The art of saving seeds

Posted on July 31, 2018 at 6:00 am

by Abra Cole

In a remote vault located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, nearly one million seed varieties are stored. The purpose of this immense storage facility is to ensure the genetic future of these seed varieties, should any of the gene banks located around the world suffer catastrophic disaster.

One hundred years ago, when choosing what to grow in their fields, farmers had access to 90% more varieties than what are accessible today. This is due to several factors—some natural, others not. Not least among these factors is the big brand companies taking out patent rights on many seed varieties, and then locking those seed varieties up, more or less forcing the use of a limited seed selection that they have created or modified.

Farmers have been cultivating the art of seed saving for many generations, but recently there has been a resurgence among home gardeners to cultivate and share seeds with the intent to make heirloom varieties available to others and to allow the genetic diversity to continue.

What makes a plant an heirloom?

An heirloom plant is a specific cultivar, or plant variety produced in cultivation by selective breeding, that is sustained from generation to generation.

Most heirloom varieties started life as a hybrid—a cross-pollinated variety that resulted in a combination of sought-after traits such as more flavorful fruit, disease resistance, or hardiness—traits that resulted in farmers wanting to protect it.

Today, hybrids are created with more of a conscious effort on the part of the farmer with the intentional cross pollination of species that possess desired traits, while not allowing other pollination to occur.

The reason you hear more about the benefits of heirloom over hybrids today is that for something to be considered an heirloom, it has to have been producing more or less the same product for as long as it has been around.

The Seed Savers Exchange is a great resource for learning how to start your seed saving journey. They offer how-to guides for growing and seed saving as well as heirloom variety seeds for sale. They also have a free seed-saving chart (downloadable as a PDF) to help you along. For an annual $25 membership, you gain access to their seed exchange with growers all over the world.

Beginning seed saving

Seed saving at home can be daunting when you first begin. Even after several years, it will pose new and fascinating challenges to the saver.

As far as I can tell, it is not a skill that happens overnight. But, with patience and extensive note taking, you too can successfully save and share seeds with friends, family, and your local library!

The Library District currently has three seed libraries in Spokane County. Response from library customers has been overwhelmingly positive about the seed libraries. However, saved seed returns are a little low at the end of the summer.

These days, a seed library’s purpose is to share the bounty of our gardens with our neighbors and our community. To make this endeavor successful, the gardeners who take seeds from the library need to know how to save seeds successfully—both to return some seeds to our seed libraries and continue having a variety of seeds for planting each year.

As a gardener, I include myself in this endeavor along with my fellow gardeners. So, I set out to learn more about the age-old practice of seed saving and to try my hand at it.

My first thought was to see what the library’s collection had to offer on the topic of seed saving. I found several really great beginner resources and some more advanced seed saving techniques for my future expert-seed-saving self.

I also find that I learn by doing. So, using techniques described in these titles, I created short videos of some of the simplest seeds you can save from your own garden this summer. Since I’m not an expert, I recommend you reach out to our local Master Gardeners at 509.477.2181 for support and advice if you have any seed saving or garden-related questions.

I hope you get the same satisfaction I did when successfully saving and growing your own seeds!


Sunflower seeds are so incredibly simple to save. Really! Just let your flowers bloom as you normally would, and when they begin to dry out, cut the heads off and put them in a cool, dry location.

Once the seed heads are fully dried out, you remove the seeds from the seed heads and store them in a paper bag in a cool dry location. Properly saved sunflower seeds can germinate up to 7 years after you’ve saved them.


The obvious use of an onion plant is as an edible. A less obvious use is to add them to your flower garden. Onion blossoms are quite lovely and make a charming addition.

Onions are also very self -contained in their seed production. You need only keep an eye on the drying blossoms as they become harvestable seed heads.


I have been growing kale for several years, and this is the first year it has gone to seed.

According to the Seed Savers seed chart (referenced earlier), kale needs at least 800 feet of distance from other kale varieties and other plants in the Brassica family in order to prevent cross-pollination.

And although I live in a suburban community with neighbors all around me, none of my neighbors are gardeners of kale, broccoli, or cabbage. Because of this, I believe my kale has been successfully pollinating itself. I am hopeful it will result in a genetic duplicate in my garden next year. Only time will tell.

I look forward to exploring our seed libraries next spring and finding some of your garden’s treasures there!

More inspiration for your garden

Abra Cole

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