By Hannah Dove
Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
—Henry David Thoreau
When did seed-saving begin? Why is it so valuable for our ecosystems?
Thousands of years ago, an indigenous gardener harvested a corncob only slightly larger than a fingernail. Taking care to save seed from the healthiest ears, this seed saver planted their open-pollinated treasures and harvested the seeds anew. This was done countless times before corn became recognizable to us today in its multitude of sizes, shapes and colors—and today, about 5,000 varieties of corn exist worldwide.
It took over 10,000 years to help create much of the world’s food diversity. Today however, 90% of the world’s nutrition is provided by only 30 different food crops, threatening the ecological diversity of our planet with mono-cropping. Genetic diversity strengthens soil health; promotes disease and insect resistance; and aids in the variation of nutrition, flavor and cultural food legacies of cultivars. But we are at risk of losing a large swath of our more than 1,500 different varities in North America within a single generation.
What’s the response to the call to preserve our food diversity? Seed-saving—an ancient ritual that you can do in your own backyard. You never know when a seed company may discontinue your favorite seed to make way for new varieties; seed-saving guarantees your heirloom tomatoes will continue for generations to come.
Are Your Ready to Save Seed?
Start by choosing which seeds you wish to save. When saving fruit and vegetable seeds, it’s important to choose open-pollinated varieties (seeds whose plants resemble the parent plants) or heirloom, self-pollinated varieties. That way, you can ensure that your saved varieties will grow true from seed. Annual self-pollinated fruits and veggies such as chicory, endive, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes and beans are often the easiest to save, while open pollinated garden plants including gourds, corn, cucumbers, and melons require extra attention concerning species, variety, and distance.
There are several different ways to then process and store your saved seeds. Dry seed processing is when you save seed that is partially dry while still on the plant, either captured in a bag after the seedpod opens or by putting the seed stalk into a paper bag to fully dry before the seed head opens. Wet seed processing in turn refers to scooping seeds out of the fully ripe or overripe fruit, fermenting the seeds in water for a few days rinsing to remove excess pulp, and spreading them out a coffee filter to dry. Seeds store best in a cool, dark, dry environment, where temperature and humidity should be less than 100; putting desiccant packs in with the seeds is a great way to preserve them.
MSHS is now offering a Seed Saving Kit that includes blossom bags, coin envelopes, and a link to Ben Cohen’s webinar Every Seed Has a Story. We also offer seed labels with the name and location of the harvest, as well as seed labels with the year harvested and additional notes.
Where can I go to donate saved seeds or find more resources?
Our Resource Hub includes different resources to help you save seed, including equipment suggestions and workshops on winter sowing. Or, sign up here to join the MN Seed Project, which will help with creating a library of native flowering seeds that will be shared with backyard and community garden growers, and join the Community Seed Network to get involved in your local seed-saving community! The MN SEED project is a collaboration among the St. Paul Seed Circle, Como Community Seed Library, West Side Seed Library, Duluth Community Garden Program and MSHS.
Hannah Dove was the MSHS communications intern in 2021.