DIY Seed Vault (with a Video)

Make a DIY Seed Vault

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2020 was an eye-opening experience for many people. We saw shortages in cleaning supplies, certain medical provisions, toilet paper, food, freezers, canning equipment, and yes - gardening supplies, including seeds. As 2021 opened, several seed suppliers stopped accepting new orders - and at least two popular suppliers closed their websites down, saying they could take no more orders until they'd caught up on the purchases customers had already placed. To say their clientele was shocked is an understatement. Not surprisingly, the shortages of 2020 and 2021 have many gardeners and homesteaders wonder just how to proceed. Many are considering whether or not it's possible to create their own seed storage vaults. The answer: It most certainly is. 

Why a Seed Vault?

A seed vault is simply a ready supply of garden seeds typically used as a backup in case seeds are unavailable in stores. (You may also use your seed vault every year, as long as you have a means of replenishing the seeds.) There are no shortage of seed vaults available for sale (some claiming, rather dubiously, that the seeds will remain good for 25 years), but there are a few reasons you might want to make your own: 

1. To customize the type of seeds in the vault. Ready-made seed vaults are generic and may contain seeds that won't grow well in your area. If you make your own seed vault, not only can you pick and choose which vegetable seeds to include, but you can ensure the seeds are suitable for your climate and growing conditions. 

2. To save money. You can spend as little or as much as you desire, but it isn't difficult to save money creating your own seed vault. 

3. To more easily replenish your seed vault, ensuring that when you do need seeds, they are still viable. If it costs less, or if you supply your own seeds, it is easier and cheaper to keep your vault up to date. 

Choosing Seeds

The first step in creating a seed vault is selecting the right seeds: Seeds that produce food your family will eat and seeds that grow easily in your location. Begin by looking at the seeds you already use on a seasonal basis. (If you aren't currently growing food from seeds, before you create a vault, you should make it a priority to begin doing so. All the book knowledge in the world about raising a successful food crop from seeds cannot replace actual experience doing it.) Ideally, you can simply buy or gather extra seeds that you already have experience with and pop them into your seed vault. But among the seeds you already use, ask yourself: 

1. Is this open-pollinated? When you start seeds from open-pollinated plants, the "babies" will be the same variety as the parent plant. Heirloom seeds are always open-pollinated. Hybrid seeds are not; while you can collect seeds from hybrid plants, the baby plants will not be the same as the parent plant, often being weaker or having less desirable traits. For the best seed vault, stick with open-pollinated varieties so you can get a great garden out of your vault year after year. If you put hybrid seeds in your vault, you'll only have a great garden until your seed supply runs out. 

2. Is it suitable for your area? In other words, have you found the right variety of tomatoes (or zucchini or green beans or whatever) for your garden? Does the variety always mature before frost hits? Does it withstand pests in your area? Does it provide an abundant crop? Does it grow quickly? (I recommend, when possible, seeds that mature quickly so I can replant at least twice during the main growing season.) If the seeds you're planting don't meet these criteria, try growing some different varieties until you discover seeds that grow better in your location.

Seeds saved from m garden.

 

3. Is it a food your family will eat? There's little point in spending time and garden space on foods few people want to eat. For instance, if nobody in your family likes kale, don't bother to store kale seeds. Or if you love pattypan squash but no one else in your family will eat it, perhaps it shouldn't be in your vault. (Or maybe it should; if pattypan squash is comfort food for you, possibly you should include it, anyway.) 

4. Does it store well? You should also consider how you will store the crops you grow if there are shortages in canning supplies or you can't run your freezer. Some crops, like winter squash, store quite happily in a cool location; maybe they should receive priority in your seed vault.

For more tips on choosing seeds for your garden, check out this post.

Getting Your Seeds Dry

Moisture greatly limits the life of seeds, so getting your seeds perfectly dry before storing them is a must. If you are saving seeds from your garden, be sure to collect them at the right time in the plant's life cycle. The book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth provides accurate information about when to optimally collect seeds from just about any plant you'd like to grow. (How to collect seeds is a topic that goes beyond the scope of this post; however, before you attempt it, I highly recommend reading Ashworth's book so you can understand how to isolate seeds to get baby plants that are true to the parent.) 

If the seeds are growing in gelatinous sacks, as tomato and cucumber seeds do, fermenting them is the next step. This is as easy as putting the seeds in a Mason jar, covering them with water, and setting them aside in a cool, dark location. When the seeds sink to the bottom of the jar, remove them. 

Next, dry the seeds, ideally at a temperature of 60 to 100 degrees F. Spread the seeds in a thin layer (I like to do this on waxed paper plates or parchment paper) and make sure they are in a well-ventilated location. Stir the seeds daily to ensure even drying. Some seeds take a week or longer to fully dry. 

You may also use an electric food dehydrator for the drying step (this is the brand I use), but you'll want to ensure it accurately puts off heat in the correct temperature range. You'll also have to watch the seeds closely to ensure you pull them out as soon as they are dry. You don't want cooked, dead seeds. 

Another option is to use silica gel to pull moisture from the seeds. (You can find silica gel here or possibly at local craft stores.) First, weigh the seeds using a digital scale. Now weigh out the same amount of silica gel. Place the weighed gel into the bottom of a glass jar. Lay a small piece of screening over the gel and then put a thin layer of seeds on top of the screening. Secure an air-tight, metal lid on the jar and set it in a cool, dark location for at least a week and up to 14 days. 

 

Choosing the Storage Method 

I prefer to store seeds in the fridge.

It helps to understand that the enemies of seed storage are light, heat, and moisture. If you simply stored your seeds at room temperature (but away from light and excessive moisture), they would last approximately this long: 

1 year: onions, parsnips 2 years: corn, chives, leeks, okra, peppers, spinach 

3 years: asparagus, beans, broccoli, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, peas, rutabaga, turnips 

4 years: artichokes, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, eggplant, kale, radish, squash, watermelon 

5 years: collards, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes 

To extend the lifetime of seeds, there are three main possibilities: 

1. Refrigeration. 

2. Freezing. 

3. Freeze-drying. 

Refrigerating seeds is easy. If you plan to rotate your seed vault every year (or even every two or three years), this is probably the best and safest option available. To properly refrigerate seeds, place desiccant or dehydrated milk (both of which absorb excess moisture; find desiccant here) in the bottom of a large glass jar, put the seeds (in paper envelopes or old pill bottles) inside, and secure the jar's air-tight, metal lid. Store the seeds toward the back of the fridge, so they don't experience as many swings in humidity. (The door of the fridge is the worst place to store seeds since that part of the refrigerator sees a lot of humidity swings as the door opens and closes.) Ideally, you'd store your refrigerated vault in a fridge you rarely open - say, a mini-fridge kept just for storing seeds. If the power goes out, don't worry. Just leave the refrigerator closed. Longer power outages will slightly reduce the life of the seeds. 

Official seed banks freeze their seeds, and this is considered the best method of keeping seeds viable for a long time - but unless you do it perfectly, you will destroy your seeds. Storage banks also flash-freeze their seeds and have generators to back up their freezers if the power goes out. For great at-home results, your freezer must stay at a constant -20 to -15 degrees F. and the seeds must be perfectly dry. (If you are going to freeze your vault, I recommend air drying your seeds, then using the silica gel method to remove any remaining traces of moisture.) A dedicated freezer (perhaps a small, apartment-sized one) that can reach the required temperature is a better option than a freezer you open regularly. If you choose to freeze your seeds, I recommend keeping them in paper envelopes which are then placed inside Ziplock-style bags. Seal the bags and place them inside an airtight container. 

Another potential storage method is freeze-drying. Home freeze dryers are now on the market (click here for details), and while I wouldn't recommend buying one just for seed storage, if you already have one for preserving food long-term, you might wish to try running seeds through it. Consumers have had varying experiences freeze-drying seeds; some report success using the seeds the following year, while others testify that smaller or more delicate seeds turn to dust when removed from the freeze dryer. I am unaware of anyone who has home freeze-dried seeds and used them several years after doing so. Be aware that if you freeze-dry seeds, you'll need quality Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers to make them last more than a year. 

Fermenting tomato seeds.

An Off-Grid Seed Vault

What if you're off-grid...or will be during a time of need? Then your seed vault should be set up exactly as if you were refrigerating it. But instead of using the fridge as your storage location, you'll use the coolest, darkest spot in your house - like a cool closet or garage. Why can't you just store your seeds this way all the time? You certainly can. It's just important to understand that the seeds won't last as long using the "cool place" storage system as they would if you refrigerate or freeze them. If you choose the "cool place" method for your seed vault, I recommend using your seeds yearly and replacing them at least every two years. 

 

Using Your Seed Vault Seeds

You might be tempted to pull your seeds out of the freezer or refrigerator and plant them right away, but this can diminish their viability. Instead, choose between two options: 

Method 1: At least 24 hours before planting, remove the vault and allow it to come to room temperature. Do not open the container during this thawing time. Once the seeds are at room temperature, you may remove and plant them. The downside to this generally preferred method is that all your seeds will thaw, which is not ideal if you're not planting some of all the types you have stored. (Thawing and freezing repeatedly eventually reduces the life of seeds.) To work around this, serious seed savers store seeds according to the time of year they'll likely plant them. For example, you could have one vault for seeds you start in the early spring and another vault for seeds you start in summer, as prep for a fall garden.

Method 2: Briefly remove your vault and take out only the seeds you wish to plant right away. Replace the vault and allow the individual seed packets to thaw. The downside here is that you are still altering the temperature and humidity for all the seeds, plus you are thawing the seeds you want to use more quickly. All these things can reduce the life of your seeds. Nevertheless, if you are replacing your vault seeds every one to three years (which I recommend), either method is likely fine. 

It's also not a bad idea to test the viability of your vault seeds before you plant them in the garden. Click here to see complete instructions for doing so.

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