Save Your Seed
by Mary Jasch
Saving Johnny’s apple seeds may not be as viable as you think, for saving seed is not only an art and a science, it’s a lifestyle.
Saving seed is a process and, as with anything, if you’re going to spend your precious time, you may as well do it right to have healthy, viable seed of your favorite heirlooms to plant for years to come.
So why bother instead of just buying seeds every year? Many reasons: to retain your own family heritage, to have a healthy food supply, to protect diversity, and saving and sharing them for the future.
To some, saving seed means more than successful saving and germination. Take Sister Miriam MacGillis, founder of Genesis Farm, Blairstown, NJ. Genesis Farm is an ecological learning center founded in 1980 by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, NJ. It explores some of the deeper ecological questions of our times and has sponsored the creation of a Community Supported Garden at Genesis Farm as part of its educational mission.
“The future of our food supply rests on saving seeds and the integrity of seeds. Seeds are the carriers of the memory of that whole process” (the Earth and Universe as a single, unfolding process), explains Miriam. “To me they are sacred and to tamper with the integrity of that process is human arrogance and human folly.”
In the Demonstration Gardens, headed by Linda Keirnan, and the CSG, headed by Judy von Handorf, saving seed is about growing open-pollinated plants organically in their own compost, using companion plants that benefit the main crop and attract pollinators, using trap plants and communing with Nature. It’s everything about the garden – physical, scientific, ecological, spiritual.
At Heritage Farm in Iowa, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) saves and shares over 20,000 plant varieties among its 13,000 members through Virtual Seed Swapping. Members can list the seeds they have available online for exchanging, and can browse the listings and request seeds from other members, says Alicia Chilton, Marketing and Development Manager. Non-members can buy from their online catalog.
“Members are important in a few ways. One is that they were the source of many of the varieties in our collection. Second, they share the seeds creating a robust network of distribution. Varieties are safest in the hands of many capable gardeners. Finally, their memberships and donations provide the financial support we need to maintain our plant collection,” says Tim Johnson, Seed Bank Manager & Head of Preservation, SSE.
Most of SSE’s collection is maintained as seeds, but vegetatively propagated crops like apples and grapes are maintained as perennial plantings. Seeds saved from an apple true will not grow up to have the same characteristics of the parent. Every apple tree of a 'Red Delicious' is a grafted cutting that originated from a single tree,” he says.
But how long has seed purchased from typical seed companies lived before reaching our hands and how does it affect germination?
“When you buy seed, you don’t know how old that seed is, says Johnson. “You just know that the germination is good. When seed ages, there’s a point at which the seed starts dying very quickly. We try to keep seed away from that shoulder. Hybrid seeds don’t die faster than any other seeds. Some seed companies publish germination rates on packets, but most don’t. SSE packets state the germination rate.
As long as seeds meet minimum standards for interstate sales, the exact germ doesn’t need to be published, he says. “Instead, seed companies must be able to trace seed back to a seed lot and they must have a recent germination test on file for that lot (germination tests are good for one year). Some companies do still publish germination rates on their packages but, germ tests are just a snapshot in time and the seeds are dying all the time. If you treat them poorly – leave them in a hot car, expose them to high humidity – they die faster. If they sat in a hot warehouse or showroom floor before you bought them, germination will suffer. So I am guessing most companies choose not to publish it because it is likely to have gone down between the time when the test was completed and when the seed is actually planted.”
Caches of seed can remain viable for four or five years if properly stored in a cold, dry and dark place. Here’s how to extend the life of your seeds.
Tim Johnson’s Advice on How to Save Your Own Open-pollinated Seed
Step 1. Dry the seed by air movement with a fan or air-conditioner in low relative humidity. Dry them down as fast as possible. For tomato seed and other small seed surrounded by fleshy fruit, put them in a container of water for a couple days. Give them a few good shakes, then rinse clean and dry on paper towels. It usually takes between two to four weeks with air in relative humidity-controlled rooms.
Step 2. Temperature: Seeds live longer at cooler temperatures. Why freeze and not store in refrigerator? If you freeze your seeds, make sure they are dry because water will crystallize like knives and kill cells in the seeds. There are ways to test seeds to see if they are dry enough.
Step 3. Testing for Dryness. Method A: Brittleness test. Seeds are dry enough for storage when they can be cleanly snapped in half. If it snaps, it’s dry. If it bends without snapping, it’s not dry. This works best with squash or melon seeds than with corn and very small seeds.
Method B: Seal the seeds in a small, airtight container along with a hygrometer (Relative Humidity meter). If the relative humidity in the container equilibrates to around 20-25% RH at room temperature (68-70F), the seed is likely dry enough to freeze without damaging it.
In most cases, it’s trial and error. Don't freeze seeds you can't live without until you know that your seed saving methods produce seed that can be reliably frozen. Put a few backup seeds in the refrigerator or in the basement – then test the freezer seeds to see how they are doing.
Step 4. Darkness. It’s not about growing. It’s about the decomposition that happens when temperatures increase in direct light.
SSE saves its seed in three locations: Most are onsite in a seed vault – a walk-in, lab-grade, chest freezer set at 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) with an off-site back-up at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resource Preservation, USDA Fort Collins, Colorado. Lastly, at Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway is the “Dooms Day Vault (yes, in case of emergency, pull the lever)” where seed companies and organizations store duplicates of food seeds.
Says Johnson: “It’s amazing when you think how small changes have a huge impact on life.”
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published August 25, 2016