Make Your Own Seed Bank
What you need to know about saving your own seeds
Scrolls, skeletons and seeds. That’s what the discovery of Herod’s Palace in Masada, Israel, revealed. Ancient history, preserved for future generations.
Scientists carbon-dated the date palm seeds to confirm they originated between 155 B.C. and 64 A.D. Then the seeds sat in storage for four decades. In 2005, other scientists pre-treated the seeds with fertilizer and a hormone-rich solution. Three were then planted. Eight weeks later, one sprouted.
The tree grew slowly. By 2008, it had nearly a dozen fronds, and by 2010, it was 6 feet tall. Nicknamed “Methuselah” because it came from the oldest known viable seed, the Judean date palm is male. It also became extinct 1,800 years ago, until the seeds were found, survivors because they had been enclosed in a clay jar then kept dry.
Methuselah began producing pollen in 2011. Because no female Judean date palms exist, scientists plan to cross Methuselah with an Egyptian variety called Hayani, found to be genetically closest. The offspring will be the closest relative to one of Israel’s most important export crops during the time of Christ.
The Importance of Seed Saving
Started in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, Seed Savers Exchange recognized the need to preserve heirloom species. “Grandpa Ott’s” morning glory and “German Pink” tomato became the first varieties saved. Now the initiative has over 13,000 members and protects more than 20,000 cultivars.
Seed Savers Exchange reports that 75 percent of the world’s edible plant varieties have been lost in the last century. It also claims that, in 2013, more than half of American cropland was planted with seeds that could not be saved and replanted because of patents.
Stewardship over heirloom seeds is scarce, possibly because allying with corporations guarantees more crop success. Perhaps it’s because consumers recognize a certain tomato’s shape and color to be breed standard instead of leaning on nature’s beautiful imperfections. Many people simply don’t know about the need to preserve a seed heritage or are unable to do so within their own yards or gardens.
Dr. Vandana Shiva works throughout India and other cultures to improve social and economic dynamics such as gender issues, genetic engineering and biodiversity. She has contributed to changing the paradigms of agriculture and food. Currently, Dr. Shiva’s fame is with the sustainability movement, which is growing in popularity. She travels internationally to speak on the importance of maintaining our seed heritage.
Both Seed Savers Exchange and Dr. Shiva maintain that food sovereignty, the belief that cultivars and foods should remain in the hands of the people eating it, is our responsibility.
What Seeds Can You Save?
No, you cannot preserve and replant seeds from just any supermarket produce. If you try, and present your attempts in a Facebook gardening group, you’ll soon be told it’s a bad idea. Here’s why.
Seeds must be open-pollinated. That means heirloom cultivars are fine, as long as you know they are truly heirloom. Often, large and glossy hybrid tomatoes are massed with “heirloom” selections and can be indistinguishable without a DNA test. Most commercially cultivated crops are hybrids because crossbreeding produces a more vigorous and productive product than many heirlooms. It’s a stronger guarantee for farmers whose livelihoods depend on sales.
Hybrids are the first-generation cross of two other varieties. Examples include many apples and most tomatoes sold on a large scale. This doesn’t mean the seeds won’t sprout; many will, if collected correctly. But the second generation can produce fruit displaying traits from every ancestor used to create the strain: uncles, grandparents, even bitter and wild ancestors used to strengthen the hybrid. These fruits are edible but they may not be tasty. And they certainly won’t be as good as the F1 parent.
Open-pollinated means the seeds collected will produce the same fruit as the parent variety, as long as both parents were the same cultivar. This is especially important with squash, which we will discuss later in the article. Open-pollinated varieties could be two-century-old Cambodian eggplants or blue-toned tomatoes released for sale just this year.
To find seeds you can save, consult Cooperative Extensions to find trusted, local resources. Consult heirloom gardening groups dedicated to genetic preservation. Shop from companies focusing on heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. And if you need to save on shipping and purchase from the same company selling your favorite hybrids, look for the initials “OP” or an heirloom designation.
What about GMOs?
Relax. GMOs have not yet been found to be dangerous, as long as the genes used aren’t from an organism to which you are extremely allergic, and most of those were stopped before they ever reached the market. But you may be avoiding them for other reasons such as refusal to support the agricultural practices surrounding use of GMOs.
The most common genetically modified crops in the United States are corn, wheat, canola, soybeans, cotton and sugar beets. Varieties of GMO potato and zucchini are available to commercial farmers. FlavrSavr tomato, the first GMO crop available for sale in the United States, is now off the market. The FDA approved Arctic, the first genetically modified apple, in 2015.
This is when you need to worry. If you are a farmer producing cereal grains or other commodity crops such as cotton or soybeans, and you want to grow heirloom species, be sure your farm is nowhere near another commercial establishment. Pollen drifts in the wind. Several farmers have entered court battles because patented genes were found in their crops and they had never entered into contracts with the patent holders. This is because the genes entered their fields with drifting pollen. And, as they saved seed for the next year, they unknowingly propagated the GMOs.
Companies selling exclusively open-pollinated seeds cultivate their corn and wheat in extremely remote areas to protect them from pollen drift. If you purchased heirloom corn from a specific rare seeds website, it was most likely grown near the Ozarks.
When Seed Saving Doesn’t Work
Simply growing an open-pollinated crop doesn’t guarantee viable seed.
Certain crops produce seeds but their regenerating does not create hardy offspring. Heirloom apple seeds may sprout, but the strongest trees are created by grafting heirloom scions onto good root stock. Sweet potatoes reproduce best from slips, vine cuttings inserted directly into fertile soil. Other plants, such as artichokes, are best grown from roots taken from healthy parents because seeds don’t always sprout true to type.
Some cultivars easily cross-pollinate. For instance, did you know there are only five domesticated species of squash? Acorn, zucchini, scallop, gourds and most pumpkin varieties are all sub-species of the strain Cucurbita pepo. If you plant two squash of the same sub-species side by side, the seeds will probably be a crossbreed. Save squash seeds with minimal work by growing a C. pepo (cocozzelle summer squash) only with different species like C. moschata (butternut) or C. maxima (hubbard.) If there are no other plants of the same species in the vicinity, your seeds will be true to type.
Seed-saving advocates explain how to safely ensure true stock in a small location: hand pollinate, and then seal the blossom off.
Most tomatoes will self-pollinate, but sometimes insects carry pollen from one variety to another. This produces hybrids which you may or may not want to save and propagate. Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms explains how to ensure the parent produces true-to-type seeds by hand-pollinating. Strip away petals to reveal the blossom’s receptive organ. Sprinkle pollen from another blossom on the same plant into a smooth container like a sunglass lens, then brush it onto the receptive blossom with a paintbrush. The female part immediately seals off after a pollen grain enters. Strip away all other surrounding blossoms and mark the pollinated one with a ribbon.
To preserve squash, isolate a receptive female blossom right when it opens. With a soft paintbrush, collect pollen from a male blossom and then brush it onto the female. Now wrap a breathable paper bag around the female blossom to ensure no other pollen enters the flower until the blossom dies and the fruit starts to develop. Mark the stem with a ribbon.
The Finer Details
The specific process for each crop differs. Cantaloupe seeds preserve so easily that tossing them into a compost pile often results in volunteers the next spring. Tomato seeds need to ferment a day or so for best viability.
Organizations dedicated to preserving species offer free resources. Find facts that haven’t been sponsored for profit by searching hundreds of Cooperative Extension sites with www.search.extension.org. Seed Savers Exchange offers free .pdf documents online, such as a crop-specific guide that details cultivars, whether they’re pollinated by insects, the wind, or are self-pollinating, and how far you need to isolate them from the same species to ensure pure genetics. It also details what species can cross, such as beets with Swiss chard.
Research your specific cultivar. Find out if seeds are viable at market (when the fruit is ripe, such as a tomato) or after-market (after the plant is typically eaten, such as a carrot which is shriveled and inedible when the plant produces seeds). Plant your garden according to how much labor you wish to dedicate to seed saving, choosing different species if you don’t have time to isolate blossoms.
A free download from the Organic Seed Alliance, available on the Seed Savers Exchange website, details what to do next. It explains how to soak and ferment wet-seeded crops such as eggplant. Or screening and winnowing dry seeds such as beans or spinach.
Knowing how to store seeds is crucial. Just as Herod’s Judean date palm survived because it resided in a desert for two millennia, your saved seeds must be kept dry. Make sure the seeds are desiccated before you stash them away, using silica gel or food dehydrators set to the lowest temperature. Store in breathable containers such as envelopes or paper bags. If humidity, insects, or rodents are a problem, stash seeds in the freezer. But fluctuating temperatures reduce longevity. Avoid removing seeds from the freezer or exposing dry envelopes to seasonal highs and lows.
Examples of well-saved and preserved seeds range from the Judean date palm, a Siberian flower found in permafrost, or “Grandma’s” heirloom green tomatoes which were discovered in a wooden dresser drawer. They can include your favorite pepper, which has become scarce within catalogs ruled by hybrid types.
If you’ve never before saved seeds, give it a try. Learn from each experience. And if you’re an experienced seed saver, thank you. From heirloom gardeners everywhere.
Marissa Ames writes from Reno, Nevada, where she maintains Ames Family Farm on 1/8 of an urban acre.