Friday, February 19, 2010

Being Thrifty - Or Doomerish - With Seeds: Creating Your Own Seed Vault

During last week's big snow, I began a worthy but somewhat tedious chore. The seed orders for the year had all come in. Not only do I succumb every year to the lure of buying too many varieties of seed, but even the smallest packets provide too much seed for me to grow in a given year. I've always been lackadaisical about storing my seeds. And that has always given me the excuse to buy more seed - so that it's fresh and viable - the following year.

I decided this year would be different. I went through all the seed - both newly arrived and saved from previous years - and separated out the portions of seed that would be planted this year. Some was discarded. The rest of what was still viable would be saved for future gardens. This was somewhat tricky, because I plan to succession plant this year. So I'll need some beet, carrot, spinach, brassica (cabbage family), and lettuce seeds for early season planting, and some for late season planting as well. Because I removed seed from the original packaging I had to make properly labeled seed envelopes for each portion. And to make it even more involved, there are enough seeds in some packets that I could set seeds aside for next year, and still have plenty for years beyond 2011. I wanted those two groups separated into different containers. Oh, and some packets of seed I had agreed to split with other gardeners. A whole lot of repackaging and relabeling, in other words.

I used the cool seed envelope method that El wrote about last year. Hers is vastly superior to the envelope I'd been using previously. So check that out if you're interested. Once the seeds were all divided up into the appropriately labeled envelopes, and the envelopes assembled into groups by anticipated usage date, I typed up a list of all the seeds in each group and printed copies of them so I'd have a record of each group for my garden notebook. I had planned to vacuum seal the seeds in plastic bags, and then put them in canning jars. But I found that even using a wide mouth, half-gallon jar wouldn't give me enough maneuvering room with the larger packs of seeds. So I settled for just putting all the seed envelopes into jars with desiccant packs saved from bottles of vitamin pills, along with seed lists for each jar. I arranged the lists such that they were legible through the sides of the jars. The jars were then vacuum sealed. Finally, I wrote a reminder warning to myself on the canning jar lid and secured it tightly with a canning jar ring.

These jars are headed for my chest freezer. The warning is to remind me not to open the jars or the seed packages until they have warmed up to the ambient temperature of the room. Why? Because if I open up frozen packages of seeds in a warm room, moisture will condense on the seeds and hasten their deterioration. Twenty-four hours at room temperature will prevent this. Now I just need to excavate a spot in the freezer where the jars will remain safe from knocks from heavy frozen items.

Most garden seeds will keep well enough in cool, dark, and dry conditions for 2-3 years. A few will be viable only for one year in such conditions (onions, parsnips), while others may last as much as 5-10 (cucumber, tomato). But we have hot, humid summers where I live. There is no spot I can just leave the seeds and count on favorable conditions for preservation. The method I've just outlined provides nearly ideal conditions for seed storage. I expect to be able to use even the parsnip and onion seed purchased this year well into the future. By separating seed to be used next year from the remaining seed, I will avoid the need to bring all the stored seeds back into bright, warm, moist conditions until I'm ready to divide my remaining seed stores.

So: my own frozen seed bank from the work of a few afternoons. You might do something like what I've done because you're dedicated to saving money, or because you're serious about saving heirloom seeds, or seed you've produced yourself. You might (justly) fear that Monsanto is hellbent on converting the entire global food supply into genetically modified crops on which they own the patents. Or you could do it because you believe the collapse is nigh and that seeds are going to be worth more than their weight in gold.

If you don't have a vacuum sealer, ask around. You might be able to borrow one just for this project if you know someone who has one. Or you could work with ziploc bags and just seal the mason jars tightly with lids and rings. Of course, if you have any serious doomer creds, you know the deep freeze will only last as long as the electricity does. But dry, and dark, and in a vacuum is still a much better storage plan for seeds than a cardboard box sitting in the dining room.


Amy said...

You are speaking my language with this. I have been consumed with thoughts of seeds this week. I am starting to think it is a sickness ;). I will be thankful come spring/summer that I put the time into planning now I am sure. I have never saved my seeds before and I hope to come up with a method this spring. I placed my seed order yesterday so I will be knee deep in seeds very soon.

Wendy said...

cardboard box sitting in the dining room

What!?! That's not how I should be storing my seeds. *grin*

All kidding aside, I really should do better, because, honestly, my current method isn't much better than the cardboard box on the dining room table.

Thanks for the information. I know it will come in handy.

Unknown said...

It hadn't occurred to me to vacuum seal these - and I vacuum seal almost everything! However, I do put my seeds in a jar, just in the refrigerator rather than the freezer. I stick it way in the back where it is coldest. I use these the next year. I guess if I want longer storage, the freezer is better?

Good tip for writing to wait on top! My brain seems to think the reverse - that opening them allows the condensation to disperse - so I would certainly blow it if I didn't write this on top.

susan said so said...

YOU, Miss Ever-So-Industrious, are my heroine. Seriously, I'm a lazy-a** who had forgotten about DIY popcorn until I read about it on your blog, for heaven's sake!

Through you, I can be vicariously self-sufficient. Does that count? No? Well, at least I can feel appropriately chagrined, and occasionally inspired (DIY popcorn!!)

Have I mentioned that your posts nearly always make me hungry?!


Kate said...

OPoCP, I'm oddly dreading the beginning of seed starting this year. I started a very few already. But I need to start in earnest very soon. I've got the schedule more or less worked out. I just need to execute it.

Wendy, you know it! I've had a few cardboard boxes over the years. It's just always niggled at the back of my mind, that I should be taking better care of the seeds. The annual order does add up to some money, so...

Amy, I can't claim to have figured out the condensation rule for myself, though I should have. Of course, I read it somewhere and should give credit. But as usual, I can't remember where I read it. Of course, that never stops me from passing along what seems like useful information.

Susan, this is an aberration, I assure you. I'm rarely so organized. But a rare combination of motives inspired me. Thus, this post.

LillyZoo said...

great post thank you

Linda Foley said...

VERY,Very good post! Thank you for that!

Ken Toney said...

Thanks for the great tips on storing seeds. I have been collecting seeds for a couple of years now. We have been storing them in envelopes in a cardboard box. I was thinking we should find a better way to store them so they will last. Great timing.

Chiot's Run said...

Great idea! I should do this since I often have too many seeds.

I often share seed packets with my mom & sister so I don't end up with too many extras.

Lee said...

Quote: "seeds are going to be worth more than their weight in gold". If we could be certain this was true, I would suggest stockpiling corn instead of tomato seed. An ounce of corn is a lot cheaper than an ounce of tomato seeds!

I never thought to store seeds in the freezer. We should probably consider doing this after we sort out our varieties planned for this year's garden. Any idea how long they will stay viable when stored like this?

Kate said...

Lilly, Linda, and Ken, you're all quite welcome. Glad this is useful to you all.

Chiots, I share seeds too, but I find that even splitting up the packets often leaves me with way too much seed. One packet of lettuce seeds contains 250 seeds! Order a few different types and you've got a ten year supply of lettuce seed!

Ken, you have a point there. Though if you've ever seen what tomato seeds weigh, you know that an ounce of tomato seed would probably end up feeding at least 100,000 people a year's worth of tomatoes. Whereas an ounce of corn seed would maybe feed a family for a year. It's apples and oranges - calorie crop vs nutrient/flavoring crop, I know. Since tomatoes are one of the few vegetables the average American still eats and recognizes, I'd bet on tomato seeds being much in demand if/when the shit comes down.

Jorene Soto said...

Love this article, especially the idea about vacuum sealing the seeds. I don't know why I never thought of this, but it makes sense. What a great idea. I also find the book Seed to Seed very useful. It explains how to save seed from any heirloom varieties you grow. It provides a great deal of useful information, especially regarding avoiding cross pollination.

Akiyo Kano said...

Now that is SUPER organised! I am so impressed, I wish I had as much dedication and patience as you do. I also didn't realise you can freeze seeds, so thank you for widening my knowledge!

Kate said...

Jorene, a few other people have recommended the Seed to Seed book to me. Thanks for adding to the chorus. I'll have to look for it.

Compact, thanks. I don't think of this as being particularly organized (after all, the seed packets are just all thrown in there together in a jumble), but rather just diligent about not wasting them, and saving myself some money in the process.

Anonymous said...

hi there - I'm new to your blog and I lovelovelove it!!! Thank you for the inspiration (your posts make me hungry too)! This one made me curious. I've yet to try vacuum-sealing anything at all, and can't imagine how one would vacuum-seal a ball jar. If you have a sec, could you enlighten me? (yeah right!) to Thanks - Martha NNY zone 4

Kate said...

Hi, Martha. I wasn't very clear about that, was I? The canning jars are vacuum sealed with an attachment for the Foodsaver appliance. There's one attachment for wide mouth jars, and another for the regular. I use my sealer far more often for the jars than I do for the plastic bags. I've found that the "disposable" canning jar lids can be reused for vacuum sealing if removed carefully. I typically only store dry goods, such as beans, in canning jars, so if the seal were to fail due to a re-used lid, there's virtually no chance of spoilage anyway. Hope this helps.