From Antivist

Non-hybrid, open pollinating seeds are the best type to store when considering purchasing storage seeds. These types of seeds can be planted and allowed to "go to seed" at the end of the season. They then can be collected and used for a future garden. Most seeds purchased today are hybrid seeds and cannot produce more plants. The value of these seeds cannot be overestimated. There is an old adage that says, "You can count the seeds in an apple, but you cannot count the apples in a seed."

Garden seeds should be stored at a dry, cool environment and sealed tightly to avoid moisture. Freezing seeds will stunt their pollinating ability and is not recommended.


Seed Balls

Seed balls, which consist of mixing the seed for next season's crop with clay, and compost then formed into small balls.

The clay protects the seeds from the drying sun, rodents, birds and insects until sufficient rain comes to melt the clay. The seeds are then able to sprout, protected within a mini environment of the nutrients and beneficial soil microbes found in the humus and clay. Although not all seedlings within a seed ball will survive to maturity, the appropriate species for each micro location will be there to survive. The clay coating protects the seeds from excess sun, heat, wind, water and pests, while the compost inoculates the soil with beneficial organisms and gives the seeds an extra boost when sprouting time comes.

How to Make Seed Balls

  • 1 part mixed seeds
  • 1-3 parts dry compost
  • 1-5 parts clay (dry red or brown clay, finely powdered and sifted)
  1. After thoroughly stirring the seeds in a large flat container, and covering with dry soil humus from compost, add dry clay and mix well. Mix ingredients dry, turning and sifting to coat seeds with soil, then clay, then add water a little at a time, kneading like dough. Only add just enough water to allow the mixture to stick/bind together.
  1. Take a pinch of the finished mixture and roll (in the palm of your hand) into penny-sized round balls.
  1. Set the seed balls out in a shaded place to dry for at least 24 hours. They will be ready in a few days and can be dispersed from that time on. Heater drying may damage seeds. When dry, seed balls may be stored in a cool ventilated place for weeks or applied immediately.
  1. Seed balls can be strewn over large or small areas in any season. A minimum application seeks a scatter density of at least 10 seed balls per square metre, or about one per square foot, to establish trigger points from which the vegetation can spread. Adequate coverage requires at least 0.2 grams of seeds per seed ball, or 2 grams of seeds per square metre minimum.
    With rainfall the clay coating melts and the seeds germinate where the ball has landed. There is no need to water the seed balls. They will absorb moisture from the ground, the dew and the rain and will sprout when conditions are right. Many seeds will grow from a single seed ball and the plant most suited to the micro-conditions of that site will prevail. The most suitable sites for 'seed balling' are those free from thick grasses.


  • Do not keep seed balls in plastic. Use used paper, cardboard, straw, etc.
  • Seed balls do not need to be buried like traditional seeds
  • Seed balls should not be watered unless you are going to continue to water them until natural rainfall takes over.


Growing Days

Most seeds go through a dormant period and germinate when conditions are right -- usually in the spring. To grow to maturity, the plant then needs a certain number of days when conditions are favorable. These are called growing days. If the plant doesn't get enough growing days, it will die before flowering or setting fruit.

The main limit on growing days is frost. A plant that is sensitive to frost can't be placed in the garden until after the last frost in the spring, and it will die with the first frost of the fall. Often, there are not enough frost-free days available to grow the plant.

Gardeners get around this problem with seed germination procedures. When you start seeds indoors, you make the growing season longer.

When to Start Seeds Indoors

Seeds are often started in late winter or early spring, but not all seeds should be started at the same time. Some seeds germinate more quickly than others, and some seedlings can be placed in the garden earlier than others. Here's how to plan your seed germination schedule:

Start with the set-out date for the specific plant. Often, this is the last frost date in your locality. Plants that can tolerate mild frosts can be planted in the garden a little earlier, especially if you provide protection on cold nights.

Decide how mature you want your plants to be when you put them in the soil. Flowers in flats at garden centers are often completely mature and flowering freely when you buy them. Slightly younger plants adjust more quickly to their new location and put down roots better. Check how many days the seedling will need to grow from germination to the right size to set out. This information is usually on the seed packet or in the seed catalog.

Some seed germination is quicker than others. Check the average number of days your seeds will need to germinate.

Add together the growing days and the germination days your seed will need. Find your set-out date, and count backwards on the calendar the total number of days you will need to grow the seedlings. That's your sowing date, the day you will start seed germination.

For example: Suppose the last frost in your area usually comes around May 30th. That's your set-out date. You want almost mature plants to put in your garden, and you know this species takes about 60 days to mature. That means you want new seedlings to sprout around April 1st. If these seeds take about 10 days to germinate, you should plant them around March 20th.

What You Will Need

Growing Medium

  • You will need a sterile growing medium. If you buy soil, be sure the label says it has been sterilized. Some gardeners prefer to use a soilless medium, such as a mix of peat, perlite, and vermiculite, for seed germination.
  • The biggest problem in starting seeds indoors is damping off of seedlings. Using a sterilized medium minimizes the fungus spores that cause the problem. Providing good drainage and air circulation for the seedlings also reduces damping off.


  • Seeds can be planted in flats, peat pots, or any of the commercially-available containers you see at the garden center. If these containers have been used the previous year, they should be sterilized before use.
  • Seeds can also be planted in dixie cups, egg cartons, foil baking tins, or many other convenient objects. Just be sure you have punched plenty of holes to allow for drainage.


  • Many seed germination kits come with a clear plastic top. If you are using plain flats or other ordinary objects, you will need to make an airtight cover. Plastic wrap or a large plastic bag will do the job.


  • Most gardeners buy fresh seed every year from a commercial company. Many popular flower and vegetable seeds are hybrids, and only grow well if purchased from a seed company.
  • Heirloom seeds are usually seed from old-fashioned varieties of plants. These plants will grow reliably from seed collected the previous year in your garden.
  • In either case, fresh seed will germinate more easily than seed that has been stored for several years.


Most seeds germinate best when the soil temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Some require warmer or cooler temperatures. Decide in advance where you will place the trays to provide the correct temperature. Some garden centers sell special warming devices for this.

Procedure for Seed Germination

Wet the growing medium. It's easiest to do this while it is still in its bag; just cut off the top and stir the medium while adding water. You don't want it to be soaked and dripping, just evenly moist all the way through.

Fill the container with the moist growing medium. It's usually best to add soil right up to the rim.

Plant the seeds. Different seeds require different planting methods. For some, you will need to poke a hole in the medium, insert a single seed, and pat the hole shut. For others, you will sprinkle the seed across the surface of the growing medium. Check the directions on the seed packet.

Cover the seed if necessary. Some seeds need light to germinate, so you should leave them on the surface of the soil. Others require darkness and must be covered. They may germinate best with a deep cover or a very light cover. Many gardeners use lightweight vermiculite to cover seeds.

Water from the bottom by placing your flat or container in a larger container filled with tepid water.

Cover the container, or put it inside a plastic bag and tie the bag shut.

Place the container in the spot you have chosen. Check the seeds daily. When the first two or three seedlings pop out of the soil, remove the plastic cover.

Keep the container in the same spot for another day or two, until most of the seeds have germinated. Don't let the soil dry out.

When most of the seed germination is complete, move the seedlings to a sunny windowsill and watch them grow!

Viability Testing

Testing seed is not hard to do: just take a sample (perhaps two dozen seeds) and place it on a pad of wet tissue or moistened paper towel in a closed container and see how many germinate, and how quickly. However, not all seeds are alike; germination for some may depend on the presence or absence of light, and the actual spectral quality of the light, and/or the temperature, including the fluctuation between night and day temperatures, and some seeds may require pretreatment in order to germinate.


Some seed coats, such as those of hibiscus seeds, are initially almost impermeable to water or air. To promote germination, you must open or soften the seed coat by either nicking it with a knife or sanding it lightly with a file or sandpaper. Extreme care should be taken to cut through or abrade only the seed coat and not injure the embryo. As soon as the seed coat is penetrated in this way, the embryo is susceptible to fungal infection, and the seed must be planted immediately.


The hard seed coats of herbs such as parsley need to be softened to allow adequate water uptake and air exchange. Placing such seed in hot (not boiling) water and letting it stand for between 6 and 24 hours will help leach out any chemical inhibitors, shortening the germination time. Sow the seed immediately after soaking.


In seeds such as those of sea holly (Eryngium spp.), the moist cold of winter causes physiological changes that are necessary for germination. To mimic this cold period, soak the dry seeds in warm water (170deg-210degF) for 12 to 24 hours. Sow them immediately into a moist planting medium in an airtight container (I often use resealable freezer bags). Place the container in the refrigerator or freezer for three to five weeks. Empty film canisters with their tight-fitting lids work very well for stratifying small amounts of seed.

Seed Saving

Saving your own seeds can be time consuming. However, when you replant from seeds that you save, it usually yields plants that are better suited to your particular soil and climate.

Once you have planted your garden, watch for and keep track of the healthiest non-hybrid, self-pollinating plants. These are the easiest to harvest good seeds from. Self-pollinating plants are able to produce seeds on their own, without the aid of wind, bees, or other insects. Hybrid plants will grow great the first time, but seeds harvested from a hybrid plant may yield unusual produce.

Seed Saving Basics

  • If this is your first try at saving seeds, start with beans, squash, dill, and/or marigolds. Once the seeds have been collected it is essential to dry them thoroughly before storing them. Excess moisture can cause the seeds to mold and rot. Use a fine screen or a sheet of plastic or glass to dry the seeds on. Do not use paper towels--the seeds will stick and become hard to separate. Dry the seeds in a warm place out of direct sunlight.
  • Keep only seeds from plants that have done particularly well in your garden: those that are resistant to local insects and weather conditions and that have the best-tasting fruit. After several years of saving seeds from your own "line", you will have developed plants that are uniquely and individually adapted to your growing methods and region.
  • Seeds that you have collected can be stored in coin envelopes, small pill bottles, empty film canisters, or other small envelopes and containers. Label each container or packet with seed type and any other relevant information. Then store in a dry, cool place. If you use envelopes to store the seeds you may also want to place them in a jar with an airtight seal to keep out moisture.
  • You can store saved seeds in glass jars and keep them in a freezer. Make labels for the different seeds, but keep these inside the jars; otherwise, they'll fall off. On the labels include the year of harvest and the specific variety (i.e., 1993 'Longkeeper' tomato) and any interesting traits of growth that might help you in the future.
  • Seeds stored in freezing temperatures should remain viable for several years. It's not unusual, though, to find that only half a batch of home-collected seeds will grow, so always keep more than you expect to need. It's a good practice to plant at least some of your stored seed every year, to keep supplies fresh. But never plant all the seed of one type; if the crop fails, you won't have any to fall back on.
  • Generally, vegetables are harvested at peak condition; in doing so, the seeds-to-be - as fruit - are removed before they are ready for saving. When saving fruit for seed, you need to allow it to reach its ripest condition before picking it.

General Harvest Methods

Watch for flower stalks that have dried and turned brown and seedpods that have turned from green or yellowish brown to brown, gray or black. The vast majority of herb seeds are brown or black when ready to harvest.

A reliable test of seed maturity is a light tap on the dry flower stalk. If any seeds rattle or are dislodged, they are ready for harvest. Also, watch for birds eating the seed heads. This is an obvious indication not only that the seed may be mature, but that you'd better get out there and harvest it. If the seeds are small or contained in pods so that their maturity isn't outwardly visible, as in the sages, or anise hyssop, select a dry, brown flower stalk and remove some of its seeds; if they're dark brown or black, it's time to harvest them.

Harvest seeds late in the day after a few days of dry weather to ensure that all plant parts are dry. If the foliage or seed head is wet when picked, it will not dry quickly and is likely to mold.

Cut the entire seed head or part of the flower stalk that contains seeds, avoiding any part of the plant that is still green, and place it in a large paper bag, cardboard box, or wooden bowl. Place only one kind of seed in each container, and label each with the name of the herb it contains.

After the seed coat has dried and hardened, the embryo slowly loses moisture and also undergoes chemical and other physiological changes. The seed needs to be kept in a dry, warm place with good air circulation. If you're pressed for time, you can remove the seeds from the dry pods or seed heads and clean them immediately after harvest, but then give them a few weeks of open-air drying before storing them in airtight containers.


Seed is cleaned by separating it from the plant material (chaff) that was harvested with it. By the time I get around to cleaning my seed, much of it has already separated from the plant in handling and is lying on the bottom of the bag. In other cases, vigorously shaking the dried flower spike will separate the seeds from the plant. Sometimes it may be necessary to "milk" the seeds out with a gentle squeeze at the base of the pod. However, experience has taught me not to try to collect every single seed, just the ones that separate easily from the plant. Those that have been injured or have not fully developed may not separate easily and should be thrown away; the wound that occurs when an under-developed seed separates from the plant can be the first point of entry for fungal infection during storage.

Freeing large seeds from the chaff is easy enough; just pick them out with a knife or tweezers.

For small seed, winnowing is the easiest method for separating the chaff from the seed. There are many ways of doing this and a lot of room for creativity. Members bring an amazing array of aluminum pie plates, knives, clippers, wooden bowls, colanders, cookie sheets, homemade screens and magnifying glasses, and use them in many clever ways to extract the seed from the chaff. Some folks scoop small amounts of round seeds (basil and clary sage) with their chaff onto a tilted cookie sheet; the seeds roll down, and the chaff stays put. Screens can also be helpful in cleaning. Start with a mesh size just large enough to allow the seeds to fall through when they are brushed lightly across the screen, then use a slightly smaller mesh that will hold the seeds but allow smaller material to be brushed through.

No matter what ingenuity you bring to the process, though, seed cleaning can sometimes be tedious.


The container you choose for storing the cleaned seed should be relatively airtight. Baby food jars or other small, lidded jars are good for seed storage. I use plastic margarine tubs, and I write the name of the herb and the year on a piece of paper taped to the lid. I leave the lids off for a few days to ensure that any excess moisture is gone, and then I snap the lid on tight.

Check stored seeds periodically for mold and insect damage. Clumping of seeds when the container is slowly tilted and rotated may indicate mold. Other signs include a black, sooty color and perhaps a moldy smell. If you suspect mold, dump the seeds on a sheet of white paper, then pour them back into their container and look for black, downy dust on the paper. If there is any mold, throw away the entire container of seed.

Fine dust at the bottom of a container may indicate the presence of insects, and further examination is wise. Most storage pests are larvae that are large enough to see without a hand lens, and their webs are usually visible in a container of seed. If you find or suspect an infestation, freeze the seed for a couple of days to kill the insects. Dry ice can also by used to kill insects in stored seed. Simply drop a piece into the container, then replace the lid lightly. The insects either die from the cold or suffocate when the dry ice sublimes into carbon dioxide.

CAUTION : Don't screw the lid tightly on a jar containing dry ice, as the jar will explode.

The optimum storage temperature for seeds ranges from 35 deg to 65 deg F, and humidity should be low. (a refrigerator is an excellent place to store seeds if you have enough space.) Seed stored under these conditions can remain viable for at least 2 and sometimes as long as 15 years, although with every additional year in storage seed viability will decrease.

Seeds must never become completely dry: the tissues within the seed must retain at least a small amount of moisture to remain alive. Some seeds with hard coats are able to withstand dessication to a moisture content as low as 5 per cent of their total weight, while others with fleshy reserves may tolerate dessication only to 60 per cent. Seeds stored in a paper packet take up and lose moisture within a range of 5 to 20 per cent of their total weight in response to the humidity of the surrounding air; seeds in the open air take up and lose moisture even more rapidly. These frequent fluctuations can seriously impair seed viability.


Seed Exchange

Organic/Heirloom Seed Catalogs

Non-hybrid Seed Companies

  • Burpee Heirloom Seed Catalog, W. Atlee Burpee Co., 300 Park Ave. Warminister, PA 18991-0008.
  • Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7PB England.
  • Comstock Ferre, 263 Main St., Wethersfield, CT 06109
  • Heirloom Seeds, PO Box 245, West Elizabeth, PA 15332, or
  • Landis Valley Museum Heirloom Seed Project, 2451 Kissel Hill Road, Lancaster, PA 17601-4899.
  • Old Sturbridge Village Museum and> Select Seeds, 180 Stickney Road, Union, CT 06076.
  • Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Monticello, PO Box 318, Charlottesville, VA 22902.
  • Gift Shop, 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA 01566
  • White Flower Farm, Shepard's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790.
  • Burpee (800) 888-1447
  • Ferry-Morse (800) 283-6400
  • Harris Seeds (800) 514-4441
  • Johnny's Selected Seeds Foss Hill Rd, Albion, ME 04910 (207) 437-4301
  • Nichols Garden Nursery 1190 N Pacific Hwy NE, Albany, OR 97321(541)928-9280
  • Park Seed 1 Parkton Ave, Greenwood, SC 29647-0001 (864) 223-7333
  • Shepherd Garden Seeds (860) 482-3638
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