Saving & Storing Seeds; Seed Bank

by Catherine Haug

Cat's Garden: Lettuce, Spinach, Garlic and Onion

As many of you know, I’m a first time gardener, and I seek out tips and advice from all the experienced gardeners I know. If you have tips that I can add to this post, please email them to me! so that others can benefit from your experience. (my email is cat(at) — note the email is disguised).

For my first planting I used heirloom, organic seeds from Irish Eyes and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. And I must admit, it’s tantalizing to peruse the seed catalogues. But what if we can no longer order many of our seeds from a distant seed company?  What will we do then?

The answer is to start with non-hybrid, heirloom seeds. Then get in the habit of allowing at least one plant of each type to go to seed, to collect and save the seeds for next year. Actually, if stored properly, most seed varieties will keep at least 3 years, in case you have a bad year now and then. Plus you can trade seeds with friends and neighbors; what a great way to build community! We might even consider starting a local seed bank.

Last fall I sowed heirloom seeds for spinach and leaf lettuce (along with some garlic); all came up this spring for a great crop (see photo, above). About a month ago, my spinach started to flower.  I noticed there was a male plant and a female plant, but wasn’t sure which was which. (My lettuce started to flower a few weeks later, but I don’t think there are separate male and female plants).

So I consulted one of my mentors, Jean H., who had the same variety of spinach. She pointed out which is which (you could see the seeds already starting to form along the stem of the female plants), and suggested that when the plants start to turn brown, I can pull the males because they’ve already done their work.  Then let the females continue to mature their seeds.

Drying and harvesting spinach seeds

The female plants continued to dry and turn brown shortly after pulling the males. Today I noticed the females are all dry and golden, and the seeds are brown and hard.  Is it time to harvest?  Back to my mentor.

She suggested it’s time to pull the female plants and lay them out in my garage so they can dry fully.  That way, they won’t get wet from the rain that is forecast for the next few days. The key is that the seeds must be allowed to ripen on the living plant before pulling to dry; this means they are hard, not soft to pressure

It’s a good idea to lay the plants on a bit of raised screen so air can circulate. Newspaper may also work, as the stems will hold the seeds up so air can move around them. They must be fully dry before storing.

Once fully dry, pick or thresh the seeds off the stems, for storage (see below), or to test a few to see if they will germinate.

To thresh:  thresh on a tarp. A 1/2 ” screen on top of a 1/4″ and 1/8″ is helpful for cleaning. (from High-Mowing Organic Seeds).

Other seeds (besides spinach)

I found an excellent seed company website that provides instructions for saving and storing seeds for many different plants:  High-Mowing Organic Seeds.  You can search by crop type.

I present here only those plants I chose to plant in my first garden. If you have tips on these, or other types of plants, please send them to me and I’ll add to this site.


A similar method will also work for lettuces, which are self-pollinating.

High-Mowing Organic Seeds offers this tip:  “Carefully shake the seedheads into a paper bag to allow the mature seeds to be collected while leaving the immature seeds and flowers to keep growing. Gather every few days until no more seeds remain. Or, you can simply harvest the entire plant when about half of the seeds are mature and allow the rest to mature inside by standing up the plants in a box and on a cloth or tarp. Use an 1/8″ screen to help with cleaning.”


I planted one variety of dry white Italian beans this year, for storage.  So far, they have not started growing pods, but they are beginning to bloom. I have so many recipes for using dry white beans, so I’m really hoping this works.

The following is from High-Mowing Organic Seeds. “Pods should be papery and dry when harvested. Harvest by pulling up the entire plant. Windrow in the field or lay on a tarp in a dry place like a barn or greenhouse. When seeds are fully dry they are ready for threshing. Your fingernail should not be able to make an imprint on a fully dry seed. Thresh by flailing, jumping on pods, or shell by hand. Use a ½” screen on top of a ¼” screen to clean the seed. Bean seed can remain viable for up to 4 years under cool and dry storage conditions.”

Cabbage family

Actually, I don’t know if this will work for head-cabbage, because these are harvested before they go to seed.  But you could certainly try letting one plant go to seed.

The following is for kale, mustard and collards.  These seeds come in pods, and most seeds are black in color. Watch the pods carefully as they dry to a nice tan or golden color.  You must wait until they are “almost ready to pop open.”  But once they pop, the seeds will be scattered throughout your garden.  This tip is from Cheryl C., who shared kale and mustard seeds with me last year.

High-Mowing Organic Seeds recommends using 1/8″ screen to help with cleaning the seeds from the pods.

Carrots & parships

Some plants, such as carrot and parsnip will not produce seeds the first year.  If you want seeds, leave one plant in the garden to over-winter. The next year it will grow quite tall, blossom, and form seeds. The seeds must be dry before harvesting.  They can tend to shatter when ripe, so take care in harvesting and watch closely during ripening (per High-Mowing Organic Seeds).


This family includes squash, pumpkins and cucumbers.  They will easily cross-pollinate, so if you have more than one variety of curcubits in your garden, your seeds will likely not produce the same fruit as the mother plant.

Save the seeds if you’re curious; just be aware you may not like the result.  Or, you may discover a new favorite….

eHow has a great post on saving squash seeds for planting, including tips on how to avoid cross-pollination disasters. HIgh-Mowing Organic Seeds indicates that different varieties must be separated by at least 1/4 mile to prevent cross-pollination, unless you intend to hand pollinate.


I love peas and planted snow and shell peas.  My problem is that I’ll want to eat all of them, and have none left for drying and storage….

The following is from High-Mowing Organic Seeds: “Peas being grown for seed must be trellised or else mold and dampness will rot the seed pods. Allow the pods to grow large and tough and eventually they and the plants will begin to dry down. Harvest by picking individual dry pods or by pulling the entire plants out of the ground and off the trellis. Shell by hand or thresh by flailing or stomping on a tarp. A 1/2″ screen on top of a 1/4″ screen will help with cleaning once the peas are threshed out of the pods. Pea seed will remain viable for 3 years under cool and dry storage conditions.”

Test germination

If you know your plants were not hybrids (for example, if the seed package indicated “Heirloom”) you don’t need to do this test.  But if in doubt, it’s definitely a good idea. No point in storing seeds that won’t make sprouts.

Put a few between damp paper towels, then put that into a zip-loc plastic bag to keep them from drying out. It should only take a few days before the tiny tails appear (if not, they are probably hybrids, or you harvested them before they were mature).

Storing the seeds

After removing the fully dried seeds from the stem, store them in a container.  It’s a good idea to label the container with seed variety, and date stored so you know what you’ve got. Jean suggests the following are all great container choices:

  • small glass jars
  • tins (like Altoids)
  • plastic bags

Then she suggests putting them in a gallon plastic jar with a screw-on lid, and place the jar in a cool, dry spot.

I plan to sow some of my spinach and lettuce seeds this fall, along with garlic and leaf lettuces, just like I did last year.  The rest of the spinach seeds I’ll store for use next year.  I’ll let you know how this turns out.

Seed Bank/Depository

A seed bank is a location for storing seeds of different crops and varieties for future use, typically for an entire community (or even nation). Wikipdedia defines a seed bank as “a source for planting in case seed reserves elsewhere are destroyed.  It is a type of gene bank for food crops, or those of rare species to protect biodiversity.

National and international seed banks, such as the North American Seed Bank (NASB) in Louisville, Kentucky or the international seedbank at Svalbard Norway (refer to National Geographic article for more), are very sophisticated constructions to keep seeds for decades and longer by maintaining atmosphere and temperature in strict control. But community seed storage need not be so complicated, nor designed for such long-term storage.

When fuel prices escalate so that it is no longer affordable to truck (or mail) stuff into our valley, we will need to have local sources for things like seeds. Would a seed bank or depository make sense here in the Flathead?

A seed depository is especially important in drought or bad-weather years, as seeds from a previous year can be stored for several years, hopefully out-lasting a drought. Members of the community could contribute a portion of their seeds to the bank, and in future years, trade for seeds they need.

ESP intends to explore this idea, perhaps with the Flathead County Extension service. We should store seeds not only for those crops that grow here currently, but also those for crops that will grow here when our valley becomes more arid, as predicted by those who study global climate change.

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