Deep in the mountains of the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, Norway, lies a massive vault of ice and stone. An international treasure lies inside—seeds of over 1 million varieties of 4000 essential food crops. The Svalbard seed vault, named after the Svalbard archipelago that includes the island of Spitsbergen, was constructed in 2008 to preserve unique local crop varieties in the event of large-scale disasters. The seeds are stored at a frosty -18°C to maintain their viability for decades to thousands of years. 

The Svalbard Seed Vault. credit: regjeringen.no 

In our changing climate, preservation of local crop varieties will become more and more important for maintaining food security, since these varieties are often well suited to stressful growing conditions. In contrast, GMOs and other commercially produced seeds are not well adapted to all areas where they are grown and may require more fertilizer and water. With optimal water, fertilizer, and sunlight, commercial varieties have very high yields, but in stressful environments they can have lower yields than local varieties. Climate change will threaten the viability of commercial varieties as growing conditions become more extreme, with an increase in floods, droughts, or extreme heat predicted in many regions. Meanwhile, some local varieties may better withstand these stressful conditions, so it is valuable to save their seeds for the future.   

Gardeners can participate in preserving local varieties by saving their own seeds instead of buying new each year from large seed companies. In the US, many commercial seeds are grown on the West Coast, where growing conditions are very different from here. So why are CT farmers and gardeners growing crops best suited to another region?  

This concept was introduced to me during a visit to Assawaga Farm in Putnam, CT. The owners, Yoko and Alex, explained how saving seeds for even one generation can result in better yields than the commercially grown seeds of the same variety. Their saved seeds were more tolerant to stressful growing conditions, such as limited water and fertilizer, than the original crop. Over multiple generations, growers can also select for more specific traits, such as color or flavor. 

When choosing crop varieties to save seeds from, growers must be careful to use only open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, which are open-pollinated varieties that have been around for decades. Open-pollinated crops are those that ‘breed true’ each generation, meaning the offspring they produce will resemble the parent plant.  In contrast, hybrid crops do not produce offspring that resemble the parent plant (or they don’t produce viable seeds at all), so they cannot be used for seed saving.  

Be sure to check your seed packets for whether your crop is an open-pollinated, heirloom, or hybrid variety. credit: Len Schott

Looking for local heirloom varieties to get started with? Try contacting your public library—many have small seed libraries where seeds can be ‘checked out’ or donated. 

While the methods for seed saving vary, there are some common instructions that apply to all crops: (i) only save seeds from the largest, tastiest, healthiest plants, (ii) allow seeds to dry fully before storing, and (iii) store seeds in cool, dry conditions. Beyond this, the techniques for seed saving depend on the characteristics of the crop being grown. Some crops are very simple, while others require very specific methods to produce viable seeds. 

As a novice seed saver, the crops that I’ve had the most success with are arugula and marigolds (and garlic, which isn’t a seed but is still an easy crop to propagate).  

Photo credit: Len Schott, UConn

Mature, dry seed pods of arugula (left) and marigold (right). credits: graduallygreener.wordpress.com and ohapricity.com 

For arugula and marigolds, wait for the seed pod to mature on the plant; you can tell it is matured when it becomes brown and dry. Peel the seeds out of the pod and store them in a paper envelope to use for next year. For garlic, save the largest cloves to replant in late fall or early spring. Winter squash seeds are also easy to save (so long as you can resist roasting and eating them…). The seeds inside of a ripe winter squash are already mature and only need to be dried. 

Some difficult crops for seed saving include tomato and cucumber seeds. Both require fermentation before the seeds are viable, to replicate the natural processes that occur in rotting fruits. Fermentation removes germination-inhibiting substances from the outside of seed. Saving seeds from summer cucurbits (zucchini, cucumbers, pattypan squash) also requires that you leave the fruit on the vine to become overripe. Unlike winter squash, they are eaten as immature fruits and must be left longer on the vine for seeds to fully develop. 

Biennial crops, such as onions, broccoli, and carrot, are also tricky to save seeds from, since they don’t produce seeds until thier second year. In the meantime, the plants take up valuable space in the garden and risk not surviving the long, cold Connecticut winter. 

Once you’ve successfully saved seeds from your garden, consider using a hot water seed treatment to eradicate pathogens that may be infesting your seeds. Hot water treatments give your seedling a strong start and may prevent infections of these pathogens during the growing season. However, hot water treatments cannot be done on large seeds, such as peas, cucumbers, and corn, since eradicating pathogens from them would also harm the seed. The UConn Plant Diagnostic Lab offers hot water seed treatments for over 25 common vegetable and herb crops, and the UConn Home & Garden Education Center can provide free horticultural solutions. For more information, please contact us by emailing ladybug@uconn.edu

Len Schott