Storing and Harvesting Seeds

Ensure that your family has all the different fruits and vegetables it needs by following this simple storing guide.

Storing Seeds
How long can seeds be stored and remain viable? This depends upon the packaging and the method of storing. The best packaging to keep your seeds ready-to-germinate is in a sealed glass bottle, can, or metallized bag. The first two would be hard to do at home, and plastic is not recommended, as it is actually air-permeable, and air (oxygen, to be exact) is one of the enemies of seed longevity.

The other enemies are moisture, light, warmth, and insects. Moisture and warmth would encourage the seeds either to sprout early or to mold and be ruined. The best packaging for long-term storage is sealed can or metallized bag, and the best place for them is the freezer. Seeds stored in this way could last an amazing fifty years plus! At room temperature, they will be viable for two to three years. For each six to ten degrees lower than room temperature, their life span will double:

    72 degrees F - 3 years
    62 degrees F - 6 years
    52 degrees F - 12 1/2 years
    42 degrees F - 25 years
    32 degrees F - 50+ years 

Please note that if you remove some seeds for planting, then reseal your Mylar bag and replace it in the freezer, you have compromised the seed life, and they may not last quite as long. They also do not do well with a freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw routine, so if you must remove them from your freezer for defrosting or some other reason, try to keep them frozen as long as possible. At the very least, keep them refrigerated.

Harvesting Seeds
You've grown your open-pollinated garden, and now you want to save some seeds for future use. How do you go about it? The best techniques vary a little from plant to plant. In all cases, choose healthy, disease-free plants and vegetables to harvest from as the seeds from a weak or diseased plant will likely carry their problems forward to a new generation. When you collect the seeds is important. If you collect them too soon, they will not have all the nutrients they need to reproduce well. If you wait too late, age, insects and weather might have taken their toll. Do not rush your drying process, as with an oven or a dehydrator, as some delicate seeds can crack and be damaged. Indoor air-drying is best.

For tomatoes, leave a beautiful, ideal example on the vine past the fully-ripe stage, so it becomes soft, but not rotten. Pick your tomato and bring it inside. Fill a bowl half-full of tap water and squeeze a sliced tomato into it so that the seeds and their slippery coating fall into the water. Set the bowl aside where it will not bother people with its smell, as it will become odorous. Stir morning and evening with a wooden spoon. When mold begins to appear on top of the water, scoop it off and add more water to replace what was scooped out. Continue this process for several days. The viable tomato seeds should sink to the bottom of the bowl. Remove them and rinse them carefully with clean water, then gently pat dry and spread on a flat piece of window screen or a flat, non-stick surface to finish drying.

Pumpkins and squash should be allowed to mature, then harvested, cut open and the seeds picked out. (Be aware that there may have been some naturally-occurring cross-pollination if you've had several related varieties in your garden.) Zucchini should be allowed to stay on the vine until they are hardened, then sliced open lengthwise and the seeds picked out. Cucumbers should begin to turn yellow, and then have their pulp scooped out to be treated with the same water method as tomatoes.

Beans and peas are the easiest to harvest successfully; simply allow them to stay on the vine until they turn brown and the seeds rattle around, then harvest, remove from pods and finish the drying process if necessary. Peppers are also easy: allow them to ripen until they begin to turn color and to shrivel a little, then cut them open and scoop out the seeds to dry on a screen or plate. Eggplants should be allowed to fall to the ground. Remove the pulp and follow the water procedure as for tomatoes. Seeds will collect in the bottom of the bowl.

Lettuce seed can be harvested by allowing one or two plants to bloom and go to seed. When the seed head is beginning to dry up, pick it and separate the tiny seeds from the chaff by rubbing them gently between your fingers. A similar process can be followed for greens such as chard and spinach.

Carrots, beets, onions and cabbage are biennials, which require a two-step process. Dig the roots you wish to preserve and keep them cool and moist (perhaps buried in a sandpile) to winter over. In early spring, dig them out and replant in an uncrowded area of your garden. They will continue to grow and form heads. Allow the heads to dry, then gather the plump seeds and dry them indoors.

Remember to label your dried seeds by writing on their paper envelopes the name of their variety and where you planted them in your garden last spring (so that you can avoid the problems caused by re-planting in the same area two years in a row.) If you're not certain whether your seeds are dry enough, save some seeds and label the date, dry a few more for another two weeks, then save and label them, and dry the remaining seeds for another two weeks and label. When you plant, keep track of the performance of each set, and you will know in future how long to dry them. Larger seeds take longer to dry than tiny ones. Put your labeled envelopes of dried seed in a glass jar or metallized bag in the refrigerator or freezer.
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