Saving Seed: Ancient Beginnings

For thousands of years, human history has been intertwined with seeds. We depended on the seeds we grew and stewarded to provide food, medicine, fiber for clothing, dye, and many of the other building blocks of our lives. Saving seed altered the way we lived, farmed, ate, and celebrated. Vandana Shiva probably put it best when she said, “seed is not just the source of life. It is the very foundation of our being.”

Our journey with seed saving and agriculture has been long and complex. Humans didn’t just decide one day to give up our nomadic lifestyles and settle down; we transitioned to agricultural societies over thousands of years. So when did it first begin, and why? Why did hunter-gathers start saving seeds and then selecting them for specific traits? 

Seeds drying on racks (saving seed)Why Did Humans Begin Saving Seed?

Today, there are many qualities we focus on when saving seed. We select for traits like flavor, vigor, cold-hardiness, color, size, drought tolerance, and more. These qualities probably weren’t the focus of ancient seed savers. They had to deal with other issues first.

So far, researchers have found that hunter-gathers first started to save and select the seeds of regionally available grain crops. The first characteristic they probably focused on was the “non-shattering trait.” In wild plants, being able to spread your seed is highly advantageous. Plants disperse their seeds in several ways, including wind, animals, and water. In wild cereals, the seed heads shatter, and the seeds drop from the plant as soon as they dry and mature.

This trait presented a considerable roadblock to efficiently gathering large amounts of grains for humans. They had to time gathering grain just right before it was dropped or blown off by the wind. It was also much harder to harvest without waste, leaving so much up to chance.

Researchers found some of the earliest evidence of humans selecting for non-shattering rice along the Lower Yangtze River in China. The non-shattering gene was also found in einkorn (wild wheat) in Tell Qaramel, an archeological site in modern-day northern Syria, and in barley and emmer (wheat) in several parts of the Fertile Crescent or what is now portions of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Kuwait, Turkey, and Iran (Allaby et al., 2017).

Aerial view of Tell Qaramel
Aerial view of Tell Qaramel

Developing grains with the non-shattering trait that retained their seeds was an enormous breakthrough for humans and would have improved the reliability and productivity of these cereals. It also represents when our lives began to intertwine with seeds. Humans were not just gatherers anymore; we became seed savers.

When Did Humans Begin Saving Seed?

So when did this all begin? Studies in recent years have shown that initial seed selection for those non-shattering traits began occurring long before we initially believed, dating back to the Pleistocene glacial era roughly 30,000 years ago (Allaby et al., 2017)!

These initial seed selections did not mean these early seed savers were becoming full-time farmers. These were still largely nomadic hunter-gathers supplementing their diet with wild cereals that they helped encourage and cultivate. Humans throughout the world were still mainly living nomadic, hunter-gather lifestyles until roughly 12,000 years ago, during a period which has been dubbed the “Neolithic Revolution” (National Geographic Society, 2022).

Ancient terrace rice fields in Yunnan Province, China
Ancient terrace rice fields in Yunnan Province, China

The Development of Agriculture

There is evidence of fig tree orchards in the Jordan Valley from roughly 11,300 years ago, signs of squash cultivation in Mexico date to at least 10,000 years ago, and cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs were all domesticated in the Fertile Crescent between 13,000 to 10,000 years ago (National Geographic Society, 2022). So what changed to make humans take up farming full-time? Scientists are not entirely sure.

In some regions like the Near East, this period brought about climatic changes that suited the production of annual plants. In other areas, a decline in natural resources as populations grew may have forced people to supplement their diets (Weitzel, 2019). An acceleration of domestication of plant varieties also coincides with the invention of sickle farming technology about 8,000 years ago (Hays, 2017). Some researchers even believe that agriculture took off as societies began to recognize private property rights. Simply put, humans like to own stuff (Chatterjee, 2013). 

While these are all relevant theories, none of them likely caused the shift towards agriculture in its entirety. Humans moved towards agricultural societies for different combinations of reasons that varied over regions and cultures. 

From these humble beginnings, humans continued to grow and save seed. Cultures across the world bred and stewarded their own staple crops and livestock. These varieties became essential parts of our everyday lives, our heritage, and our culture. 

Saving Seed Today

Today, there are relatively few people saving seed. We are no longer hunter-gatherers trying to supplement our diets or subsistence farmers trying to grow every calorie we consume. Most of us don’t even grow a portion of our food, but today seed saving is just as important as it was thousands of years ago. When we fail to continue the work of stewarding seeds, we lose thousands of years of work and information. We lose biodiversity. We lose culture. We lose flavor. We lose celebration. 

If you have the ability to take on one extra garden project this year, save seed from your favorite variety.


Allaby, R. G., Stevens, C., Lucas, L., Maeda, O., & Fuller, D. Q. (2017). Geographic mosaics and changing rates of cereal domestication. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 372(1736).

Chatterjee, R. (2023, March 30). Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like To Own Stuff. NPR. Retrieved May 13, 2013, from

Hays, B. (2017, October 23). Humans altered the evolution of crops 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. UPI.

National Geographic Society (2022, July 8). The Development of Agriculture. National Geographic.

Weitzel, E. M. (2019). Declining Foraging Efficiency in the Middle Tennessee River Valley Prior to Initial Domestication. American Antiquity.

Basics: Direct Sowing Tips

Direct sowing crops is one of my favorite parts of spring. I get to get out into the garden and put something in the ground before many of my transplants are ready to go out. In the spring, I direct sow cool-weather crops like radishes, greens, peas, and turnips. As the spring progresses into summer, I begin direct sowing warm-weather crops like cucumbers, squash, corn, and beans. Here are a few tips to ensure you have success direct sowing crops.

Prepare Your Garden Bed

As discussed in our previous article, How to Prepare Beds, you should prepare a garden bed. Ideally, your soil should be rich, loose, and moist. This will help ensure your seeds have soft soil to push their roots into, moisture to germinate, and nutrients to grow.

Know Your Planting Date & Watch the Weather

The best time to direct sow specific crops depends on where you live and your first and last expected frost dates. For a quick look at what to plant when, you can try our garden planner app or the Farmer’s Almanac planting list by zip code. If you live in zone 7, as we do at SESE here in Virginia, you can check out a list of our recommended planting dates.

You should also keep an eye on the weather. While rain can be ideal for helping water in crops, you may want to avoid planting small seeds like lettuce right before a heavy rain which could uncover or dislodge them. A severe cold snap can slow or halt germination even with cold hardy crops. Check the forecast before planting and consider how the following days may affect your crops.

Prepare Your Seeds for Direct Sowing

Before your intended planting date, review your seed packets or look up information about your chosen crops. Some seeds need to be treated beforehand. For example, we recommend soaking Sweet Pea seeds overnight before planting.

Mark Your Rows

It’s a good idea to mark your rows carefully. This will allow you to easily weed in between rows before your crops germinate without fear of disturbing your seeds.

Plant Seeds at the Proper Depth

Your seed packet should indicate a planting depth for each crop. If you don’t have this information, a good rule of thumb is to plant your seeds at a depth equal to two or three times their width.

Be Consistent with Watering

Watering while seeds are germinating is critical. For best germination, keep the soil consistently moist. If you have a rainy spring, you may have minimal watering to do, but if not, you should check your soil everyday and water as needed. Keeping the soil consistently moist will improve germination rates.

However, you don’t want the soil to become water-logged. Your soil should feel moist after you water, but if you grab a handful and can squeeze water out of it, you have overwatered. Some seeds, like summer squash, are susceptible to rot when overwatered.

Thin Your Crops

Many crops like onions, radishes, carrots, and lettuce should be thinned as they get larger. It may seem like a waste, but your vegetables won’t properly mature if they don’t have adequate spacing. Baby greens and small onions can be harvested and used for salads at a small size.

Stay Diligent About Weeding

Weeds are fast-growing, and it’s often easy for them to overtake tiny seedlings. Keep your beds well-weeded as seedlings get established for the best production.

Add Mulch

Once your plants have grown to a couple inches, it’s a good idea to mulch around them. Mulch will save you work by suppressing weeds and keeping the soil moist.

Direct Sowing: Extra Tips & Tricks

Here are a few tricks of the trade to help you get the best results when direct sowing crops.

Cover Carrot and Lettuce Seeds with a Board or Cardboard

Carrot and lettuce seed germinates best when kept moist. After sowing carrot seeds, water them carefully and cover the rows with boards or cardboard. After a couple of days, check on them each day and remove the boards or cardboard as soon as they have begun to germinate. 

Use Radishes to Mark Rows

Radishes germinate very quickly. You can toss a few radish seeds in with lettuce, carrots, or other seeds to help mark and keep track of the row while you wait for the other seeds to germinate. 

Use Row Cover if You Have It

Row cover is a great way to give young seedlings a little extra protection from cool temperatures, heavy rains, and drying winds. Consider using row cover as you get crops established. 

Learn to Direct Sow in Hot Weather

Later in the summer, check out Lisa and Ira’s other tips for direct sowing in hot weather. These tips are helpful for getting your fall crops started.


In some ways, direct sowing is as simple as plunging some seeds into the dirt. However, for a healthy, productive garden, it’s best to keep these tips and methods in mind as you sow your spring garden. Happy growing!

10 Beginner Crops

“To grow your own food gives you a sort of power, and it gives people dignity. You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family, and your community.” ~Karen Washington

Gardening is a great way to connect with nature and food. It’s good for your body and good for your soul. We hope many of you join us on this journey this season. Here are a few of our favorite beginner crops to get started with.


Basil is one of our favorite herbs for beginners because it’s easy to grow and delicious. Basil can be started indoors in flats for an earlier harvest, or you can direct seed it once the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. It’s a great companion plant for tomatoes and you can harvest it over a long period. Pruning your basil plants will encourage them to put on more growth.

Shop all of our basil varieties.

Bush Beans

Bush beans are one of the easiest vegetable crops to grow. You can get a decent harvest even in a tiny garden, and sowing a few every three weeks can keep you in a fresh supply of beans throughout the summer. 

Try our Tricolor Bean Mix to get three colors of organic bush snap beans in one packet! The packet includes Provider, Gold Rush, and Royalty Purple Pod.

Visit our Bush Beans Growing Guide for more information or see all our bush beans.

Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are always a favorite in the garden, and cherries are some of the easiest to grow. Cherry tomatoes can be grown in containers or the field. They’re disease resistant, quick to mature, and produce over a long period. You can find cherry tomato varieties in red, pink, yellow, purple, or bi-colored.

Shop all of our cherry tomatoes, or check out our Tomato Growing Guide for more helpful advice.


If you have a small garden, it can be easy to pass over flowers, but we love adding a small patch or two! Flowers help attract beneficial insects, support wildlife, and look beautiful in the garden or as cut flowers.

Cosmos are easy to grow and an excellent choice for beginner flower gardens. They’re a fast-growing annual that will tolerate partial shade, poor soil, and drought once established. If you keep cosmos deadheaded, they produce blooms over a long season. Additionally, some cosmos, C. sulphureus, have edible petals that will add color to summer salads. 

Add a few bright spots to your garden with our selection of cosmos.


Cucumbers are another crowd favorite that’s an excellent choice for beginners. They’re generally easy to grow and even just a few plants will produce a large harvest. There are two basic types of cucumbers, slicing and pickling. Pickling cucumbers tend to be shorter and fatter and have been bred to hold up better when pickled. However, both pickling cucumbers and slicers can be eaten fresh or pickled. 

You can start cucumbers indoors, but it’s also okay to direct sow them one to two weeks after your last frost. If you’re dealing with a small garden, try growing your cucumbers vertically on a trellis to save space.

For more information, visit our Cucumber Growing Guide or shop all our varieties.


Lettuce is a great cool weather, beginner-friendly crop for spring or fall gardens. We carry a few different types of lettuce, including Romaine, Loose-Leaf, Bibb (Butterhead), and Crisphead and Batavian. 

Romaine forms upright elongated heads and is moderately tolerant of heat and shade. Loose-Leaf doesn’t form heads and is forgiving of poor soils, heat tolerant, and probably the easiest to grow. Bibb forms small loose heads and has soft textured leaves. Crisphead is harder to grow well but is a popular choice. It forms tight heads with crisp leaves and needs a long cool season.

You can sow lettuce in flats indoors and transplant it out or direct sow. If you direct sow, it is typically best to sow a bit thickly and thin seedlings as they grow. You can make a salad of baby greens with the lettuce you thin. 

For more lettuce-growing advice, visit our Lettuce Growing Guide or check out all our varieties.


Peas are another fast-maturing cool weather beginner crop. Snap peas, snow peas, and shelling (English) peas are all easy to grow and well-suited to spring’s cool temperatures. Direct sow your peas as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Be sure to grow them along a trellis or fence.

For more information, read our Pea Growing Guide or shop all peas.


Spring salad radishes are one of the first crops we can harvest each year. Like peas, you can sow them as soon as the soil can be worked. They germinate and grow with incredible speed. Some varieties, like Cherry Belle, are ready to harvest in as little as 24 days!

Visit our Radish Growing Guide or shop radishes.

Summer Squash & Zucchini

If you know a gardener, you’ve probably been offered some free summer squash or zucchini before. The productivity of summer squash and zucchini is nearly unmatched. Just a few plants will grow tons of produce; both are outstanding beginner crops. 

Summer squash and zucchini can be direct sown after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. For tasty, tender squash, harvest them when they’re small. 

Learn more about these crops with our Squash Growing Guide, or shop our summer squash and zucchini.


A standard for cut flower gardens, zinnias are easy to grow, productive, and come in a wide range of colors. These annuals can be sown indoors for extra early blooms of direct sown after your last frost. They’re ideal for cut flowers because the plants will continue to produce when you cut some. Keeping them deadheaded can help extend their season. 

Shop all of our zinnias.


Every gardener will experience challenges; it’s part of the joy of growing! These beginner crops can help ensure you have success with vegetables, flowers, and herbs in your first season, even if you don’t think you have a green thumb. 

Saving the Past for the Future