In the beloved childhood fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack receives magic beans in exchange for a cow. The beans miraculously grow into a gigantic beanstalk which brings riches to Jack and his mother. Of course, everyone knows that seeds do not produce magical beans in real life, but if you find yourself in a disaster without a lot of food, stored seeds may seem pretty miraculous.
Selecting the Best Seeds
The selection of seeds to plant in your garden is vital to harvesting usable seeds later on. Experts suggest planting heirloom seeds and forgoing the use of hybrid seeds. The latter are genetically modified, which means they do not produce the healthiest vegetables and the seeds cannot be harvested. Plants that are grown naturally contain far more nutrients, yielding a sustainable food source when harvested and stored properly.
In order to harvest seeds, you’ll need to know the lifecycle of each plant. Annuals such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, okra, and eggplant complete their entire lifecycle from seed to flower in one growing season. All their roots, stems and leaves die at the end of each season. Biennials such as Brussels sprouts, beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, endive, kale, kohlrabi, leek, onion, and parsley usually require two growing seasons from seed to flowering. After the growing cycle is complete, they generally die. When you plant perennials, such as asparagus, rhubarb, and berries, you reap the benefits year after year, but you can still harvest seeds to plant elsewhere.
You’ll need to watch your plants to determine when the seeds are at the peak of ripening. After you pluck the seeds, dry them by laying them out on screens, wax paper, or newspaper. This can be done inside or outside, as long as there is plenty of sunlight. If you choose to dry seeds outside, cover them or bring them inside at night to expedite drying. Rotate and spread them out to ensure that all of the seeds dry out properly, which generally takes a few days. The larger the seeds, the longer the drying process.
Storing the Seeds
- Keep seeds in a cool to cold temperature of 40 degrees or less.
- Avoid temperature fluctuations, e.g., do not store them in a garage that is freezing cold in winter and extremely hot in summer.
- Select a dark place that is not subject to bright light, whether from the sun or artificial light. Seeds can be stored in a refrigerator or freezer.
- Choose moisture proof, airtight containers, such as Mylar bags, mason jars, or baby food jars. The exception is peas and beans, which need some air, so a small burlap bag is an ideal choice.
- Label the jars so you know their age—most seeds last 4-5 years.
- When you are ready to use your seeds, keep them in their closed storage containers until the seeds reach room temperature. This prevents condensation from settling on the seed packets.
An Insider’s Tip
Although it is not an exact science determining how many seeds to harvest and store, a simple test can help. To test the germination rate, take a paper towel and dampen it until it’s nearly soaked. Count out 10 seeds, place them on a paper towel, and carefully fold up the “little package” so it fits inside a plastic bag. Place it in a warm spot on the kitchen counter, making sure that the bag remains open slightly to allow a little airflow. You need to check the seeds often to see if they have sprouted. Once they have, simply count the number that have sprouted, e.g., 6 out of 10 is a germination rate of 60%. You need to store enough seeds to compensate for the “duds” that won’t sprout.
Harvesting and storing seeds doesn’t take a lot of time or effort in most cases, and very little space. Good things come in small packages, and seeds are a prime example. When a disaster strikes, you’ll be thankful that you’ve stored these magical little seeds.