Tag Archives: Seed Saving

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). https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0429

Chatterjee, R. (2023, March 30). Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like To Own Stuff. NPR. Retrieved May 13, 2013, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/05/13/183710778/why-humans-took-up-farming-they-like-to-own-stuff

Hays, B. (2017, October 23). Humans altered the evolution of crops 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. UPI. https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2017/10/23/Humans-altered-the-evolution-of-crops-10000-years-earlier-than-previously-thought/3981508767201/

National Geographic Society (2022, July 8). The Development of Agriculture. National Geographic. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/development-agriculture/

Weitzel, E. M. (2019). Declining Foraging Efficiency in the Middle Tennessee River Valley Prior to Initial Domestication. American Antiquity. https://doi.org/10.1017/aaq.2018.86

Beginners Guide to Seed Saving

Southern Exposure strives to promote everyone’s right to save seed. We know that many backyard gardeners don’t have the time, space, or desire to save all of their own seeds, but we love seeing gardeners try to tend a variety or two. The pandemic further reinforced just how important seed saving is. We saw a surge in sales, especially of staple crops like corn and beans. Seed saving is easier than you think! Follow this beginner’s guide to seed saving to get started saving your favorite varieties.

Selecting Varieties 

If you’re going to save seed, it’s essential to save it from the right plants! Hybrid plants are the first-generation crosses of two different parents. If you try to save seed from these crops, it probably won’t be true to type, meaning that the plants may be different in appearance, flavor, or other characteristics than that hybrid you grew.


Open-pollinated varieties are the crops you want for seed saving. These stable varieties have been bred to produce the same crop year after year reliably. You may notice that some open-pollinated seeds are listed as heirlooms. 


The word ‘heirloom’ does not have a strict definition, but it’s generally used to reference open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation. Southern Exposure considers varieties to be heirlooms if they were bred before 1940. 

Planning Your Garden

If you’re a small gardener hoping to save a few seeds this fall, you don’t necessarily need to have done any special planning. However, planning a garden for seed saving will improve your success.

Isolation Distances

When preserving varieties, you need to prevent them from crossing. You probably know that an Amish Paste Tomato could cross with a Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato, but there’s more to it than that. Plants in the same family can also cross. Cabbages for instance, could cross with broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and other crops in the brassica family.

Crops need to be isolated to maintain varieties. Isolation can be achieved by distance or succession planting so that the crops aren’t blooming simultaneously. You can find isolation distances for different crops here.

Seed growers may also achieve isolation by covering blooms with bags and hand pollinating or growing in high tunnels. 

Population Size

Diversity is key! To maintain genetic vigor, you need a large enough population to preserve genetic diversity. Saving seed from a single pepper plant may be fine for a year or two, but it isn’t a good long-term idea.

Learn more about garden planning for seed saving with this fantastic post from SESE seed grower Debbie Piesen of Living Energy Farm.

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

What to Look for When Saving Seed

When you save seed, you’re determining the next generations of that crop’s characteristics to an extent. Generally, if you’re trying to maintain a variety, you want to save seeds from those plants that display the typical characteristics of that variety or are true-to-type. 

However, you may also want to select for certain characteristics. For example, you may want to save seed from tomato plants that displayed the highest resistance to late blight. 

There are several characteristics you can select for, including:

  • Trueness-to-Type
  • Earliness
  • Vigor
  • Cold Hardiness
  • Color
  • Stockiness
  • Drought Tolerance
  • Disease or Pest Resistance
  • Lateness to Bolt
  • Flavor
  • Uniformity or Lack of It
  • Size & Shape
  • Storage Ability
  • Productivity

Consider marking certain plants you know have some of the desired characteristics. That way, you can be sure you’re gathering from the correct plants when it’s time to harvest seed. 

Seed Saving from Annuals

Many of the crops we save seed from are annuals. Their life cycle takes place during a single season. They start as a seed in the spring and produce seed by fall. 

These are excellent choices for beginner seed savers. They include squash, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, peas, basil, and more. 


When harvesting for seed saving, remember that some crops will need to mature beyond what you would typically allow for eating. For example, cucumbers should be fat and yellow, jalapeños should be red, and sweet corn should be dry and hard. 

Fermenting Seed

Some seeds have a gelatinous coating that you’ll need to remove before drying and storage. In the wild, this coating will help preserve the seed and temporarily inhibits germination as it lies on the ground until the following spring. In a garden setting, we want this coating gone before planting. Crops with this coating include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Squash

To remove this coating, place your seeds into a jar or container and cover them with water. The containers need airflow, so don’t put a lid on. However, you can cover them with a cloth or coffee filter and a rubber band to keep out fruit flies. 

 Let this mixture ferment for three days, stirring it once a day. It’s okay if you notice some mold growing on top. After three days, add more water and stir the mixture again. The viable seeds will sink while the pulp and bad seeds will float, and you can pour them off the top. Drain your viable seeds.

Drying Seed

No matter what type of seed you harvest, you want to ensure it’s fully dry before storing it. The seed should be dry and brittle. Larger seeds, like pumpkin seeds, should snap when you bend them, not flex. Smaller seeds should crush under pressure instead of flexing.

After adding your seeds to a container, check it regularly for the first week or two. If you notice any condensation inside the jar or other signs of moisture, remove your seeds and dry them further. 


Biennial crops require two growing seasons to reach maturity and produce seed. They need to go through a cold period called vernalization to produce seed. These include beets, Swiss chard, bulb onions, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips, and others.

Many biennial crops can survive temperatures into the 20°Fs. In parts of the south, you can easily overwinter them. However, further north or in the mountains, they may need heavy mulch or season extension like high tunnels or row cover. In the far north, you may need to pull plants once they go dormant and bring them into a cool space like a root cellar before replanting them in spring. Read more about saving seed from biennials here.

Ira Wallace shells Blue Clarage Corn (share seed)Storing Seed

Ideally, it would be best if you stored seed somewhere cool (about 50°F), dark, and dry. You can use seed packets that you’ve made or like those we offer on the website. You can also use mason jars or other containers you have on hand. 

Label everything with the variety and date you stored or last tested your seed.

Testing Seed

You can do a simple germination test at home to ensure your seeds are still good before planting time. Take ten seeds and place them folded into a damp paper towel in a container or bag (to help hold in moisture). Set your container in a warm place. 

The amount of time you’ll need to leave them will, of course, depend on how long whatever type of seed your testing requires to germinate. Be sure to keep the paper towel damp. You may have to sprinkle water on it if it begins to dry out. 

The number of seeds that germinate will give you a rough idea about their germination rate, and you can plant accordingly. If you have a lot of seeds, testing more than ten will give you a more accurate percentage. Even if only half germinate, you still use your seed; just be sure to plant thickly in the case of direct seeding or multiple seeds per cell when starting indoors. 

Saving seed from even a single variety can help you become more self-reliant, expand your knowledge of plants, and deepen your relationship with your land. We firmly believe that seed saving should be available to all. Follow this guide to become a seed steward. 

6 Ways to Share Seed

There are so many good reasons to save seed. Earlier this year, we published a blog post of 22 reasons to save seed in 2022. It helps preserve genetic diversity, saves you money, increases your self-sufficiency, and much more. It’s also essential to share seed. This further contributes to maintaining your favorite varieties and can help promote food sovereignty in your community. Here are some ideas to share seed.

Give Seeds for Holidays, Birthdays, and Other Occasions

Seeds make great gifts if you know other gardeners or maybe folks interested in getting started! The holiday season is almost upon us, but birthdays and other special occasions are great options too. 

You can package seeds in 1/4 or 1/2 pint jelly jars with a bit of fabric over the lid for a special touch. Alternatively, many printable DIY seed packets are available online, or there are ready-to-go packs in the SESE shop.

Join Seed Savers Exchange

Seed Savers Exchange has hosted a seed exchange since 1975! Using this virtual exchange, you can list fruit, vegetable, grain, flower, and herb seeds that you harvested and would like to share with others. You can also request seeds.

Donate to Seed Libraries

Like the little free libraries with books, seed libraries allow community members to seeds for free or sometimes for a nominal fee. They’re often located at libraries, community centers, or other public organizations. Currently, there’s a network of about 200 seed libraries registered across the U.S. You can find one near you to donate to or start your own. Check out the Seed Library website or view this seed library map.

Willow Leaf Colored Lima Beans (share seed)Connect with Your Local Master Gardener’s Program

Many areas, both urban and rural, have master gardener programs. Master Gardener programs train volunteers to be community leaders working on environmental and horticultural projects. Your local master gardener group may know of local initiatives to share seed or be interested in helping to organize something.

Start Your a Seed Swap 

If you don’t have any seed-sharing initiatives in your area, this is a great day to start one! Many community organizations may be willing to loan out a space for you to host a seed swap, or you can set up something virtual, like on Facebook. 

Check Out The Community Seed Resource Program

The Community Seed Resource Program “wholeheartedly believe[s] that the non-commercial saving and sharing of open-pollinated seed makes the world a better place for everyone.” Their website is excellent for networking and finding resources for seed saving and setting up seed exchanges, seed libraries, and other seed-focused events.

Seed is better when it’s shared. Use these ideas to get started sharing seed in your community, whether it’s through a seed swap, an initiative to help low-income gardeners, or just with family, friends, and neighbors!