Saving your own seeds saves money. It is also the best way to make sure that traditional crop varieties do not disappear. The traditional crops that have grown in your region since before your grandparents’ time are well adapted to the local climate and soil. And they are good at resisting common local pests. But if you and other local farmers stop growing them, they will disappear. In fact, many traditional varieties have already been lost forever.
The first step is to collect a variety of seeds from the field. Once you have done that, you must dry and store them so they will last until the next planting season. Here is how to dry and store them.
Dry, cool, airtight storage
There are three rules for storing seeds so that they will grow well in the following season.
- Make sure the seeds are well dried before you store them.
- Store them in the coolest place possible.
- Protect the seeds from moisture.
Dry the seeds by spreading them out on a mat or screen in a warm, shady place. The shade is important because direct sun may hurt the seeds. Turn the seeds every day or so. Turning them lets the whole seed dry evenly.
After two to three days of warm, dry weather most seeds are ready for storage. Some might take a little longer. Listen to the sound the seeds make when you break them to decide if they are dry enough. When they are dry, large, flat seeds, like pumpkin, they make a “snapping” sound when twisted. Large, thick seeds, like maize or beans, make a “cracking” sound when bitten. And small seeds make a “cracking” sound when squeezed between fingernails.
The cooler the place you store the seeds the better. The place should also be dry. Moisture and heat are the two biggest enemies of stored seeds.
Store the seeds in jars or cans with tight fitting lids to keep out moisture. The more humid the climate you live in, the more careful you should be about making your storage containers airtight. To make sure the containers are airtight, you can fill up the edges around the lids with wax or grease. You can also melt paraffin or candle wax and turn the jars upside down and dip them in it to make an airtight seal around the lid. Or dip a piece of cloth in hot wax and drape it over the opening of the container to seal it.
Another way to keep seeds from absorbing moisture from the air is to put something in the container with the seeds that will absorb the moisture instead. You can use freshly toasted grains of rice, wheat or maize, or toasted dried peas. Toast the rice, wheat or maize grains or dried peas by heating them slowly and moving them around continuously in a shallow pan over your stove. They should be completely dried out, but not burnt.
You can make a cloth bag for the toasted grains so that they will not mix with the seed. Fill the cloth bag with toasted grain, and then put it in the container with the seed. Put about twice as much toasted grain in the container as seed.
If you open the container and take out some of the seeds, but you want to store the rest of the seeds longer, take out the old toasted grain and replace it with fresh toasted grain before you seal the container again.
You could place the airtight seed containers in a pit in the dirt floor of a shed or storage hut safe from rain or flooding. That way they will be both cool and dry.
Keep insects out
Making the containers airtight also protects the seeds from insects. If you dry the seeds well, put them in an airtight container, and store them in a cool place, they will keep well until the next growing season. Usually, by following the three rules of dryness, coolness, and airtight storage, you will also help to keep insects out of the seeds until the next growing season. Some farmers do a few other things to help their seeds stay free from insects. Here are three more ways to keep your seeds free from insect damage while you are storing them.
Add five millilitres (one tablespoon) of vegetable oil, such as African palm oil, crude cottonseed oil, coconut palm oil, or peanut oil, to one kilogram of well-dried vegetable or grain seeds. Shake the seed and oil together in a jar for five minutes until the oil lightly covers all the seeds. Then store the seed in airtight containers in a cool place.
Another way to protect seeds from insects is to mix ashes with the seeds. First remove all the pieces of burnt wood from the ash so that only dust remains. Mix the ash dust with the seeds so that the seeds are well coated. Add 1/5 kilogram (200 grams) of fine ash to every kilogram of seed.
The third method involves adding dried leaves or plants to the seed. In different places different leaves work for this purpose. Try various plants that grow naturally in your area and are known for discouraging insects. Neem leaves (Azadirachta indica), for example, are available in many parts of the world. They are known to be good for keeping away insects. Other plants can be used in a similar way.
To use neem leaves, start by drying them in the shade. Direct sun will destroy some of the helpful elements in the leaves. When the leaves are dry, crush them to a powder in a bowl or between two grinding stones. Mix the neem powder with the dry seeds, and store them in airtight containers in a cool place.
Choose seeds to save for next season by taking three trips through your field to pick seeds. First, take a random sample. Then go back and choose seed from plants with special qualities. Then choose plants that are different in some way from others in your field or garden.
When you store the seeds, follow the three rules of seed storage: dry the seeds well; put them in airtight containers; and store them in a cool place. Protect seeds from insect damage by mixing them with oil, ashes, or insect-repelling plants such as neem.
Follow the steps given here to store seed from your own crops. It saves money. And it saves precious traditional crop varieties.
This script was written by Harvey Harman who was a community development worker in South Africa for several years. He is now a farmer in North Carolina, U.S.A.
This script was first published as script 2, in DCFRN package 29.
- The community seedbank kit, 1986, 15 pages. The Rural Advancement Fund International, P.O. box 655, Pittsboro, NC 27312, U.S.A.
- Echo Development Notes, Issues 35, 14, 15, and 16. ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), 17430 Durrance Rd., North Fort Myers, Florida 33917, U.S.A.
- Food from dryland gardens, David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri, 1991. Center for People, Food and Environment, USA.
- ILEIA Newsletter, Volume 3, No. 2, July 1987, and Volume 5, No. 4, December 1989. Information Centre for Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture, Kastanjelaan 5, P.O. Box 64, 3830 AB, Leusden, The Netherlands.