Seeds For Beginners
Storing Seeds so You Don't Lose Them
CR Lawn, 2009
The year before I founded Fedco Seeds I organized
a group seed order with WCP, Central Maine's co-operative produce
ordering region in the '70s, plus a growers' group from Somerset
County. Being mostly inexperienced growers and wanting to support
a local business, we chose a fledgling Winthrop seed company to
receive our business. Their prices couldn't be beat, but we found
they had stored seeds and onion sets in their greenhouse when we
arrived to get our order. Unsurprisingly, the sets already had 2-4
inch sprouts. Needless to say, we didn't give them more business
in subsequent years.
They couldn't have picked a worse place to store
their seed. Never leave seeds in a greenhouse for even a few minutes.
Heat and humidity are the great enemies of seed longevity. Of the
two, humidity is the worst and a 10% increase for only a short period
of time can halve seed shelf-life. In general, the sum of your temperature
and relative humidity should be under 100 for good storage, although
seed companies and professionals prefer considerably lower than
that. That means that if you keep your house at 70¾, you need humidity
of under 30%, not easy to achieve. Some seed savers put silica gel
in their seed jars to absorb moisture.
Many folks order enough seeds of a variety to
last two or three years, thinking to save money by buying bigger
packets. But unless they make more than a casual commitment to good
storage, that is likely to prove a false economy. I found that unless
I took precautions, most seeds were good only for the year I bought
them or for one year more at the most. Vigor declined, especially
for beans, corn and squash, as well as germination for almost all
the rest. While tomato, cucumber and squash seed of the pepo species
are exceptions and often last much longer, peas, lettuce, root crops,
peppers and most herbs and flowers are finicky. If in doubt about
held-over seeds, you can test them for germination by sprouting
a few in moist paper towels before trying them outdoors.
A few seeds are not worth storing at all because
they have such poor longevity. Parsnips, parsley, anything in the
allium family, scorzonera, shiso and some other herbs, larkspur
and delphiniums are notorious for short shelf-life and need to be
renewed each year.
Probably the best place to keep seeds, provided
they are sufficiently dry when you put them in, is in a jar in the
freezer or refrigerator. Remember when you take them out to leave
them in the jar for a while to allow for the condensation that will
occur in their warmer environment. If a fridge or freezer is unavailable,
try to find a cool dry place that is out of the sunlight. Remember
that mice can climb and gnaw and will consider your seeds, especially
cucumbers, melons and squashes, to be yummy food.
What are the best seeds for a beginner
to start saving?
Open-Pollinated and F-1 hybrid. Self-pollinating and cross-pollinating.
Wet seed and dry seed. Annuals and biennials. If you want to save
seeds, it helps to think about the separate categories that make
up the alphabet of the seed saver.
At least to begin, you'll want open-pollinated
varieties (op for short) because these will come true from one generation
to the next. If you save their seed, you will get the same variety
next year, provided that you do not allow other varieties to cross
with them. F-1 (meaning first filial generation) hybrid seeds will
not come true the following year. Because these varieties were the
product of a cross of two or more different varieties, in the next
generation the different traits that comprise these varieties will
segregate out, creating a mishmash of possible combinations. It
will take at least 5-7 years of selection and breeding to get back
to anything close to the original varieties.
Self-pollinating varieties are easier for the
beginner to work with than cross-pollinating varieties. That's because
self-pollinating varieties don't readily cross with other varieties
of the same species. So you can grow more than one pea, bean, lettuce
or tomato variety not far from one another because they are unlikely
to cross. But they do occasionally cross, so I recommend a distance
of 20 feet or more between different varieties to keep the seeds
true. Cross pollinating varieties such as squash, cucumbers, melons,
mustards and radish cross readily. For absolute purity you will
need to keep at least a half mile between varieties. Several hundred
feet should be sufficient if you can tolerate a small amount of
crossing. This distance is known as the isolation distance. Other
means are available of ensuring purity if you cannot maintain isolations,
but they are more labor-intensive and require more skills. Consult
a book on seed saving for additional information on them.
Dry-seeded crops generally set their seeds in
pods. Often, as with peas and beans the part we eat is the immature
seed (and sometimes its pod as well). As the pods dry, these seeds
mature. When the pods are dry and brittle, the seeds are ready to
harvest. Once you can no longer dent the seeds with your thumb-nail,
they are dry enough to store. Beans are the easiest seeds for beginners
because they are large and dry-seeded and can be easily shelled.
Also they are distinctive and beautiful with their patterns and
colors, and it is easy to tell when the varieties get crossed because
their colors and markings change. Peas are also easy, but prone
to disease in our moist climate. Often saved pea seed is better
than commercial seed of the same variety because peas adapt quickly
to their growing conditions, but do not save seed if you have any
diseases such as powdery mildew or fusarium in your patch, or you
risk transmitting disease into the next generation. Lettuce seeds
are also dry self-pollinators, but unlike peas and beans, require
patience to clean from the chaff.
Wet seeded crops are those found in moist cavities
such as cucumbers, squash and melons, or surrounded by gel sacs
inside wet fruit like tomatoes. These should generally undergo a
fermentation process. Squeeze them into a dish with their surrounding
moisture, add water and allow to ferment for several days. They
will get moldy and smelly and then you can decant the moldy stuff
and draw off the seed. The fermentation helps kill off seed-borne
diseases. Of these, tomatoes are probably the easiest. You can get
a remarkably large quantity of seed from a relatively small effort
from these crops. And you can get to have your cake and eat it,
too as you can save the seed and still enjoy the fruits.
Annuals set seeds the first year and, as a result,
are the easiest. Some, such as lettuce or mustards, grow taller
and take longer than we are accustomed to when we arrest their growth
to eat them as food crops. Lettuce must be started indoors in our
climate to set seed reliably in time. Biennials set seed the 2nd
year. Except for parsnips, in our climate, we must harvest biennials
in the fall, bring them inside and re-set them in the spring. They
don't set seed till the second year. Carrots, leeks, onions and
parsnips are in this category. Parsnips are the easiest, because
they will over-winter in Maine without necessitating removal, and
grow huge and set copious seed in year two. Also, homegrown parsnip
seed germinates better and has more vigor than any you can buy.
Good luck with your seed saving adventures!