The “Dirt” on Seeds: A Prepper’s Guide to Buying Seeds

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Spring is in the air! Well, it is in North Central Texas. I know some of you Northern folks really can’t feel it yet, but spring is only a few weeks away. It’s time to start thinking about your garden! As a frugal, prepper gardener, starting vegetables from seed is my method of choice. Seeds are a fraction of the cost of seedlings you’ll find at your local nursery and you can pick from a larger variety of vegetable seeds than seedlings. Also, as a prepper you may have the option of saving your seeds, not to mention that if you save them then next year you might not need to purchase seeds at all. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

First let me define some terms:

Hybrid Seeds: Hybrid refers to seeds that have been cross pollinated (a controlled pollination as opposed to open pollination or an accidental cross pollination. I’ll get into more details about pollination in a later) and the resulting plant has the desired traits of their parent plants. The best way to imagine this is to think about dog breeding. If you breed a poodle and a chihuahua some of the puppies will look like poodles and some will look like chihuahuas and still others will be a mix. If you take the puppies that look like the mix and breed them to each other, the resulting puppies might still look like a poodle, and some will look like the chihuahua and still others will look like the mix. Then with this third generation you again breed the puppies that look like the mix; eventually if you keep doing this you will have a new breed of dog. This is because with each generation you’re breeding the poodle and chihuahua out and keeping the mix. It takes many generations to get the new breed. It’s the same thing with a plant. You breed and breed until you get the desired plant and eventually that plant might become an heirloom. In the meantime, the younger generations are hybrids. It’s not quite this simple but hopefully you get the idea. Usually it is pointless to save the seeds of hybrids because the seed will revert to one parent or the other and not have characteristics of the plant that produced the seeds. Almost all corn produced today for the home gardener started out as a hybrid because older varieties of corn were difficult to grow unless the climate was perfect. Now, some of those varieties of corn have become “stabilized” and are now open pollinated and are referred to as heirloom varieties. Hybrid seeds are usually more disease tolerant than heirloom seeds. Heirloom Seeds: The term heirloom refers to older varieties of plants. They are open pollinated or self-pollinated. They may once have been hybrid plants but since they have been bred and bred the current generations have desirable stable traits. Heirloom seeds are especially valuable to preppers because the seeds can be saved to plant in future seasons. However, there are some notes of caution. Since many heirloom seeds are open pollinated you may run into the danger of cross pollination. So it’s critical that you know how your vegetables pollinate and plant those varieties that are susceptible to cross pollination in a separate location to keep varieties pure.

Open pollination: Open pollination just means that the plant is pollinated through wind, insects or birds. This would not include a graft or cutting from a plant. The problem with open pollination is that you can get a varying results. You’re leaving some of the “breeding” in God’s hands, but this usually results in a hardier variety of plant. Most of these problems are eliminated if you plant vegetables that might cross pollinate in different locations.

Self-pollination: This means that the plant has both female and male parts and will pollinate itself. However, these plants can also become cross pollinated if a bee decides to deliver pollen from a different plant. Self-pollinated is usually lumped together with the term open pollinated and so the terms may be used to mean basically the same thing, especially when referring to heirloom seeds.

Cross pollination: Means that two different varieties of a plant pollinate and produce something other than what you expect. Independent farmers are worried about GMO plants are cross pollinating with their open pollinated plants.

Saving Seeds: Saving seeds refers to the practice of taking a few seeds out of the vegetables or fruit that you eat and saving them to plant in the future (usually the next season). Heirloom seeds are best suited for this practice since they have been bred over and over and the genetic traits of the plant are stable. (See above why you can’t save hybrid seeds.)

Storing Seeds: Can seeds last 30 years? Yes, some can under the right conditions. The best way to store seeds is in a cool dry place but not an air-tight container. Vacuum packing seeds is not a good idea. Seeds are a living organisms and even though they are in a dormant state they need a small amount of air to stay viable. This makes me wonder about companies that sell “seed vaults” in mylar packaging. Freezing seeds for long term storage is an option but the seeds must be completely dry otherwise this process will kill the seed. Silica gel is most commonly used for drying seeds before freezing. Properly frozen seeds can last 10 times longer than seeds that have been stored at room temperature. Theoretically, a tomato seed might last up to 40 years. (see chart here for normal seed viability) How do you know if last year’s seeds will germinate this year? Companies in the US have to conduct a germination test to sell seeds. The test is only good for six months to a year, that’s why most seed packages come with an expiration date. However, if there is a question as to whether your seeds are still good you can do your own germination test.

GMO Seeds: GMO seeds are seeds that have been altered by gene splicing. The idea is to make a stronger seed by placing some desirable trait of another organism (another plant or in some cases a fish or mammal) into the genetic makeup of the seed. There is a ton of controversy about this practice and the results. Monsanto, the company that has spearheaded this research is deemed by many as an evil corporation. Not just for their GMO research but for their overall business practices. So how are you to know that you don’t have GMOs in your garden? Well the truth is that there are very few, if any, GMO seeds available for sale to the home gardener. That’s not to say we should not guard against the seeds ever getting into our garden but as of this moment we can breathe a sigh of relief because the chances of you having GMO seeds in your garden are slim to none. GMO seeds are produced for commercial agriculture and you can find a list here of current GMO crops. In order to safeguard against GMO seeds, The Council For Responsible Genetics initiated The Safe Seed Pledge. Basically, seed companies sign a pledge to not knowingly sell GMO seeds. One big name missing from this list is Burpee. The CEO, George Ball, refuses to sign the list. You can read about his reasoning here. To me, he’s justifying doing business with Monsanto. It’s like the old saying, “you can’t be a little pregnant.” You either do business with them or take a stand and don’t do business with them even if it effects your bottom line. Some people still value integrity!

So what does it all mean?

Hybrids are not the enemy of preppers, actually they are a nice addition to any garden. Since their yield is often greater than heirlooms and we as preppers are trying to stock up, there is certainly a place for hybrids in the prepper garden. Heirloom seeds are a must for the prepper garden. They are the future because their seeds can be saved and in theory just a few seeds can feed you for the rest of your life. It’s really essential to start working with them and learn how to nurture and take care of them, then also to learn how to save their seeds. In my opinion, GMO seeds have no place on the planet or at least in a garden, there are just too many unknowns and the potential for real harm exists on every level. Of course the most important thing to keep in mind when planning a garden is that it’s fun and rewarding! For me it’s a giant learning experience and it keeps me on my toes most of the year.

  • Beverly says:

    Excellent and informative article, as always.
    Thanks, Jennifer!

  • W.K. Lehnert says:

    Thank you for this wonderful blog! What you have posted is excellent info and people are losing the ability to take care of themselves. Loved this about saving seeds and heirloom plants. Grew up in the SW and spent my youth on or near the Navajo and Apache country. Corn, beans and squash were the staples there, and saving seeds for the next year was very important. Thanks again for the blog!

  • jan dennis says:

    All good info! I would like to elaborate a bit on seed life and proper storage. I have saved seeds from 2005 and earlier. This year due to no $$ and a desire to make sure the seeds were still viable, I decided to plant all the seeds I had stored to see if they were still good and save new seeds from their offspring. They had been loosely packed and stored in a cool, dry place. But after learning more about their need for oxygen, I was concerned that they were still alive. Many seeds produced nothing. Some seed packages produced 10% or less. So I have cleaned out the seed saving containers and got some great plants. I did get a full garden this spring. And now I know again exactly what I have saved that will keep us fed.

  • BROOKE says:

    So, will seeds marked organic be good for collecting/storing for use next year? What is the difference between organic and heirloom?

    • Jennifer Osuch says:

      Hi Brooke,

      Yes, seed saving for the next season should work just fine…..:) We humans have been doing it for thousands of years! An organic seed is a seed that has been produced without certain chemicals (although the U.S. government does allow some pesticides and fertilizers in the production of organic produce) and supposedly that is not GMO. An heirloom seed is a seed that has been pollinated naturally (open pollination) and that gardeners have “taken care” not to have it cross pollinated with other seeds. They do this by planting these seeds in different beds and planting at certain times of the year to avoid natural cross pollination.

  • RJ WILLIAMS says:

    Hello, Jennifer

    You said Heirloom and Hybrid seeds as the must haves for my garden and life, do you have a list of top sellers of these seeds, that you absolutely trust? Thank you!


  • Elaine says:

    Thank you so much for the information! I enjoy your website and have learned so much! Thanks again!

  • Jenni says:

    Have you ever use the winter sow way to grow you plants for spring planting? If you look up online Winter Sow, you will find a seed swap and how to winter sow your seed for your spring plants. Shows you how to save your seeds also. I did this last year and planted my plants but with the drought my tomatoes didn’t make. It got too hot to fast. My niece lives in east texas and shared her seeds with me after her tomatoes made well. She let me put up about 20lbs of her tomatoes. They taste so much better in my soups and other things this winter.

  • Czar says:

    So if you freeze them, in a glass jar or no? Or best to store in baggie in cool,closet???

    • Jennifer says:

      It really depends on when you intend to use them. If you want to try and store your seeds for years and years the freezer is probably your best option. If you just want to store your seeds over the winter then a cool dry closet will work. Yes, a glass jar will work fine, just make sure it’s not vacuum packed; the seeds need a little air.

  • Jim144 says:

    Thanks for the information. I have a question, though: If the seeds need to be dry prior to freezing them, can they be dried in a solar dehydrator? Is that acceptable, or will that destroy the seeds?

    • Jennifer says:

      I’m not sure of the exact temperature that would destroy the seeds. If they were my seeds I would not heat them up beyond say 100 degrees F. That’s about as hot as they would heat up to “in nature” (if they were just left out on the ground). I would just lay them out on a flat surface until they were completely dry if your intention is to freeze them.

  • Thanks for that – I never knew vacuum packing wasn’t good for seeds (thus my plan to dry-pack them in canning jars is now out the window!)

  • Kendra says:

    Thank you so much. This is so informative!

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