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Ask a Master Gardener: All About Seed Saving

BY: Barbara Boone, Mobile County Master Gardener I

Every gardener has a seed saving story, intentional or accidental. My story begins with pitching avocado pits in my compost pile as kitchen waste. Imagine my surprise months later upon finding several 3-foot-tall green plants growing in the compost: avocado trees!

Why seed saving is important

1. Preserve the genetic attributes of cultivars

2. Maintain and improve desired characteristics from one generation to the next

3. Recognize sensitivity to growing conditions (discovering micro-climates)

4. Preserve growth of vegetation and grains in perpetuity

5. Save money

History of seed saving

Globally, seed saving officially occurs in over 1,700 locations. However, the benchmark and gold standard of seed saving is in Spitsbergen, Norway, at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, created by the Norwegian government in 2008 and located several hundred kilometers from the North Pole. Its environment is frigid at -18oC and 120 meters below sea level. Means are in place to continue the cold temperatures should the climate warm. Security is tight with no unauthorized entry allowed as every nation’s seed banks have duplicates stored at Svalbard, ensuring no loss of genetic material necessary for agriculture and food due to climate change, diseases, even wars. Currently there are at least one million different seed types stored there, submitted from every country in the world, but Svalbard at full capacity could store one billion seed types. So far, only one withdrawal has been made: Seeds replaced for crops decimated in Syria’s recent war.

Closer to home is the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The mission of the Exchange is threefold:

· Preservation—20,000+ rare and heirloom varieties

· Distribution—through catalog and online

· Sharing—educate and support local gardeners growing, collecting, regenerating, and sharing seeds along with the seeds’ history and story.

Seed Botany

All flowering plants are classified as either monocotyledons or dicotyledons. The main difference is the seed itself. Dicots have 2 leaves while monocots have one leaf. Most common seed plants are dicots and include beans, tomatoes, even maple trees. Common monocots are grasses, corn, onions, asparagus, and daylilies.

A seed contains an embryo, food storage tissues, and a seed covering. The embryo is the undeveloped plant that is formed from the union of a male and female cell during fertilization. The embryo begins putting out shoots once germination begins.

The goal of a seed saver is to preserve the traits of a given variety from generation to generation. Not all varieties will produce seeds of their parents. Open-pollinated varieties have been bred true to type, and unless open-pollinated varieties of the same species cross-pollinate, the desired characteristics will be carried forward. However, hybrid varieties known as F1 hybrids produce seeds that do not produce to type. This means that a grower will need to acquire seeds that will produce the same hybrid type.

Germination is dependent upon water, temperature, light, and growing medium. When all elements are met, germination occurs and the plant grows. At the end of the growing season, seeds are produced. Seeds then germinate within certain temperature ranges.

How to Store Seeds

Cleaning and drying seeds after harvest for storage is important because debris left on the seed could warm the embryo, speeding up its metabolism and thus use all its stored energy too rapidly. Seeds should be kept cold or at least cool; freezing can maintain viability for longer periods. No matter what, seeds should be stored and kept dry to avoid fungal growth.

Testing for Seed Viability

An easy way to determine seed viability is a germination test before planting. Place 10 seeds of the same variety on a moist paper towel. Fold the paper towel over the seeds and then place it in a plastic bag; seal the bag; and record the variety and date. Place the bag in a warm environment, observing each day for germination. Remember that some seeds require several weeks for germination, but if none is observed, consider those seeds nonviable. By the way, large seed vendors usually test hundreds of seeds for documenting germination for seed catalogs and seed packets. Seed packets document the date that seeds were packaged as well as the germination rate. However, for the home gardener, testing 10 seeds is adequate. Example: 8 out of 10 germinated seeds is an 80% germination rate.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, 1300 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. Photo provided by Svalbard Storage.

Seed Viability Test

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