the seeds you get would produce duds, with neither the broccoli nor the cabbage producing viable seeds. This is why I recommend you start with one variety of each plant, so you reduce your chances of cross pollination, and thus seed failure.
When You’re Not Sure
Always ask yourself, what would nature do? Sometimes just sitting back and studying how a plant grows, at what point it develops flowers, or how it looks, can tell you a lot about that plant and the seed it produces. You can ask yourself questions about the plant, like how fragile the seeds are, how would they be spread, and so on. These questions can help you to figure out what it will take to save the seeds from that plant.
I haven’t covered cross pollination too much because I think it can be over-hyped for the simple gardener. Cross pollination only occurs if you have two plants of a related family flowering at the same time. First, if you only grow one variety at a time, as suggested above, you don’t have to worry about cross pollination because a carrot won’t cross with a tomato. Second, if you are set on growing two different varieties in the same family, you can prevent cross pollination simply by planting them at different times, or choosing varieties that take different lengths of time to mature. For example, if you have two tomato varieties, and one matures at 56 days, while the other matures at 80 days, AND, you pay attention to make sure they have not flowered at the same time, they will not cross. If you have two cabbage varieties that mature at the same time, but you plant them a month apart, AND, you pay attention to flowering time, again, you will not have cross pollination, as one plant will flower and produce fruit/seeds before the other plant flowers. A final way to prevent cross pollination is simply to physically isolate the plants. This could be done by separating the plants with insect netting for those that require insect pollination, or by separating in greenhouses or cold frames for those that are wind pollinated.
If you are someone who only grows one type of tomato, one type of cucumber, one type of dark leafy green, then you don’t have to worry about cross pollination. This is why I suggest you start out experimenting with one variety at a time.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can grow one of each kind of crop and not think at all about cross pollination; you still have to use your head. As mentioned earlier, plants in the same family can cross pollinate. For example, broccoli and cabbage are related, and to make matters more complicated, so is kale. If you were to compare seeds from all three, you would not be able to tell them apart. So if you plan to grow and save seeds from two or three plants from the same family, you will need to keep them sufficiently segregated, or schedule the planting so that they flower at different times.
So here is a rule of thumb to follow: If the flowers look alike, there’s a good chance they can cross pollinate. As a matter of fact, if you were to look only at flowers of broccoli, kale and cabbage, you would not be able to tell which is which.
The solution? If you want seeds, and you see flowers on different plants that are alike or very similar in appearance, decide which crop you want to save for seeds, and eat all the others. Stick to the rule of one variety per family blooming at a time, and you won’t have to worry about saved seeds growing into sterile duds or that won’t germinate at all.
When Nature is Confusing
There are plants that break all the rules, and even though they might develop a seed, they won’t germinate from seed, because they have found a better way to reproduce. Blackberries, strawberries, and other common berries are of this nature. Rather than going to seed, and dying, the root system throws out shoots and upon hitting soil, these shoots will develop roots, and thus you have a new berry plant. Those who swear off thorny blackberries and prune them to the bottom often realize only a short time later that the plant has found a way to beat them.
The up side to this is that we can use this method to our advantage. Let’s use fruit trees as an example. A fruit tree can take years to grow from seed before it is old enough to produce fruit. So people have discovered a shortcut: rooting. In short, select a branch, cut it off the tree, place it in water (and usually also a plant growth hormone), and that branch will develop roots. The advantage here is that you take a five year old tree branch, root it, and you have a second five year old tree. This also works with other certain long-maturity plants.
Plant hormone growth stimulants are not always required. In some cases you can simply place the branch in water and see if roots develop. However, the plant hormones do help by increasing the success rate. You can try sticking the twig in water, but sometimes diseases will race with the development of roots, and the twig will die before the twig has a chance to grow. With the aid of rooting hormones, the twig usually wins the race. A small container of plant hormone powder will go a long way, store for a long time, and take up less space than a bunch of trees for which you might not yet be ready.
Another trick that nature might play on you is that your seeds might not germinate. You did everything right, you collected them at the right time, and yet, the seeds just won’t grow. Again, you have to ask yourself, why would nature do this?
There are many plants, especially fruit trees, which require that their seeds be kept cool for a certain period of time before germinating. Basically the “right” conditions are required for the seeds to germinate. Though not a fruit tree, I’ll use the oak tree as an example. If you collect oak nuts (acorns) and plant them, chances are they won’t grow until the second year. Some seeds require a certain amount of cold or “freeze hours” before they will break dormancy and sprout. (Some berry plants and fruit trees will also not produce fruit if they do not get enough “freeze hours”. So make sure you get a variety that is appropriate for your climate.) This is nature’s way of making sure the seeds don’t germinate before the conditions are right. The seeds stay dormant until conditions are favorable, such as after winter. In cases such as these, it is possible to trick the seeds. Just place the seeds in moist soil in a plastic bag, and place it in your refrigerator for 90 days. This is called cold stratification. After 90 days, seed dormancy should be broken. This is kind of like mimicking winter, but using your refrigerator.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And if nature can do it, rest assured, so can you (usually).
A Quick Note On Storing Your Seeds
It is best to store your dried seeds in a cool dry place. Refrigerating your seeds will increase the length of time they remain viable. Most seed articles will recommend that you freeze your seeds for the longest shelf life. However, it is important to remove as much moisture as possible before placing them in the freezer, as water crystals in larger seeds, such as peas and corn, will cause them to crack and leave the seeds unviable.
The first step to removing moisture is to allow your seeds to dry at room temperature. I recommend a minimum of a couple of weeks. You can place the seeds on dry flour sack towels or you can also use other bedding, such as paper towels or paper plates. Next, place the seeds in coin envelopes or another paper storage container. I find that storing seeds in paper helps to absorb any extra moisture and allows the seeds to breathe. Once the seeds are dry and in a paper envelope, prepare a glass jar, such as a home canning jar. Pour oxygen absorbing desiccants into the bottom of the jar. These desiccants are included in packaging for a variety of products and can be saved and reused. You can cut open the packaging and collect the desiccants, and then dry them in the oven just prior to use. Be careful not to burn or melt the desiccants with too high a temperature. You will need to experiment with your oven and your desiccants to find what works best for you. I keep the temperature below 180’F. Once the oxygen absorbing desiccants are in the bottom of the jar, place the seed envelopes in the jar, put the lid on, and leave it be for about a week. Finally, after about a week, open the jar and quickly transfer the seed envelopes to the freezer.
Additional Tips and Tricks
- Practice, practice, practice. I just can’t stress this enough. If you think you’re going to dig into your seed vault after TEOTWAWKI and grow 10 acres of food without any practice, you are in for a huge and risky disappointment. It doesn’t work that way. You have to grow it, try it, and save seeds from it, based on the needs of your area.
- When you’re just not sure, and you’re not familiar with a plant, there are many things you can try. Fortunately, with produce, there are usually plenty of seeds, so you can experiment with different techniques.
- If the seeds won’t germinate, try adding heat, or try the cold stratification described above. You can also soak the seeds in water for 24 hours, or even scab them with a sharp object to help the skin break open.
- If you don’t have bees in your area (yep, those areas exist), invest in some q-tips, so when the time comes, you can move the q-tip from one flower to another, and hand pollinate. Or better yet, learn to raise honey bees.
- Seeds are usually edible. If you have so much that you will never plant it all, research if it has any nutritional value so that you can use it to supplement your diet. For example, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds, among others, are great additions to a prepper diet. Also, for those leafy greens seeds, learn how to grow micro-greens (basically sprout the seeds and eat the sprouts).
- Only save seeds from your best plants. This is important enough that I am going to repeat myself: Only save seeds from your best plants. The better the quality of plant from which you get your seeds this year, the better the quality of plant you will get next year. The inverse is also true: Poor quality this year will produce worse quality next year, if anything at all. If a plant produces one seed, don’t waste your time, you’ll have zero next time.
- Sometimes it can take a particular variety two or three generations to adapt to your local conditions well enough that it produces a significant quantity of seeds. You can pursue this if you have reasons for growing a particular variety. However, do not make your food supply dependent on this occurring. A much better and safer approach is to find an alternative variety that produces seeds faster and more reliably in your locale without any adaptation.
- Don’t forget: The seed catalogs that offer many seeds often have plants grown in the best of conditions. That means that your plant won’t grow very well if you’re locale is anything less than that ideal condition in which those seeds were produced.
- Also don’t forget: Seeds can make a great barter item in a post-collapse world, especially if it is food that grows well in your area.
And always remember, when in doubt, ask the question: What would nature do?
I hope this article has provided a strong foundation for your seed-saving endeavors. I would like to provide good resources where you could get additional information on this topic. However, I have not yet found any books on this topic that I fully endorse. Two books that are worth reading are “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, and “The Complete Guide To Saving Seeds” by Robert E. Gough and Cheryl Gough. Please note, however, that your area and seed selection will determine the success of your seed saving, so use these books as general guides only.