Learn how to find, care for and test the germination of garden seeds and seeds for your seed library!
Proper storage and labeling of seeds is vital. It is important to keep track of what the seeds are, when they were harvested, and what the germination rate is.
Photo courtesy New Society Publishers
The mission statement of Seed Libraries (New Society Publishers, 2014) by Cindy Conner is to introduce a movement that keeps seeds in the hands of the people while revitalizing public libraries and communities. Seed libraries preserve and protect the genetic diversity of a harvest by keeping the seeds in the community. The members of the seed library will bring their own seeds back to the library to share with the rest of the members.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Seed Libraries.
Seeds are basic to life. They have the potential to not only grow into food, flowers, bushes, and trees, but to reproduce themselves abundantly. Some cultures hold them sacred, as all cultures should. If we don’t value our seeds, we don’t value all of life surrounding us. Seeds connect us with our past and with our future. City dwellers may find it hard to imagine just how important seeds are if they never see the food they eat or the flowers they bring home actually growing in the ground and producing seeds. The closest many people come to confronting seeds is when they clean out a pumpkin for Halloween. If that is your experience, take a moment to hold those seeds in your hands and picture the people who once depended on winter squash as a major food source. Think about how they would clean the seeds and store them until the next growing season. Notice the difference in the seeds themselves. You could sort the seeds according to their size and plumpness, then do a germination test on each group of seeds. The results of those tests would teach you what to look for when saving seeds of not only squash, but other crops as well. The book Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden is good to read if you are pondering pumpkin seeds. It relates the agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians, featuring sunflowers, corn, beans, and squash; the story is told by an elderly Hidatsa woman who kept to as many of the old ways as she could later in life.
When native lands were taken over by newcomers, one of the ways of controlling the natives was to control their food. This is still going on today, but now it is the corporations who are controlling the food — YOUR FOOD — but only if you let them. We are all eaters. Even if you never grow anything, what you choose to eat determines whether you continue on the corporate-controlled route, or you get back to your roots. If you have always lived with a food supply brought to you by the governing corporations and don’t recognize any roots or heritage food, now is the time to change that. When you plant seeds, particularly when they are given to you by someone else, you are putting down both kinds of roots. Even if you move, you can take them with you — both the seeds and the memories. If you move to a different climate, the old seeds may or may not do well. Look at it as an opportunity to find out what grows well in the new place and to make new friends to share seeds with.
In our melting pot of a nation, even before the boats first floated to the shores, people have relied on the seeds that they grew up with. Unfortunately, when the newcomers came to America, they didn’t recognize the importance of the indigenous crops that the natives were growing. They didn’t recognize the importance of the natives, either, and pushed them off their ancestral lands. If you are not a grower but are searching for a root heritage, buy your food from growers who understand this and have established their own roots. They will bring you into the fold.
When you start a seed library, you will need a quantity of seeds to get the ball rolling. If you are patient and plan far enough ahead when setting up your project, you can contact gardeners and farmers at the beginning of a growing season and ask them to save seeds for you. That way, you will be starting with varieties that grow well in your region. I will not be telling you how to save seeds, since there are already many books and web resources available that do that. Have as many of these resources available to your potential seed growers as possible. Make sure the donated seed is not designated as PVP or protected by a utility patent. Seed catalogs usually have that information in their variety descriptions.
If your project has been funded, you could buy seeds, especially if there are specific varieties you want to acquire. However, at the end of each year, seed companies have seeds left over that they cannot sell the next year. They are still good, at least for a while, but being another year older, they may not meet the standards for sale by the seed company, and the company might be willing to give them to your seed project for free. Some companies ask you to pay the shipping and some don’t. With the recent surge in seed libraries, community gardens, and school gardens, seed companies can’t always keep up with the requests for free seeds. Keep in mind that, as much as they would like to be charitable, they are businesses that need to make a profit to keep going. Be respectful of that and don’t depend on their handouts to keep your seed library going after the first year.
You should acquire seeds from companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. The Council for Responsible Genetics maintains a list of such companies on its website. In order for people to save seeds to bring back, you need to avoid hybrid seeds. The seeds saved from a hybrid plant won’t necessarily grow out to be the same as the parent. You can get some interesting things from hybrids, but you need something you can depend on for a seed sharing project. You need to have seeds that are open pollinated and not genetically modified.
When acquiring seeds, pay close attention to the source. Just like with people, the health of the parent plants affects their offspring. The best seeds need to be saved from healthy, robust plants. When the plants are forming seeds, the weather, the amount of nutrients available to the plants, and competition from weeds all affect the health of the seeds.
It is extremely important to remember that seeds are alive. Even if they appear dormant, they are still respiring, giving off oxygen and taking in carbon dioxide. The conditions you keep them in will determine how long they stay viable (able to grow when the conditions are right). Seeds need to be kept cool and dry. Heat is usually detrimental to seeds. Ideally, seeds should be stored at 32–41 degrees F (0–5 degrees C). If you are storing seeds at room temperature, consider the guideline that for every 10 degrees F (5.6 degrees C) the storage temperature is lowered, the length of time the seeds will stay viable is doubled. You could store seeds in a freezer, but you need to make sure they are very dry. Too much moisture in the seeds could rupture their cells when they freeze. Very dry seeds can withstand extremes of heat and cold better than seeds with more moisture. For every one percent increase in seed moisture, longevity decreases by half. A guideline to use is to add the relative humidity of the storage area and the temperature. Ideally, those two numbers should add up to less than 100. In reality, I don’t believe my seed storage areas have ever met those criteria. You can monitor your seed storage areas with a combination thermometer/hygrometer.
Hot humid climates are hard on seeds. Nevertheless, even though I live in Virginia which is hot and humid, I don’t take extreme measures to save seeds. I dry them at room temperature, leaving them set out on plates or in bowls in the house, stirring occasionally. We do not have air conditioning. After a few weeks, or when I think they are sufficiently dry (timing depends on the seeds and the atmosphere), I store them in airtight containers, usually glass canning jars. Glass jars with lids with rubber seals, such as canning jars, are the best. You can store seeds in paper envelopes and put many envelopes in the same jar. Always clearly label everything, keeping different lots of seeds separate if you think it will be necessary to know the difference in lots later. Seeds that came from different lots of parent seeds, or were grown, harvested, or stored differently might behave slightly different when grown out, or the germination rate might differ. Particularly if you have some seeds that you suspect might not be as viable as others, keep them separate and label accordingly. Or, you might have seeds from some plants that did exceptionally well and you want to keep track of their progeny.
Seeds that have been stored in a refrigerator or freezer need to come to room temperature before the packages are opened; otherwise, the moisture in the air will quickly be absorbed by the seeds. For this reason, seeds stored in bulk in a library for patrons to package themselves should be kept at room temperature. The bulk containers could be kept out during the months they are needed for planting and stored in a cooler place the rest of the year. If the desire is to keep a seed cabinet stocked all year for patrons, in the off-months a limited number of packets could be kept in the cabinet with a note that more is available in storage.
I have to admit, since I succession plant through the gardening year, I tend to let my seeds sit around in the house in places not ideal for long-term viability, but convenient for me. However, I know that since I save many varieties each year, my supplies are replenished often, so it is not a problem. A seed library, though, should hold itself to the highest standards it can (although they may not be the highest standards possible), since the patrons are depending on the library for good seeds. If your seed project is in a public building, the relatively cool, dry conditions that generally exist will be fine for most seeds for a couple of years. You do what you can with what you have. From the beginning of your project, it is good to label the seeds with the year they were grown by the donor or packaged for sale by the seed company. A seed library should strive to have a regular turnover of seeds, which may take a few years to establish. A seed bank, on the other hand, stores seeds for the long term and not everything is grown out every year or two. A seed bank would need more strenuous regulation of their storage facilities than a seed library. Books on seed saving and Internet resources have charts available that will give you an idea as to the longevity of the seeds of each crop, but the best way to tell if they are still viable is to do a germination test.
Doing a germination test is a way to predict how well your seeds will sprout in the garden. If you have ever sprouted seeds to eat, the concept is the same. Keep the seeds moist and they will grow. With a test, you need to be able to count the number of sprouted seeds to determine the percent of germination. Most directions suggest using paper towels to do a test, but I prefer using a coffee filter, so that’s what I’ll refer to. With a pen (no water-soluble ink), write the name of the variety and the date on the coffee filter, along with any other information that you want to remember about the seeds. Thoroughly wet it, then press out the excess water. Place a minimum of ten seeds on the filter. The more you put there, the more accurate your test is, but make sure to record the number. Seed companies use 100 seeds at a time in their tests. Fold up the damp filter with the seeds inside and put it in a container with a lid to keep it moist. Numerous tests can be put in the container at the same time. After a few days, take a look at what is happening. If 8 of the 10 seeds germinated, you have an 80 percent germination rate. If you started 20 seeds, 80 percent germination would have resulted in 16 seeds germinating.
Some seeds take longer to germinate than others, and you will have to put the folded filters back in the container and check again later —adding some water if necessary. Be patient. Pepper seeds, for example, can take as long as three weeks to germinate. When you are sure all that is going to germinate has done so, record the count. Label your supply of those seeds with the date and germination rate. When seeds are donated from a seed company, they may have the date and germination rate from the last test on the packaging. Sometimes they are labeled as having poor germination. When you distribute those seeds, make sure your patrons know that. I once acquired some cabbage seeds that were rated as poor germination in a seed swap, and, in fact, nothing grew. It was good to know from the beginning that the problem was with the seed and not something else. Poor germination may be due to the age of the seeds; however, it can also be due to other factors. Some seeds require scarification to help crack the seed coat; other seeds need light to germinate. Research the requirements of the specific crops you are working with.
There is a minimum legal germination rate that seeds have to meet before they can be sold. For example, it might be interesting to know that the minimum legal germination rate of cucumbers and lettuce is 80 percent, tomatoes 75 percent, and carrots 55 percent. You can find the minimum legal germination rates for seeds in the Master Charts in How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. The germination rate needs to be taken into account when distributing seeds to your patrons, whether they are distributed pre-packaged or the patrons help themselves. Not every seed can be counted on to grow. However, with good, fresh homegrown seed, you just might have some with 100 percent germination.
For the most genetic diversity, you would want to save seeds from as many plants as possible, not only the best ones. Plants with genes that allow them to do well with less water will do the best in the dry years. Conversely, plants with genes that allow them to thrive with more water will do well in wet years. And so it goes for other characteristics. You want to preserve as diverse a variety of genes as possible because each year is different. Save from the best plants, but also save from a cross section of plants to preserve the genes that express themselves the best under conditions that are not present that particular year. There will likely be some rouging (taking out anything that is not true-to-type), so that needs to be allowed for when deciding how many seeds to plant. Familiarize yourself with the common characteristics of each variety you are working with so you know what true-to-type is. The descriptions and photos in the seed catalogs will guide you.
How each crop produces seeds affects the minimum number of plants necessary for good diversity. With self-pollinating plants (also known as selfers), such as peas, beans, and tomatoes, 20 plants are enough to save seeds from if you are trying to preserve the whole variety. If you save from fewer or only one plant, you will be saving a sub-line of that variety, otherwise known as a strain. For plants that are pollinated with the help of the wind or insects, such as corn, kale, and sunflowers, 40 to 200 plants are recommended to maintain the variety. Most home gardeners save from far fewer plants than that each year. But if your seed library has more than one gardener bringing back seeds of the same variety, those seeds combined could make the necessary number of plants saved from. I knew a gardener once who saved his own squash seeds, but in some years, he would buy seeds to grow along with his saved seeds. He said it added diversity to his squash. On the other hand, if you are developing a local strain with certain characteristics unique to your area, this seed-breeding effort might begin with only a few special plants. You can learn more about that from Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe. The danger of cross pollination and isolation distances — how far apart to plant to prevent cross pollination — is found in most seed saving resources, and this is information you want to make sure your seed savers have.
Reprinted with permission from Seed Libraries by Cindy Conner and published by New Society, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Seed Libraries.
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