Drying and Saving Seeds for Long Term Storage
It is the end of the seed growing season and the local hardware store will soon have their seeds on sale – dirt cheap. Just because seed packets are given an expiration date, it doesn’t mean that the seeds actually EXPIRE after the current year. I’m going to save seeds in my own seed vault. They will be viable for 10 years.
Why 10 years? I can start now to build a supply of family favorites, which we can use to be more self-reliant. Once my plan is implemented, I won’t have to be dependent on those big seed companies in the future.
First a Little Seed Primer, What Kinds of Seed Should You Be Storing?
Heirloom Seeds have been around for a long time, some are even from the early 1800’s. So far, experts in the field agree that heirloom vegetables are old, open-pollinated cultivars. To be an heirloom, the plant must have a reputation for being high quality, have good taste and be easy to grow.
Once hard to get, heirloom seeds are now easier to purchase, thanks to businesses like Seed Savers Exchange. Hundreds of thousands of people, worldwide are interested in saving these old time seeds for future generations. Some local nurseries are also carrying them as part of their yearly stock.
If you are growing a garden with the intent of being self-reliant and saving your own seeds for the next year harvest, then heirloom and open pollinated seeds are what you want to grow. They will produce a reliable and consistent crop, year after year.
Hybrid Seeds (F-1, F-2) are relatively new in the gardener’s world, only being available since 1951. This seed will produce true to form only once. So, if you grow your favorite F-1 hybrid broccoli – that one that puts out great side-shoots – you cannot save the seed and expect to get the same plant next year. Hybrid seeds are only good for one year.
That doesn’t mean that you should not put hybrid seeds in your seed vault, it just means that they cannot be the ONLY kind of seed you are saving.
I have not yet perfected the art of seed saving from my yard. Each year I try to learn how to save a different seed. I only pick the ones that have produced especially well. It seems that every kind of vegetable and flower has its own unique process to be followed and I have much to learn about when to harvest seeds and how to store them.
“Seed saving is a skill largely lost these days. With seed packages widely available, who needs to save seeds anymore? You can simply buy more in the spring, right? The problem with many common garden seeds is their origin as a hybrid. And many of these hybrid varieties have been bred for size, or resistance to a particular disease, and not for that old-time flavor.” (source)
Genetically Modified Crops (GMOs) are becoming more ingrained in the seed industry every year. They are defined as plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species.
Examples in food crops include resistance to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, or resistance to chemical treatments. (source Wikipedia) I’m going to let you make your own decision about whether you want to introduce this type of seed into your seed vault. Do the research!
Reason number one for saving seeds is that it is cheaper than buying pre-packaged seeds from your local supermarket or nursery. Saving seeds involves a moderate amount of work but it will pay dividends as there are several other reasons to save seeds:
Why Saving Seeds?
- Saving seeds helps you become more self-reliant. You won’t have to rely on seed companies to get your seeds every year.
- By saving seeds, you’ll help varieties adapt to your local conditions; the more plant generations you plant from the same seed, the more likely the plant gets fully adapted to your local microclimate and soil conditions, which will result in a healthier, happier and very productive crop.
- You’re in full control. By knowing which kind of seeds, you have on hand, you know exactly what you’ll be eating. Seeds sold in supermarkets are chemically coated or genetically engineered. Heirloom varieties are the best, but hybrids can turn into heirlooms over the years too, with the caveat that they’re highly unpredictable, which is why you should source your heirlooms from professionals.
- You’ll help promote biodiversity by bringing your input to the reproduction and breeding of seed. The current trend is to uniformize seeds on an industrial scale. According to National Geographic, in less than a century we lost a staggering 93% of variety in our food seeds. Currently there are just 12 corn varieties left in the U.S.A. In the 1900s, there were more than 300 varieties and the list can go on with many other staple food crops.
- You contribute to plants’ natural resistance against bugs and disease. Monocultures do not only remove the nutrients in soil while giving nothing in return, they are also less resilient when it comes to pests and disease, and more reliant on chemicals to stay bug- and disease-free. Also, chemicals will kill the good guys in your soil too, not just the bad guys, which can wreak havoc on the health of our soil. Crop variety will take care of pest control issues in the most natural and gentle way, even though many farmers would rather sacrifice variety for the profits. You can understand more about the importance of biodiversity for farming by researching permaculture.
- Extending the harvest. There’s a practical reason there are so many early, mid-, and late season varieties of seeds out there: You cannot eat or sell all the harvest before it goes bad if all your seeds ripen at the same time. Commercial seeds (we call them hybrids) will usually provide an all-at-once harvest, which is great if you’re an Agribusiness behemoth, but a real pain if you’re a small family of farmers.
- Flavor matters. Reckless genetic hybridization and altering have rendered the taste of most our beloved food crops horribly bland. Heirloom varieties are often tastier and more colorful than their hybrid counterparts, even though hybrids may produce more than heirlooms (at least the first generation). So, if you’re sick of tomatoes or green beans tasting like cardboard, start saving seeds today!
I’ll let Dr. Vandana Shiva bring more reasons to start saving seeds.
Approximate Seed Viability
Not all seeds are created equal. Some go bad faster than the others, such as onion, garlic, and parsnip seed. Here’s the approximate seed viability in normal conditions of some of the most popular crops:
- About 1 Year
- Sweet Corn
2. Up to 3 to 4 Years
- Brussel sprouts
3. Up to 5 to 6 Years
DIY Seed Vault – Seed Saving Techniques for up to 10 Years
Drying your seed is the best way to bring them into true dormancy. The oldest known seeds were found in the ruins of the Masada Fortress in Israel. “The seeds probably survived for so long because of the extremely arid conditions of the Masada mesa”, said Cary Fowler, seed preservation expert and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
The trick to drying seeds is controlling the temperature while you are doing the drying. That means that using a food dehydrator, oven, or microwave will not give you enough control over the temperature.
Exposing the seed to temperatures over 100 degrees decreases your chance of germination. Getting seeds too hot can make them sterile. The best way to get the most moisture out is to use super-dried rice, which will suck the moisture out of your seeds without a temperature fluctuation.
Seeds have the ability to last a tremendous amount of time given certain factors. The most successful of these techniques are drying and freezing, which is easy to learn.
You Will Need:
- Enough rice to fill a quart canning jar 2/3 full (too little rice will not pull out enough moisture)
- A quart canning jar with lid
- Seed packets, mesh or muslin bags or an old pair of stockings
- A baking tray and oven
1. Spread enough rice to fill a canning jar 2/3rd’s full onto a baking tray. Do not grease your pan.
2. Bake the rice at 350 degrees, for 45 minutes, or until it is bone dry.
3. Place the still warm rice into your canning jar and tighten the lid. This prevents moisture from the air re-hydrating the rice.
4. WAIT patiently for it to cool.
5. Once the rice is completely cool, place your seeds in a paper seed packet, muslin or mesh bag, and place it in the jar with the rice. Be sure and tighten the lid so moisture stays out.
6. After 2 weeks in the rice jar, your seeds will have been thoroughly dried and are now dormant and ready to store.
If you didn’t do it before, transfer your seeds to a packet with the name of the seed and the date clearly marked on the outside. Place the envelope in a plastic zip bag and zip the bag shut, squeezing out as much air as possible. You can also use a Food-saver and vacuum seal them.
Place the bag with the seeds into the back of the freezer where it won’t be disturbed. If you keep your seed in a cool place they will last up to 10 years.
For convenience and to reduce introducing moisture to the other seed, split the seeds into yearly planting groups so you only need to pull out the ones you want to use each year. Use this method and you could have a continual 10-year rotation of seed to use.
Make your own seed packets from this template. Be sure you write down the type of seed – heirloom or hybrid – because that will determine whether you can store seeds from the plant again next year.
You can save seed from your yard, purchase it from your local nursery or from these trusted companies online. I have been pleased with my past purchases from Botanical Interests. They have an extensive heirloom seed selection and customer service is top notch.
Seeds for Generations is another company that I like to support. This is a wonderful family business selling only heirloom seeds and getting their kids involved in the process. I also use this reliable source, Mary’s Heirloom Seeds.
The process of drying seeds, whether from your garden or the local nursery, is a simple step to take toward self-reliance. Create your own seed vault that will last for at least 10 years.
Turn an Ammo Can into a Seed Vault
Some gardeners store their seeds for up to 10 years in ammo cans. But they do place the seeds in an envelope and paper bag to control moisture. Keep the ammo can or any other metal container but with a seal-tight lead in a cool, dark place without extreme temperature variations, which are seeds worst enemy.
I’ve heard of preppers being able to germinate their seeds stored this way after 10 to 15 years, but it also depends on seed viability (don’t expect onion, for instance, to last that long.). Another big plus of turning an ammo can into a seed vault is that these containers are rodent and moisture proof. Just make sure that the seeds are properly dried to avoid spoilage.
Storing Seeds in Mylar Bags
Especially in very humid temperatures, storing seeds in a mylar bag after being thoroughly dried and vacuum sealed can seriously prolong their shelf life. This method keeps three of seeds’ arch enemies at bay: oxygen, humidity, and insects. Too much oxygen will prompt them to exit their dormant state and germinate while too much humidity may make them rot.
In a vacuum sealed bag, insects are more likely to die and their eggs less likely to hatch. This way vacuum sealing is a cost-effective way of keeping nasty bugs away from your precious seeds without having to add nasty chemicals to them.
Add the mylar bag with the stored seeds in a tin container or mason jar to make them rodent proof as well. Some insects might puncture the bags too. Also, take note that pointy seeds might puncture the bag when you vacuum sealing them. I learned from a prepper to place pointy things between two pieces of cardboard in the bag you are about to vacuum seal to avoid this problem.
If you don’t have the money to invest in a vacuum sealer, you could try to reverse the air flow direction in a bicycle pump (there are plenty of tutorials online). This method works best if you plan on storing your seeds in an air-tight glass jar with a tin lid.
And if you think building a DIY seed vault from scratch is too much work, there are plenty of ready-made seed vaults that you can buy. The major drawback of a commercial survival seed vault is that you are not the one to choose what seeds make it into your vault.
Also, (cheaper) products contain online hybrid seeds which are a Russian roulette when it comes to the quality of seeds after the first generation.
The good news is that there are commercial seeds vaults that contain heirloom seeds and that are packaged in a way that guarantees seed viability for up to two to three decades (!) – a feat home growers cannot achieve unless they use the vacuum sealing + freezer method, but the results are not always consistent.
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Linda Hayes says
I needed this information. I’ve never heard of using rice but it makes sense. Thanks for clear directions. Happy seed saving, Linda
Adrienne @ Whole New Mom says
So are you using rice that is already dry? Does it really need to be baked? Thanks!
Hi Adrienne- Love your site! Yes, you do need to bake the rice to remove any remaining moisture.
Don’t think I will try this, but your information about modifiedcseeds is very interesting. For many decades I have deadheaded marigolds and replanted the seeds to grow many plants with great success, except for the last 2-3 years.
You have inspired me. I have saved seeds from my heirloom tomatoes (German Johnsons, Purple Krim, Russian Purple) for a couple of years, but I knew there was a better way to make sure they would stay dry.
I have one heirloom tomato that hybridized with a hybrid roma. Crossing Krims with romas… not intentional… with mixed results. (Calling it a Kroma for now.)
But your method of keeping seeds allows me to “preplan” my garden for next year, and “retire” other seeds for years to follow. This way, I’m not potentially leaving seeds where they could be damaged or compromised. I’m using widemouth canning pints with plastic lids, labeling the lids for upcoming years, or (in one case) extra heirloom tomato varieties.
Thanks Katrina, I’m glad you’ve found this “old fashioned” way to save your favorite seeds. Happy gardening!
I am relatively new to gardening and am excited to start harvesting and saving seeds from my heirloom veggies. This method sounds like a great way to save seeds long-term, but I do have two questions: 1) Do the seed packets need to be kept in the jar with the rice for long-term storage, and 2) If I choose to freeze some seeds, do they need to be dried in the rice first? Thanks so much!!
Ann Jackson says
I have noticed that when I use ziplock bags in the freezer I still get air inside them no matter how hard I try. Is there a trick? Or is a little air ok?
I think a little air is ok, Ann. It’s pretty much impossible to get it all out.
Mary Frances says
Saved white cherry tomato seeds-Rutgers, and flowers seeds.
I use a compost pile–no one mentioned NOT placing old tomatoes in the compost bin. Looks like they survived the February Ice Storms here–I used compost in gardens, flower beds and Iris poking around in the woods. I have tomato plants in geraniums, the woods and cuke cumber and strawberry fields –OOPS!!
Well, at least it’s a useful plant, right Mary!
Karen Coghlan says
This is such a good post… I never knew that you could freeze seeds… thank you!
New gardener. At the beginning of your article, you mentioned that seeds can be bought cheap at the end of the season. Would you store these seeds and some packets that were partly used in the past season in the rice jar as well?
Hi Kim, yes I would break them down into small groups by how much I would use in a year. I will probably use a whole package of lettuce seed, but only a few seeds from a pumpkin packet. That includes my opened packets from this year too.
Charles Rene Ache says
I love collecting seeds. Thanks for the information.
If you are interested in saving seeds, or would just like to correspond with other “like minded sustainable gardeners” please visit green country seed savers. http://seedsavingnetwork.proboards.com/
It’s a non-commercial seed saving site put together by two local seed savers in Northeastern Oklahoma. It is their goal for each member to take on a specific type of crop, and diligently work to become an expert on that particular plant, in an attempt to not only preserve the species through better seed saving, but to also improve the variety through careful selection, and then to write about their experiences through sharing a thread on the green country seed savers website. There is a wealth of free, and well thought out gardening, and seed saving advice there.
It is their hope that satellite seed saving groups will form from those threads and subsequent replies, each group growing seeds that are specific to a certain locality. In other words, local seeds grown for a certain location by people living in that local area, to be distributed among that group of local gardeners and farmers. As it is, big box seed companies distribute seeds grown in one part of the Country, to gardeners all over the United States. As a result, many of the seeds we purchase as a Nation do not perform well in our diverse, and unique local environments.
It is the green country seed savers goal that this practice of distributing seeds to environments they were not conditioned to grow well in will change, as the result of concerted efforts of several diverse local seed saving groups across the United States and beyond; each group saving seeds to be distributed among their own local members.
Part of the green country seed savers wider goal is also to import and export seeds to between groups, so these seeds can become acclimated to their respective environments, before wider distribution locally. An example of this can be seen by the Tahlequah, Oklahoma group exchanging a local prolific variety of okra seeds, and a local variety of heavily producing beans, with a man from Panama, who sent them Bitter Melon seeds, as well as a sample of his best producing okra. These seeds will be grown out locally for several generations, until they become acclimated to the Tahlequah area, then they will be shared locally, as an acclimated variety to Tahlequah area gardeners.
I read your process for saving heirloom tomato seeds through fermentation–so how do I know if I need to go through a different process for other seeds–like cucumber, broccoli, beans, peas, corn, carrots–? Do this drying method work for everything besides tomatoes?
Is there a good guide for how to access/save the seeds from every garden plan?
Thanks–I’m a newbie!
This fermenting process is only used on seeds that have a mucous membrane around them. Right now the only other one I can think of is chia seed. All other seeds are just dried and are ready to go.
James Burnette says
This is a much better solution than going and buying a crazy expensive seed vault