Survival Seed Banks, Part 1: What Seeds Are Available?

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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Last winter I was kibitzing with my farmer friends about a typical seed bank. Today’s blog is a summary of our observations and analysis. Next week’s blog will detail my recommendations about what seeds I think the ideal survival seed bank would contain. The following week’s post will discuss how to store a seed bank.

The idea behind the marketing of emergency seed banks is to put together a bunch of different kinds of seeds, and seal them in a container, and put them on the shelf so that you can grow a garden if food from the grocery stores becomes unavailable.

Philosophically I think that the better emergency food strategy is to be growing a garden as part of a day-to-day lifestyle, and saving seeds so that they can become locally adapted. Then if grocery store food ever becomes scarce, we already have the knowledge, tools, soil fertility, gene pools, and manual skills to expand on existing gardens. I acknowledge that in today’s world of inexpensive and readily available fuel, it’s easier and less expensive to grow food in another hemisphere and import it into our local grocery stores. If that ever changes, then having a seed bank of maladapted highly-inbred varieties seems better than not having any seeds at all. I’d like to think that we can do better than that.

Comparing Seed Banks

While analyzing the seed bank, we did comparison shopping by making tentative orders from some of the more expensive online seed catalogs. If the sizes of seed didn’t match the seed bank we bought the next larger packet size. Our bottom-line price ended up being 1/3 the cost of what the seed bank was asking, and we ended up with more seeds.

The seed banks are marketed as having special packaging materials and techniques which greatly prolong the life expectancy of the seeds. I believe that this is mostly hype. Longevity seems mostly about storing seeds dry, not exposing them to high temperatures, and avoiding bugs and animals. I store seeds in glass jars in the spare bedroom. If I lived in a damper environment I’d include a desiccant with the seeds before storing. I test germination once a year. Most varieties store well, and I believe those that don’t would degrade about the same whether they are packaged in glass jars or in Mylar bags. If I had plenty of freezer space I’d store seeds in glass jars in the freezer. Life expectancy of frozen seeds is about 16 times that of seeds at room temperature. I’ll write more about storing seeds in two weeks.

I am especially skeptical of seed banks that claim that their seed can plant an acre of land, especially when the container that holds the seeds is the size of a soda bottle. One of my fields is three-quarters of an acre, so I have a good idea about how much seed is required to plant a field that size. It is much more than 20 or 30 small packets of seed. To put things in perspective to plant an acre takes approximately 14 pounds of sweet corn seed, or 5 pounds of squash seed, or 70 pounds of dry bean seed. That’s around 7 gallons of beans!!! I would expect the seed bank that we analyzed to plant about one-tenth acre, even though it claimed to be enough seed to plant an acre.

Plan for 1/3-Acre Survival Garden

This week’s photo shows the amount of seed that I would want if planting a bare-minimum, staples-only, 1/3 acre survival garden. It includes 13 ounces of landrace sweet corn, 21 ounces of landrace flour corn, 2 pounds of mixed dry beans, 14 ounces of peas, 2 ounces of beet seed, and 3 ounces of landrace squash seed. I took the photo to demonstrate that you aught to be aiming towards pounds or ounces of seed, and not packets. The bottle of beans all by itself is about the same size as the super deluxe seed bank that we reviewed.

In preparation for this article I reviewed the offerings of many survival seed banks. I was mostly dissatisfied with the quantity and types of seeds being offered. For example, one of the banks included 30,000 lettuce seeds and 20,000 celery seeds, but only 50 seeds each of beans, peas, and corn. They skimped on foods that store well and are easy to grow and have enough calories and nutrients to feed a family, and focused on watery low nutrition foods that are hard to grow and do not keep well. Additionally in my garden lettuce has a limited growing season. I can only harvest lettuce about 60 days per year, and my family wouldn’t eat more than a head of lettuce per day even if it was the only food available. A couple hundred lettuce seeds would be more than sufficient. I’d want more like 4000 corn seeds, 2000 bean seeds, and 3000 pea seeds. I’ll write more about that next week.

A common feature of the seed banks I reviewed was that they tended to include lots of tiny seeds for species that are not all that useful in a survival situation such as lettuce, celery, cauliflower, radish, basil, Brussels sprouts, spices, and eggplant. I think that even in good times, eggplant is not a food. Uugh! It makes great ad copy to state that the seed bank contains 100,000 seeds, but what’s the point of including 30,000 lettuce seeds? Fifty corn seeds is less than the amount commonly believed necessary to avoid inbreeding depression.

The seed banks tended to be skimpy on large seeded items for crops that are most useful as staples. A staple crop is a food that is easy to grow in large quantities and that can be stored for a long time without refrigeration. Traditional staples in northern climates are corn, dry beans, soup peas, winter squash, turnips, cabbage, beets, sunroots, potatoes, and carrots. I consider wheat to be iffy as a staple crop because harvesting by hand provides a meager return on investment compared to harvesting corn or pulses.

Seed Bank Vegetable Variety Offerings

The choice of varieties in the seed banks I reviewed was also troubling to me. A lot of them included varieties of tomatoes like Beefsteak or Brandywine. These are fine tomatoes if you have a long growing season of near perfect growing conditions, but they are not as productive nor as reliable as varieties that produce smaller fruits more quickly. The first tomato harvested in my garden is always a cherry tomato. I would have liked to have seen more cherry tomatoes offered. The seed banks often included Roma tomatoes which are very susceptible to blossom end rot. Why include a variety like that when there are so many non-susceptible tomatoes to choose from? Some of the seed banks included things like decorative corn or jack-o-lantern pumpkins. I’m certainly not going to be growing decorations in the midst of a food emergency!

Only one of the seed banks that I reviewed mentioned regionally adapted seeds. They claimed that the varieties of seeds that they put into their bank are chosen based on the region that the buyer is located in. I was somewhat pleased with that approach. They didn’t bother to mention what seeds are going to what regions, but at least they acknowledged that the problem exists. I am disappointed with the seed banks that were offering a one-size-fits-all collection of seeds for every garden in the world. In my ideal world, the seed bank manufactures would offer seed collections specific to each eco-region. In the usa there are 12 major eco-regions. I’d like to see each seed bank manufacturer offer at least 12 different versions of their seed bank with varieties selected specifically for each major eco-region. Those regions can be further subdivided into a multitude of smaller eco-regions.

I would have liked to have seen more varieties of each species rather than more seeds of a single inbred cultivar. Instead of one species of bean, I would have liked to have seen a dozen species. There’s no telling whether a particular variety or species will perform well in any specific garden, especially if there are climatic, or social, or environmental issues which interfere with normal cultivation practices. It’s much better in my opinion to throw 3 to 10 varieties of many different species into the ground. It seems like that is a more reliable way to find something that thrives. Then the second year we could grow seeds from the most productive and well adapted plants.

I really like the idea of mixed seed for an emergency seed bank. I was first exposed to the idea of packets of mixed seed about 20 years ago in the catalog of Pinetree Garden Seeds. I bought a packet of mixed radish seed. I loved it. Today many seed companies offer mixed seed. I think that they are one of the most useful and inexpensive ways to stock a survival seed bank.

I’d be perfectly happy including some types of hybrid seeds in a survival seed bank. For example, I would have included hybrid tomatoes. The reason that hybrid tomatoes have taken such a huge market share is because they tend to perform much better than highly inbred heirloom tomatoes. Even if the hybrids don’t breed true, their offspring are likely to perform better than open pollinated varieties. They will turn into landrace or open pollinated varieties once we start saving seeds from them.

A Call for Locally Adapted Seed Banks

Overall, we were highly disappointed with the offerings of the survival seed bank marketers. I think that we’d get a better product if there were growers in each neighborhood that offered locally-adapted landrace seed banks specifically selected via survival-of-the-fittest for that neighborhood. This is part of the reason that I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through the use of common sense and traditional methods.

In part two I’ll explore the varieties and quantities of seed that I think should be included in a survival seed bank. In part three I’ll write about long-term seed storage.