In the event of a wide-sweeping disaster that wipes out gardens, crops, and even naturally grown flora on a large scale, how can the people who remain start again?
The seed vault on the Norwegian island of Svalbard has been put in place as insurance against such a disaster—and even for difficulties that are more localized in scope, such as riot or civil warfare—and its purpose is to safeguard all sorts of seeds and scions in a temperature-controlled environment that is remote enough to be reasonably safe from catastrophe.
The idea is that, if massive tragedy strikes and the earth is left scorched, this seed vault can provide the most crucial tools for beginning again: seeds.
The trouble with the “one vault for all” approach
The Svalbard seed repository is a valuable asset for the entire globe, but there are a few flaws in its design (and I don’t mean its architecture, which is said to be beyond amazing).
Remote location means a lot of travel for some
Let’s be realistic: although having a massive seed vault in the Arctic ensures the security of the seeds that reside within it, it also poses a problem for people who live far away from the tippy-top of the northern hemisphere. People living in some nations would have to travel thousands of miles to reach the vault, or wait as the seeds were shipped to them. In today’s world, this may not be such a big deal—but what if postal service were disrupted? What if air travel or sea travel was no longer feasible?
Accessibility could be limited in certain situations
In a disaster scenario, the limited accessibility that ensures the seed vault’s safety could prove problematic for the people who need its contents the most. If people who need seeds to re-sow the earth in their local area are far away and unable to make contact with the people at Svalbard in order to make a withdrawal request, how can they possibly make use of the seeds within the repository there? When trying to plan for an uncertain future, this issue is one that must be taken into consideration while making those plans.
How can we solve this problem?
Although the Svalbard seed vault can’t feasibly be relocated, survival-minded people can do their part to create their own seed repositories, so that if they are cut off from the post or from international travel for whatever reason, they will still have the seeds they need to start anew.
If we each take a bit of time to preserve and properly stash some seeds from our own gardens after each harvest, we can have our own security blankets in the form of a seed vault in miniature. We may never reach the grand proportions of the Svalbard seed vault, but we can at least account for re-seeding the area around our own homes and/or bug-out locations.
Some tips for home seed preservation
You’ve decided to add security to your future by preserving seeds at home. Where do you begin? Here are some tips for getting started.
Before you begin, plan ahead
Although you may just want to preserve fruit and vegetable seeds from your food garden, farm or homestead, you may also want to consider harvesting seeds from other types of plants that are local to your area or to your bug-out location. It may not seem like a big deal now to salvage those shade trees, scrub bushes, or meadow grasses—but if those plants all somehow got wiped out for miles around, you may come to miss them!
By preserving seeds from local flora, you can get some peace of mind about not only having fruits and vegetables to eat after a catastrophic event, but also that you could play a role in restoring the local ecological balance following such an event. Just food for thought!
If you are planning to preserve seeds for multiple growing zones/climates (i.e., if your BOL is located some distance from your home and is in a different climate), this is something to consider when sketching out your plans. Know the zone you’re growing and preserving for, and know what plants will be able to grow there.
Once your plan is in place, determine the appropriate preservation method
Now that you’ve figured out what you want to preserve (and for where), you need to know the appropriate preservation method to use. We will discuss these in further depth below. Are you ready to get to work and start hoarding some seeds?
Preserving “dry seeds”
Dry seeds are probably the easiest seeds to clean and store, and include any seeds that aren’t encased in a wet, fruity pulp—peppers, carrots, lettuce, and onions are all “dry seeds” that require little effort to become clean and dry enough for preservation purposes.
To preserve “dry seeds,” harvest the seeds from your plant from a fruit or vegetable left to ripen and go to seed naturally. Collect the seeds and spread them out over a fine mesh screen, shaking the screen in a way that loosens the pods and chaff—sort of like panning for gold. This will free the seed from the bondage of the seed pod and leave it ready for a full drying.
To dry seeds, spread them out in a single layer on a plate or pan and allow the sun to dry them. Be sure to avoid using plastic or paper plates, as the seeds may stick to paper and certain kinds of plastics may affect the integrity of the seeds. Instead, opt for ceramic, earthenware, or porcelain.
Dry them in full sun for several days, turning seeds over after two to three days to ensure even drying. You may speed the drying process by using a food dehydrator with an adjustable temperature setting, but if the temperature gets above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (about 32 degrees Celsius), the seeds may lose viability. Once the seeds are completely dried, they will be ready for storage.
Preserving “wet seeds”
So-called “wet seeds” take a bit more work to prepare for long-term storage. These are the seeds from pulpy plants like squashes and gourds, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants. To clean, excise the seeds from the fruit or vegetable and pull the seeds away from the stringy pulp that they are attached to. Wash them well with water, then dry in the sun as you would with dry seeds.
Fermentation: when it’s appropriate and how to do it
Some wet seeds benefit from being allowed to naturally ferment for a short time before being cleaned and dried. Eggplants, tomatoes and squashes or gourds require fermentation prior to storage, as the fermentation process aids in their ability to sprout once planted, and also helps to prevent certain molds and bacteria from infecting the seeds and affecting the quality of the plants they produce.
To ferment wet seeds, simply place seeds with attached pulpy material into a cup or jar and add a small amount of water (2:1 ratio of seeds-and-pulp to water). Place the container in a warm spot and leave it uncovered for two to five days.
Don’t be alarmed if you see a whitish-colored mold forming over the top of the pulp—this means fermentation is happening! Be on the lookout for bubbling of the viscous liquid, as this is another sign of successful fermentation.
Do not ferment for longer than five days, as this can lead to seeds sprouting and becoming non-viable for long-term storage. Generally, gourds and summer squashes should ferment for around two days, while eggplants need the full five days, with tomatoes falling somewhere in between.
Once the seeds have fermented for the right amount of time, they can be cleaned and dried and stored for the sowing seasons to come.
Storing preserved seeds
Proper storage of preserved seeds may be the most crucial factor in giving the seeds the longevity they need to be useful in a miniature seed vault. With a little bit of extra TLC, your seeds can be kept for up to five years and will sprout like they were harvested just last season!
Choose containers with a tight seal
Make sure you pick your seed containers wisely. An airtight jar is ideal. Mason jars come in many sizes, so they are great for this whether you have a half-cup of seeds or enough to fill a gallon-sized jar. Washed and sanitized baby-food containers are also a good choice for tiny seeds (or just tiny harvests).
Label containers with seed type and date them
When storing your seeds, you’ll want to label them with the exact seed type and the date of storage. This is important, because even the most perfectly preserved seed has a limited shelf life. You’ll need to know when to rotate out certain harvests and when to replace them with fresh stock.
Stash seeds in a cool place free from humidity
Seeds need to be kept in a place where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate too drastically, and where humidity is never a major threat. Although for some people a root cellar may be cool enough to do the job, others may want to invest in a refrigerator (even a mini-fridge may do) to ensure that seeds are kept cool and away from direct light during storage.
You can add silica packets (the kind you see in commercial beef jerky containers—they can be purchased online in bulk!) to seed containers to draw out any remaining moisture and lengthen the lives of your seeds.
Rotate older harvests to ensure seed viability
Many seeds, when stored properly, will keep for two to five years after harvest. It’s good to test out your older seeds from time to time to see if they will sprout after a given number of seasons have passed. Any seed containers that are more than five years old should be next in line for planting, and replaced with a freshly preserved crop as soon as possible.
Although seeds are not MREs and can’t be stored for 20 years after harvest, using the tips in this guide can help you extend the life of your garden and the flora that surrounds you. By maintaining a miniature seed vault of your own, you can rest a bit easier knowing that you are that much more prepared in the event of a disaster situation that leaves the land around you barren. Plan ahead and preserve your future by preserving seeds.