Whether you’re prepping for the zombie apocalypse or just trying to become a more self-sufficient homesteader, the ability to store seeds is an important skill to know. While gardening is somewhat of an art form, anybody can throw a handful of seeds in some dirt and grow things. The problem is, if you don’t have good seeds, you can’t even do that. So what’s the best way?
Plant Heirloom Seeds
Most vegetables you buy in the grocery store (even the “organic” ones) are hybrids. They’re cross-bred from two or more different varieties of the same plant specifically for uniformity and shelf life, and not so much for taste. You can save seeds from hybrid vegetables to be replanted, but they probably won’t do very well. If they grow, the plant will likely be weak, the fruit small, and the harvest sparse. Even still, if you get a decent harvest the first year and save seeds from it, the next year won’t be as good. Eventually, you’ll not have a harvest at all, and then you’re stuck. The end results may be either sterile or plant that is totally different from the original plant.
The best thing you can do is start with some really good quality organic heirloom seeds. Heirlooms grow some of the most delicious fruits and vegetables you’ll ever eat, and you can save the seeds from harvest to harvest. Seeds from each harvest can be planted the following year to grow the exact same kind of plant as the year before – generally with the same yield and taste. It’s also best to find heirlooms that are non-GMO (genetically modified organism) due to the potential harmful effects on your body and the environment.
Saving Heirloom Seeds
So you’ve gotten some good heirloom seeds, planted them and had a bountiful harvest. Now it’s time to start saving the seeds. Growing seasons usually follow a bell curve. The first few fruits are good, as are the last few. In between the first few and last few, you’ll get your best fruits – the ones from which you’ll want to save your seeds. Some are harder to get to than others.
It’s easy to save seeds from peppers. Simply scrape them out and let them dry naturally until they break rather than bend. Dry them on a glass or ceramic surface – like a mirror or a dinner plate. Seeds will stick on paper towels or paper plates when dried (which can be a good thing if you’re making seed tape, but that’s not what we’re doing here). Stirring the seeds a couple of times a day will help them dry faster and ensure they don’t stick together in a clump.
Melons and winter squash seeds are easy, too. All you have to do is rinse the them well in a mesh strainer. Before you dump the seeds out you’ll want to pat the bottom of the strainer to remove as much moisture as possible so you don’t dump a bunch of water onto the plate. Then just pour them out onto your mirror or dinner plate to dry, stirring a couple of times a day.
Tomato seeds are encased in a gelatinous membrane and need to be fermented to break the “goo” away from the seeds. Slice the tomato in half and squeeze the seeds and juice into a mason jar. Add half as much water to the jar, and cover with a coffee filter or paper towel and secure it with the band from the lid (without the lid itself). The filter (or paper towel) will allow air to get in without letting much of the funky smell get out. You can also do this in a plastic cup and secure the cover with a rubber band if you’d like. At this point, some people say you should stir the mixture once or twice a day for 3-4 days, but I have never done that. Just letting the mixture sit for that amount of time undisturbed has always worked fine for me.
Anyway, after 3-4 days, the top of the water will start to foam and smell – this is a normal part of the seed fermentation process. When bubbles start to rise to the top, or when a thick coat of mold has formed, you can stop the fermentation. Remove the cover, add enough water to double the mixture, and stir well. You can put the lid on the mason jar and shake it, too. When you stop stirring or shaking, the good, clean seeds will begin to settle to the bottom of the jar. Pour off the gunk on top and any floating seeds (they’re all hollow). Add more water and repeat the process until only clean seeds remain.
Strain the clean seeds through your mesh strainer (again, patting the bottom as with the melon seeds). Put the seeds on a glass or ceramic plate and keep them stirred up a couple of times a day. It’s a smart idea to point a fan at them on low to help them dry faster – moist tomato seeds tend to germinate quickly! You could also dry your seeds in a food dehydrator for guaranteed effectiveness.
Storing Heirloom Seeds
Now that you have your heirloom seeds dried out, what should you keep them in to ensure long life? There are actually a number of options. The number one thing to remember is that you want to protect the seeds from moisture and oxygen so they don’t go bad.
- Save your seeds in paper seed envelopes, then place those packages into glass jars with metal lids (like large canning jars or cleaned-out spaghetti sauce jars).
- Wrap your seeds in aluminum foil, and store them in plastic zipper bags. Place a desiccant packet inside to absorb excess moisture.
- Aluminum coated plastic bags, like mylar bags, can also be used. They can be sealed at home with an iron, flat iron, or a bag sealer.
If your seeds are in packages safe from oxygen and moisture, you can store them in the refrigerator or freezer. If you choose to refrigerate or freeze your seeds, make sure you take them out a day before planting and let them return to room temperature.
The more carefully you store your seeds, the longer they will last. Also remember that seeds of different crops have different shelf lives. A general rule, larger seeds keep longer than smaller ones.
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