All posts by Irena

Challenges of Growing Native Plants from Seed

Featured photo courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery

Growing native plants can also be challenging in ways that we don’t often see in vegetables.  Since I haven’t seen much written up about what those challenges are, I’ve decided to write about them. I want vegetable growers to be better prepared when choosing native plants to add to your gardens, and when planting them.

I really don’t want to discourage you from planting natives, as there are lots of great reasons to grow them.  There’s a world of information out there about why it’s a good idea, including from various organizations mentioned below. For many native plant species, late fall and early winter are great times to put seeds in the ground. And despite all the factors mentioned below, in many cases, it can be really easy to grow native plants. After all, any plant native to your region has been know to grow without human help in your region.

Many customers have asked us about how many of the seeds we sell are native. The answer: a fairly small portion.  But some people might possibly be using the word native when what they really mean to ask about is, which plants are heirlooms. And we sell hundreds of heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are varieties that have been cultivated for long enough to get passed down through generations of humans, whereas natives are species that have been growing in a particular area, typically for thousands of years, without having been introduced by humans.

Why don’t we sell more natives? Well, part of the answer is that we’ve been working on it.  We sell a few more native plant seeds than we used to.  To read more about them, continue past the next section.

What often makes it hard to grow native plants

One of the most common challenges of growing native plants is that so many of them — including most Echinaceas — require a period of moist cold before they will have good germination rates.  This is called stratification. I find this intuitive regarding plants native to temperate climates because they need to be able to germinate in wild conditions where they experience a yearly period of moist cold.

Many native plants have other, more unusual, requirements before they will have good germination. For this reason, Prairie Moon Nursery (which carries seed packets of far more native plant species than any other company I know of) uses germination codes to indicate the kind of pre-planting treatment they recommend. For some plants, including Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and Early Horse Gentian (Triosetum aurantiancum) they even sell seed with a “?” germination code, indicating that they “are not sure of the best germination method for this native seed. Your input would be of interest to [them].”

Though it is difficult to start jewelweed seeds, this useful native plant self-sows more readily that we would prefer.

Most wild plants, including most plants native to any given area, have generally evolved to have seeds that will germinate over a much longer period of time than most cultivated plants. I find this intuitive as well, because in the wild, there are many unpredictable factors about what will happen shortly after a seed starts to germinate. For example, there might be a cold spell, a heat wave, a drought, or a change in which insects are in the area, eating which kinds of plants. If some of the seeds stay alive without sprouting for an additional month, or an additional year, or an additional ten years, that delay gives the species something of a back-up plan. In extraordinary cases, seeds have even been found to germinate after hundreds of years.

Unfortunately for seed companies, when a plant spreads its germination out over a long period, that usually makes it harder for humans to assess how many of the seeds in a given lot are alive, and harder to write good instructions about how to get them to grow, and harder to schedule times for planting and transplanting, among other challenges.

Occasionally we also see this prolonged period of germination in older heirloom varieties of crop plants that are closer to their wild relatives. For example, Choppee okra and Whippoorwill southern peas germinate over longer periods of time than most okra and southern peas.

Most native plants are perennials.  There are various advantages of perennials over annuals, including that you generally only have to plant them once. But when seed companies grow perennials, it takes us a lot more time to get to know them well enough to decide to sell them and to write descriptions. It also takes our seed growers a lot more time to grow them to a stage of maturity that provides a good harvest of seed.

Woodland plants, including those that are low-growing, are mostly perennial. Photo courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery.

For most native plant species, there are no good instructions for how to harvest seeds or how to plant them. In many of these cases, it would be really challenging for us to write instructions for our own area and climate, let alone instructions that would work in most of the climates where our customers would plant those seeds. So, when we do add native plants to our listings, generally one of our main criteria is that they should, based on the information available to us, be relatively easy to grow.

In some cases, when we grow an unfamiliar plant, we make guesses about how best to take care of it based on how we take care of other plants in the same family. All plants are botanically grouped into families; there are hundreds in total. However, many native plants don’t have any widely cultivated relatives. Almost all widely-cultivated temperate-climate garden vegetables are in the same dozen families. All of these vegetable families also include native species, and some, such as the grasses, the legumes, and the asters, include a very wide range of wild, native species. 

One of the criteria we’ve used when deciding which native plant seeds to sell is ease of growing from seed.  Therefore, most, but not all, of the native plants listed below will grow well without any special treatment.  Ginseng and Goldenseal, as the most noteworthy exceptions, come with additional planting instructions.

What native plants Southern Exposure sells

As the folks at RVA Homegrown Natives describe well, the definition of “native” is somewhat fuzzy.  Every species is native to somewhere.  In any given location, a lot of plants could be considered native by some people and not native by other people.

Butterfly Weed, Scullcap, Dyer’s Coreopsis, Ginseng, and Goldenseal are also all native to broad areas of North America, including Virginia. Anise-Hyssop, Jewels of Opar, Red Drummond Phlox, and the Echinaceas that we sell are native to parts of North America, but not to Virginia.

Silverleaf sunflower (Helianthus argophyllus) is native to the Gulf coast and Southern Texas.

The Rudbeckias we sell, and most of the sunflowers we sell, are cultivars of species likely to be native to various parts of North America. Beach Sunflower (unavailable for 2023) and Silverleaf Sunflower are species types native to small ranges within the United States.

Wild Bergamot is native to broad areas of North America.  It’s also prone to spreading so vigorously that you’ll probably want to be cautious about where you plant it.  Lemon Bergamot is native to significant parts of the Southeastern US.

Lemon bergamot attracts has strongly flavored leaves and flowers that can be used in teas and foods.

Some of the squashes we sell — those in the species Cucurbita pepo — are cultivars of a species likely to be native to a range including parts of the Southeastern US.  In all our squash listings, we include the species at the beginning of the description, so you can tell which of the squashes we sell are Cucurbita pepo. However, based on the information I’ve found, I would estimate that cultivated squashes in the species Cucurbita pepo probably have their ancient ancestral roots primarily in Mexico rather than the United States — though I couldn’t find conclusive information on this.

Kars Egg squash, though it’s a Turkish variety, looks more similar than other squash to the pictures I find online of Cucurbita pepo var. texana, the U.S. ecotype of Cucurbita pepo.

Corn, beans, and squash have been grown in Eastern North America since long before Europeans first arrived on this continent. But, with the exception of wild Cucurbita pepo squashes, they were not growing in Eastern North America in pre-agricultural times. So they don’t fall into our category of native plants. These three crops, commonly referred to as the three sisters,  were first domesticated in other parts of the Americas, and they are native to those regions.

At Southern Exposure, we’ve been hoping to add Eastern Red Columbine to our listings.  It’s one of the best-known and showiest of the plants that are both native to our region and easy to grow from seed.  It did well in our trial gardens, impressing me with its bicolor flowers, and looking more attractive to my human eyes than many highly selected, hybrid kinds of columbine. We hope to offer it in future years.

Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a species native to most of the Eastern United States, including our part of Virginia

We’ve also been hoping to have Rudbeckia laciniata available for sale, but it seems that most of the plants on our land bear very few viable seeds. 

We’ve planted a range of additional plants native to the Eastern U.S. in our trial gardens, to help us decide which ones to sell. Among those that we’ve planted, and like enough to think about selling, are Boneset, Blue Vervain, Cherokee Sweet Mint, Cup Plant, Giant Yellow Hyssop, Joe Pye Weed, Maryland Senna, Partridge Pea, Purple Lovegrass, Virginia Mountain Mint, Yarrow, and Wapato.

Where to find more native plants

I’ve only found one company based in a Southeastern US state selling a wide range of native seed packets for gardeners: Roundstone Native Seeds. Roundstone also has a greater emphasis on regional ecotypes than any other company I know of.  When shopping further from home, consider that Prairie Moon Nursery has detailed maps of the native ranges of their seeds and plants.

There are also loads of nurseries selling mostly, or even exclusively, native plants. The Virginia Native Plant Society lists a few dozen such nurseries on its website. Meanwhile, as the folks at Maine’s Wild Seed Project point out, many big box stores are competing with local nurseries while selling plants that are not as suited to their particular region, with little or no attention to the ecological effects of their choices.

Besides the materials created by nurseries and seed companies, there is a world of other sources of information about identifying and growing plants native to our region. Here are a few I’d recommend:

In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of seeds.

At the International Seed Library Forum in May of 2015, I heard Bill McDorman of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance present about old seed-saving traditions.  He told us about a conversation he’d once had with a Hopi elder, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, who showed Bill his cornfield. Leigh’s field might be one of the oldest continuously cultivated fields on the North American continent. In this desert field, huge corn plants, each with many tillers, grew several feet apart.  Leigh told Bill that he had grown corn in that field for sixty years, and that it was his grandfather’s field, and that they believed corn had been grown there for a thousand years, growing corn in the same field every year. Astonished, Bill asked what kind of fertilizer or compost they used. Leigh said, “We don’t.” Bill asked how they irrigated; Leigh said, “We don’t.” Bill thought this went against everything he had been taught about agriculture, and thought the Hopi people’s success growing corn in such a climate must be the result of something about the kind of seeds they were planting. So he asked how they bred their corn, what they selected for when choosing which kernels to plant; Leigh said, “We don’t,” and followed up by saying, of the corn, “These are our children.” Bill also recounts how Leigh told him that the Hopi people learn how to follow their spiritual path by growing their corn. Bill has also recounted this story in an interview that you can listen to here.

“The older the genetics, the greater the nutrition.” This was how a respected elderly seed-saver and plant breeder summed up one of the principles of how he looked at his work. (I think it was Alan Kapuler who said this, but I wish I could remember for sure. It might have been Munk Bergen.) We were at a small, informal gathering just after the 2016 Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Oregon.

Reid’s Yellow Dent Corn, an heirloom variety that has been used to breed many hybrids

I wonder how many people would say that it’s just not possible for nutritional content to have anything more than a coincidental relation to how old a crop variety is.  I wonder how many people would say the correlation must be limited to the effects of modern breeding programs that have bred for shelf life instead of taste.  I wonder how many plant breeders would see it as a reason to bring as many ancient heirloom varieties as possible into modern breeding programs.

Painted Mountain Corn, bred over recent decades from many Native American corns

I have a different hypothesis. Perhaps each seed carries some sort of record of the ways its ancestors have been treated, the ways they have been cared for.  Perhaps seeds carry these records in a way that is held in their genetics, or is otherwise associated with their genetics.

Lessons From Indigenous People About Seeds

Across the globe, indigenous people have referred to plants that they have stewarded and eaten as their relatives. As Rowen White puts it, “We all descend from people who held seed as part of their familial constellation… They came into agreements a long time ago to care for each other in this beautiful reciprocal dance of stewardship.”

When modern Westerners hear that, I think many of us have a hard time picturing what it could mean, even though we often refer to our pets as part of our families.  When seeds and plants are stewarded by people who think of them as family, how does that change what those seeds and plants give us? Perhaps they nourish us more than seeds and plants that are stewarded by people who think of them as property.  Perhaps they nourish us in more different ways.

In February 2020, at the Organic Seed Growers Conference (OSGC) in Corvallis, Oregon, I heard several statements about Native American disapprovals and objections to the sale of seeds. I began to gain an understanding of where these objections are coming from.  I came to have some level of agreement with them. These are mostly objections to the sale of seed varieties that have been stewarded for decades or centuries by Native Americans. But I felt that the logic of these objections could be applied to other seeds as well, perhaps to all seeds.

Noah Schlager of Native Seeds/ SEARCH stated in a panel discussion that no company should be selling Native American ceremonial tobaccos.  I knew this included the Midewiwan tobacco that Southern Exposure sold.

Midewiwan ceremonial tobacco
Midewiwan Ceremonial tobacco in our garden

At that point in early 2020, we at Southern Exposure were selling it as Midewiwan Ceremonial Tobacco, and were stating on our website, “We used to sell this variety as Midewiwan Sacred Tobacco, but when we asked folks at the Center for Cherokee Plants about it, their input was that when something’s for sale, it shouldn’t be called sacred.” Later that year, we stopped selling Midewiwan Tobacco seed.

Also at the 2020 OSGC, Dan Cornelius of the Intertribal Agricultural Council spoke about right relationship with corn, and about stories associated with particular varieties of corn.  He referenced a conversation with an elder, about a certain traditional variety of corn with eight rows of kernels on each cob. The question at hand was whether it was sensible to cross this corn with another particular variety. The elder asked if the other variety had more than eight rows.  It did have more than eight rows, so the elder said they shouldn’t be crossed. 

At the seed swap at that conference (in photos below) , the booth that got the most attention was also the one where the person who had brought the seeds was asking those who took them not to commercialize them. He had dozens of seed packets of beans, squashes, and other crops.  There were handwritten names and descriptions on the packets. In most or all cases, the names indicated that these seeds were not available anywhere for sale, and in most cases, the descriptions included stories of Native American origin. At the other 20 or so booths, seeds were scooped into packets and passed from hand to hand with no exchange of money, and no commitment to doing anything with them at any point, but with lots of conversation about seed varieties being exchanged.  At this one booth, it was different. Conference attendees who had experience in saving seed were encouraged to take a packet, or a few, make a donation of about $5 per packet, plant the seed, harvest seeds from those plants, send a significant portion of their seed harvests back to him, and keep the rest of their seed harvests.

At first, I was excited. I saw an opportunity to help keep a few of these rare, storied varieties alive, and assess them for qualities including flavor, texture, yield, and disease resistance, and make the ones that did well in those respects available to the public through Southern Exposure.  But that was before I heard clearly that commercializing these varieties would not align with the terms on which he had acquired these seeds from countless families. It was not only that the first generation of seeds harvested by the people who took these seed packets was not to be sold. It was also that later generations of their harvests of these varieties were also not to be sold. I was saddened, because it meant I could not in good conscience take any of these seeds home with me.  I was not in a position to help steward this collection.

The 2020 Organic Seed Growers Conference included some of the first widely visible results of the Organic Seed Alliance’s efforts to address the extreme whiteness, as a group, of the people who grow and sell seeds in the United States.  There was a lot of very apparent effort to bring more perspectives of non-white people into the discussions about growing and selling organic seeds.  Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists gave a keynote address about how this country’s food system has historically oppressed, and continues to oppress, people of color.  I thought it was one of the best presentations I’d ever seen.  You can find some of the ideas he presented on his blog.

And yet I can tell, based largely on what I’ve heard in terms of feedback from people of color at that Conference, that the Organic Seed Alliance still had, and has, a lot to learn about how to go about bringing in these perspectives.  And so do almost all of us. Proceedings of the conference can still be found here, but, written ahead of the conference itself,  they don’t include the double sessions that I found most valuable. But the lists of speakers in those double sessions are included here.

Paying Attention To Non-Human Lives

Here are some things I have heard Christina Pratt, founder of the Last Mask Center for Shamanic Healing, say, in teaching about ways of doing ritual: That one should ask the place if it wants the ritual to happen there. That usually it does, but that there are exceptions, some of them due to the place taking care of young beings – babies of one species or another.  That one should ask the objects that will be part of the ritual, such as stones, whether they want to be part of the ritual. That different stones want different things, much like different people, or different entities of other kinds, want different things. That one should only use objects that want to be part of the ritual, and only do it on land that wants the ritual to happen there.

I wonder how many people these days converse with non-humans. Our society seems to have lost most, but not all, of its ability to do so.

I would estimate that a large majority of old, non-Abrahamic spiritual traditions recognize an enormous array of creatures as beings, with emotions, memory, agency, and points of view. I think this recognition is not as common within Abrahamic traditions and scientific institutions, but it still can be found.  (By Abrahamic traditions, I mean the many branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) I believe that when we let our attention and senses rest on a landscape or another being, such as a bird of prey, an enormous redwood, or a corn seedling, we absorb a little bit of its wisdom.

In some sense, it is wrong to consider oneself to own the life of another being.  Of course, when and if we measure lives and compare them to each other, we do not consider non-human lives equal to human lives, nor do we consider non-human lives equal to other kinds of non-human lives. Yet it is undeniable that in the most literal sense, each Southern Exposure packet of tomato seeds (for example) contains between 40 and 83 tiny, dormant, vegetal lives.

When we exchange money in order to also exchange control over something, the use of money has some effect on how we feel about our rights to do whatever we like with that something, or that someone, or that someone’s time. We are more likely to think we can do whatever we like with it. If it is a seed, we are more likely to think we have the right to plant it whenever and wherever we choose, without even trying to ask it for its perspective.

In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of seeds.

But not all sales of seeds are equal.  I still consider the sale of regionally adapted, open-pollinated seeds grown by small farmers, in resistance to the consolidation of the seed industry, to be one of the most honorable ways of making a living.  There are a lot of small seed companies that do this, including the companies on this list.  This is part, but not all, of how we, at Southern Exposure, make our living. We also sell seeds that we get from large wholesalers.

And I am not opposed to us continuing to get seeds from wholesalers.  Even the seeds from wholesalers help create alternatives to the conventional food system. Even the sale of seeds from wholesalers helps us help our customers to resist destructions such as following:

I don’t think anyone would deny that humanity is covering enormous amounts of land with agricultural monocultures, such as most modern cornfields. And on each acre of that land, previous biological communities included enormous amounts of diversity. I don’t think anyone would deny that humanity is spreading many chemicals across enormous acreages — with the purpose, and the result, of killing broad spectra of organisms, so as to completely cover those spaces with one plant species at a time.

I wonder if anyone would deny that pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and disinfectants created by humans kill non-target species as well as target species.I don’t think anyone would deny that for nearly all wild species, human activity has decreased the amount of suitable habitat. According to the 2019 Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, nearly one million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity. Some estimates say that one plant species is lost per day.

The various species that inhabit the Earth, including those that humans are tending, and including those that humanity is driving to extinction, are not only different collections of genes and chemistries.  They are also communities made up of countless individual lives. They are also different, even vastly different, ways of seeing, and of knowing, and of living.

In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of land.

And yet, it is the communal land ownership models of Native peoples and other people of color that have, throughout history, been getting overtaken by more capitalist models.

Heirs property is an ownership model that has suffered in the hands of US institutions, with far-reaching effects. It is a model of land ownership common among Black American families. In terms of clarity of titles, heirs property often does not satisfy the expectations of the American real estate system.  Heirs property has been a key factor in how Black families have lost huge amounts of land.

In some sense, the earth, the air, the fire, the water, are all alive. In some sense all things are alive. My heart concurs with Leon Rosselson when he sings, in The World Turned Upside Down, “The sin of property…”

In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of anything.

I am not trying to deny the immense utility of money.  Like anyone in our modern society, I can’t imagine living without it. But we can take smaller steps.

Even in the modern United States, even when it runs counter to our education, most of us maintain some aspects of looking at land and non-human beings as more than just property. This shows up in how, when transplanting seedlings, we don’t want to waste them, even if they cost us much less than the other inputs that it will take to grow them to full size. It shows up in how we hang bird feeders and birdhouses. It shows up in discussions about old-growth forests.

Some Ways To Start To Decommercialize Seeds, and Other Beings

The world we are living in is so far from ideal.  I think it would be crazy, on at least a few levels, to argue for an end to all sale of seeds, or of land, or of objects. There are many more achievable ways, of altering our methods of buying and selling, and our other methods of exchanging, to remember, and clarify, what good stewardship is. Below, I have a few words to say about places we can start, related to the work I’m involved in:

  • We can start, maintain, and use seed libraries.
  • We can listen to, and talk to, non-humans that live in the same areas of land we live in — even if we feel like we aren’t exchanging real messages, or if we don’t know whether we are.
  • I have sung to the seeds in the room where our many tens of thousands of seed packets are stored, containing many millions of tiny, dormant, vegetal lives. But I have not managed to make a habit of singing to them.
  • Fedco Seeds is listing their Abenaki Calais Flint Corn without a price. Instead, customers decide how much to pay per ounce as well as how many ounces to buy. Their reasoning for starting to offer seed without a price, is a lot like my reasoning for writing this blog post. 
  • We can create cooperative models of ownership, and we can work to make those models more “normal” than the conventional hyper-capitalist models.  The co-op movement is growing.  The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a great resource for people starting cooperatives and for converting existing businesses to cooperatives.
  • Perhaps I should do everything in my power to reduce the chance of our land, or our seed inventory, being owned by people who manage it more for their own material benefits than for the effects it can have of increasing the relative sustainability of our food systems.  Perhaps I should do everything in my power to increase the chance of our land, and our seed inventory, being managed by people who view other beings, including seeds, not purely as capital, but also as allies in creating a more sustainable world.
  • Sierra Seeds, founded by Mohawk seedkeeper Rowen White, looks in some ways like a seed company. But Sierra Seeds does not actually sell seeds. It sells, and otherwise offers, education. I’ve just started taking the Seed Seva training that Rowen offers through Sierra Seeds. Its modules and discussions are full of points and stories like those included in this post. One of my main goals in taking the Seed Seva course is to explore, more intensively than I have explored in the past few years, the ways that people can decommercialize seeds.  And especially the ways that we, of the various small seed companies that consider it part of our mission to resist consolidation in the seed industry, can work to decommercialize seed – without giving up our ability to make a living.

I have many times heard questions like, If you only had one hour left to live, what would you do? I have written this essay as the result of vague analogous questions, not about death, but about other forms of change that may lead us into worlds we cannot predict.

Bean Seeds Are Easy to Save

Saving bean seeds is a lot like harvesting dry beans for eating. In some ways, it can even be easier. You could do it with only one sentence of instruction: Let the beans dry in the pods before harvest.  But, to help you get more reliable results, we’re happy to provide the following guidance about how to save bean seeds for planting. And click here to see our other articles on how to save seeds.

five species of beans
Five species of beans. From top right, hyacinth beans, lima beans, asparagus beans, common beans (in three stages of maturity), and a winged bean.

On Species of Beans

It’s good to distinguish between the different species of beans and to know the species of the kind(s) you’re growing (but you don’t have to remember what all the other species are). Some things that apply to one species don’t apply to others.  The largest portion of beans on the market is what we call common beans, which are in the species Phaseolus vulgaris. These include pole snap beans, bush snap beans, and bush drying beans.

In addition to common beans, Southern Exposure also sells several varieties of lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), asparagus beans (Vigna unguiculata, also known as yardlong beans), edamame soybeans (Glycine max), fava beans (Vicia faba), one kind of hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus), and one kind of runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus). Other beans of different species, which as of 2023 are not sold by Southern Exposure, include mung beans (Vigna radiate), adzuki beans (Vigna angularis), garbanzo beans (Cicer arietinum, also called chickpeas), winged beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius), and lentils (Lens culinaris).  Southern peas, which are in the same species as asparagus beans (Vigna unguiculata), also may be considered a type of bean in some contexts, and the methods of seed-saving described here can also be applied to them. Each binary name (in italics above) indicates a different species. Furthermore, there are many varieties, or types, of beans within each of these species.  In some of these bean species, there are literally thousands of varieties. This is an example of how humans are capable not only of decreasing biological diversity but also of increasing it.

All of the beans listed above are in the legume family. On the other hand, some crops, like vanilla beans and castor beans, are not legumes at all, so I don’t consider them to actually be “beans.”

Five different types of bean seeds from five different species. From top, Hopi Yellow Lima Bean seeds, Turkey Craw Pole Snap Bean seeds, Purple Hyacinth Bean seeds, Sweet Lorane Fava Bean seeds, and Tohya Edamame seeds. Seed shape, and especially the shape of the hilum, is useful in distinguishing one species of bean from another. Color, on the other hand, is not as useful in distinguishing one species of bean from another. Within one species of bean, there can be a very wide range of seed colors and color patterns.

If you plant more than one variety of beans in the same species next to each other, that might result in bean cross-pollination, or it might not.  That is, bees might visit the flowers of one variety, and then flowers of another variety, and transfer pollen from one to another, and you might get some beans that are neither fully one type nor fully of the other type.  However, beans are not generally prone to crossing, so even if you plant them as close as ten feet apart, you’re unlikely to see crossing.  Lima beans are the exception; they can cross with other lima beans at a significant distance, occasionally up to about 500 feet apart. Beans of different species will not cross with each other regardless of how close they are.  In some cases, such as when growing seed for sale to a seed company, avoiding cross-pollination is important. Generally, in such cases, you should plan your garden so that different beans of the same species aren’t closer than about 30 feet apart.

When to Harvest Bean Seeds

Snap beans are varieties of beans that have been selected for being harvested and eaten while the seeds are still immature, that is, while the seeds inside the pods are not yet viable.  People often refer to them as “green beans,” but snap beans can also be yellow, red, pink, purple, or speckled. In many cases, snap beans are harvested while the seeds inside the pods are barely beginning to form.  However, many heirloom varieties of snap beans remain good to eat with their pods, even in the “shelly” stage, that is, even as the seeds fill out the pods and the pods change color with maturity.  When preparing beans for eating in the shelly stage, be aware that some varieties’ hulls get tough all the way through, whereas other varieties just get stringier and only need to be strung before or after cooking.  Also, be aware that the more mature a bean is when you harvest it, the longer you’ll need to cook it. So, beans harvested in the shelly stage will need to be cooked longer than snap beans harvested at an earlier stage – but not as long as dry beans!

Common beans at a range of stages of maturity
Stages of bean pod maturity: NT Half Runner beans at stages ranging from very young, through the leathery stage, all the way to the dry bean stage. The background is NT Half Runner bean seeds.


Drying beans, like Pinto Beans, Kidney Beans, and Navy Beans, are varieties that are selected for being harvested and eaten when the seeds have fully matured.  Many heirloom varieties are good both when harvested as snap beans and when harvested as dry beans.  But, in the 21st century, relatively few gardeners harvest dry beans for eating. Why? I think it’s mostly because, with irrigation, mechanical harvesting, and modern shipping, large-scale bean farmers in dry regions can grow, harvest, and clean huge quantities of dry beans using a small fraction of the labor that small-scale farmers or gardeners in humid areas would use.  This results in low prices for the beans you get at the supermarket. So, even if you harvest a lot of delicious, nutritious calories, the time you spend harvesting dry beans for food might not feel worthwhile because it doesn’t save you much money.  The beans you harvest at home might be a lot tastier than the ones you get at the supermarket – but that difference might be much more noticeable with other crops that don’t store as well as dry beans.

To harvest any beans for seed or dry beans for eating, let the pods stay on the plants until they’ve gotten dry enough to be leathery or crinkly. The leathery stage overlaps a lot with the shelly stage.  At the leathery stage, such as the third bean from the right in the photo above, the shells are fairly thin and flexible, and the beans inside have reached their maximum size. At the crinkly stage, such as the two rightmost beans in the photo above, the shells are very thin and are browner than at earlier stages. The seeds inside are firmer than at earlier stages and may have shrunk some as they continued to dry down after the shelly stage. It’s easier to tell how mature the pods are after any morning dew has evaporated when the pods are likely to be somewhat brittle. So, you might want to harvest your bean seed in the afternoon on a dry day.

If you just want to save seed for yourself, you might just let a few pods get past the snap bean stage.

If you can ensure that the beans you harvest for seed don’t get rained on after reaching the crinkly stage, that will help ensure a good germination rate.  If beans that have reached the crinkly stage get wet, they might sprout or get moldy, especially if they stay damp for a long time. If you notice fuzzy mold on any pods or seeds within the pods, don’t keep those because you don’t want the mold to spread to otherwise good seed. However, black speckling, such as you see on some of the pods below, is not a problem.

The author shells a few pods of Suches Yellow Hull Pole Snap Beans by hand, before she and her young friend Sappho use the pillowcase method described below. Photo by Sappho Heavey.


When and How to Separate the Seeds From the Pods

After you harvest your bean seeds, it’s good to let them cure for a few weeks (usually 2-5 weeks, or until at least a week after the seeds rattle in the pods). It’s best to cure them in a well-ventilated area, and it’s important that they be protected from rain. Letting them cure longer than 5 weeks is usually not a problem, as long as seed-eating bugs such as bean weevils don’t proliferate in them.  You can spread them in a single layer on a flat surface to cure or string the pods like beads to hang in your pantry or kitchen. After they’ve cured, thresh them to separate them from their pods.  Larger-scale growers thresh using machinery made for threshing, but on a smaller scale, there are several simple, enjoyable methods that you can use.  My experience is that children love threshing.

By putting a needle and thread through a small harvest of beans, you can make it easier to find a place with good air flow, to make sure they dry without getting moldy.
When spreading freshly harvested pods out to on a surface dry, it’s important to make sure they are protected from rain, and not piled high on top of each other.

The simplest of the methods is to break each pod open by hand and take the seeds out, as in the photo a few paragraphs above.  If you have more than a couple handfuls of pods, this method is also the most time-consuming.

Alternatively, you can fill a pillowcase about halfway with pods, then whack it repeatedly against a table or floor.  As long as your floor isn’t as hard as cement, you can whack the pillowcase pretty hard but don’t try to use all your strength.  The first time I taught kids how to save bean seeds for planting, I showed them this method, but I didn’t know yet to caution against using all their strength. They had so much enthusiasm for whacking that the pillowcase busted right open!

After a few whacks, it’s helpful to shake the pillowcase so that most of the seeds go to the bottom and the pods rise to the top.  Then, you can further crush the pods with your hands or lay the pillowcase sideways so that you can step on the pods without stepping on the seeds that have already been released.

Young Elan is not heavy enough to effectively thresh these pods by stepping on them. But he is curious enough to open one of them by hand.

Another method of threshing is to put the pods in a box and stomp on it or dance on it.

Threshing is easiest if the pods have been in a low-humidity environment for the couple of weeks before threshing.

After threshing, you might find that all the seeds have settled to the bottom of your container, and all pod pieces are above them. In this case, it can be easy to just lift most of the pods off of the seeds. However, unless you’ve hand-shelled each pod, you’ll generally need to winnow and/ or screen the seeds to separate them from the pod pieces.

Winnowing works because the pods are much lighter-weight than the seeds. People have been winnowing for many millennia using natural wind; however, we find it much easier to use artificial wind in the form of a box fan because artificial wind is more steady and predictable.  Since bean seeds are fairly heavy (relative to most kinds of seeds), the box fan should be on its highest speed.  Then pour the seeds and chaff (empty pods, pieces of pods, dust, and any other such debris) in front of the fan and into a container. As you pour, try to make sure the flow of air created by the fan isn’t blocked – not by the container, nor by your body, or by something else.  The empty pods and pieces of pods, being much less dense than the seeds, will largely be blown away from the container. With practice, you can get larger and larger portions of the chaff to be separated with each round of winnowing. However, even with practice, it will still take several passes before all of the chaff is removed from the seed.

The author winnows bean seeds. The relatively small amount of chaff remaining in the seed lot shows that this is not the first round of winnowing. Photo by Broken Banjo Photography.

A barn can be a good place to winnow.  The edge of a garage or the door to a greenhouse can also be a good place. Winnowing in your living room is a bad idea because then your living room would be very dusty. Alternatively, it can be challenging to winnow in an open-air space that is unprotected from irregular gusts of natural wind.

Screening separates seed from chaff that’s significantly larger than the seeds are, such as big pieces of pods, or significantly smaller, such as dust. Generally, hardware cloth is a good type of screen to use for separating beans from their chaff, and the three common sizes of hardware cloth are included in the set of screens that we sell.  These screen sets come with further instructions about screening.

It’s often best, especially with large seed lots, and especially if you want your seed to be very free of chaff, to alternate screening and winnowing – and sometimes even additional threshing – until all the chaff has been removed.

Storing Bean Seeds

Before storing seeds, it’s good to ensure they’re sufficiently dry. A good test for large seeds such as beans is: to put one seed on a hard floor and tap it with a hammer. If it shatters, its siblings are dry enough. If it squishes, its siblings need to continue to dry down.

When you’re done screening and winnowing, and when the seeds are sufficiently dry, put the seeds in an airtight container so insects can’t get in. Then, we recommend putting the container in the freezer for 5 or more days. This way, you can be sure that no live bugs remain in the seeds. After freezing, store your bean seeds in a cool, dry place, like other seeds.  Eventually, bean seeds expire, but they usually last a few years — or longer if kept in a freezer.

How is this different from harvesting dry beans for eating?

You might wonder how all of this is any different from harvesting dry beans for eating.  I see two main differences.

First, when people grow beans for harvesting and eating as dry beans, usually they grow varieties that have been selected over the years for their taste, texture, yield, and ease of processing as dry beans.  When choosing which varieties to save seed from, you’re more likely to care about their taste, texture, yield, and ease of harvesting in the snap or shelly stage. Drying bean varieties can be a lot easier to thresh and winnow than snap bean varieties.

Second, the purpose of your harvests can make a difference in terms of  what you want to be careful about.  For example, when harvesting for food, you might be more particular about making sure you get all the chaff out, or about making sure they don’t get mixed with bits of soil, or dust from your floor.   When harvesting for seed, you might want to be more particular about the storage conditions, to make sure the seeds don’t die before they are planted.

Saving Bean Seeds for Yourself, for Sale, and for Humanity

There are many ways you can sell bean seeds that you harvest.  If you want to sell just a few packets, you might list them on Etsy, Seed Savers Exchange , or Grassroots Seed Network.  If you want to sell pounds of seed in bulk, we recommend contacting seed companies before you decide which varieties to plant to make sure you plant a type they’ll want to buy from you.

If you’re going to sell more than a few packets, we recommend doing a germination test first.  Beans germinate quickly, so the germination tests are generally pretty easy.  However, in our experience, soybeans don’t germinate well in the standard paper-towel-style germination tests. Instead, we test them in potting soil.  Other kinds of beans can be tested in paper towels.

Many pole snap beans are endangered. And as I see it, there’s an ongoing shortage of bean seed on the market. Here’s why: Pole beans are generally not well-suited to the scales of agriculture of most of the farmers who are growing seeds for Southern Exposure or for most other seed companies.  Making a trellis is a job. Making a few hundred row feet of trellis and then taking it down a few months later is a job that most farmers would rather avoid. The advantages of pole beans – a longer harvest season, not having to stoop to pick them, and a wider range of available types – are generally more appealing to gardeners than farmers.  Furthermore, at the scales of larger, mechanized farms, growing pole bean seeds is even less desirable compared to growing bush bean seeds because bush beans can be harvested mechanically, and pole beans cannot.

Each winter, we send a list to the farmers who grow for seed harvests to sell to Southern Exposure. It lists the varieties we’d like to buy seed from the following fall. Each year, most of the crops on the list get paired with people who want to grow them.  Each year, most of the pole snap beans on the list remain unmatched with growers.

The Pole Snap Bean section of our seed growout list has a much larger portion of varieties without growers assigned so far, than other sections of our seed growout list.

Sometimes gardeners write to us about a family heirloom vegetable that they have and want to make sure doesn’t disappear. This happens more often with pole snap beans than with any other crop type. When it does happen with a pole snap bean, we are generally not very optimistic about the chances of getting into our catalog, even if it sounds like a tasty and special type of bean. For example, the Suches Yellow Hull beans (pictured in the middle of this article) were given to us by a customer in Suches, Georgia, and have not yet been produced in a large enough quantity for us to sell.

If you’re looking for rare bean varieties, try the Seed Savers Exchange member listings. Their common beans are listed under the category “Beans,” within Vegetables, while their other beans are listed alphabetically under categories such as “Lima Beans” and “Adzuki Beans,” also within Vegetables.

Click here to see all our bean seed listings.

Click here to see our general instructions on how to grow beans.