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How to choose and save seeds for a changing climate

Posted by Meg Stout on Feb 13, 2013
Tags: green tips

Eight hundred miles from the North Pole, on a remote Arctic island, there is a vault. Its steel gray entrance juts out of the snow, a sharp preview of tunnels that run deep into the mountain. Armed guards with black guns patrol the premises. What’s inside? Seeds.

Though this level of security may appear extreme, the Svalgard Global Seed Vault underscores an important truth: seeds mean survival. Especially in a changing climate.

There are numerous seed banks throughout the world—from the Philippines to Peru—but many are vulnerable to natural disasters, conflict, or funding cuts. More varieties still, cultivated over thousands of years, are being lost in fields as monoculture farming methods become more widespread. As National Geographic illustrates, the number of heirloom varietals has decreased markedly in the past century. The Svalgard Vault, managed by the Norwegian government, serves as a safe deposit box for more than 750,000 types of crops that might otherwise disappear.

Why does this matter? In a changing climate, we need food crops that can withstand various conditions, from increased rainfall, to drought, to unpredictable temperatures. Though monoculture farming has some short-term advantages, a lack of crop diversity leaves entire food systems vulnerable to pests and weather events.

But you don’t need a cavern to help protect biodiversity—just a trowel and small gardening plot. Numerous campaigns, including Clif Bar’s Seed Matters, are providing great seed saving resources. Here’s how to get started:

Get Seeds

  • Visit a local seed exchange
    By attending (or organizing) a seed exchange, you can land rare heirloom seeds and build connections with other gardeners. Just starting out? Most gardeners will be happy to share growing tips with you. Look in community newspapers or search the internet for a gathering close to home.
  • Request seeds online
    You can also obtain seeds through internet forums—try GardenWeb or the Great American Seed Swap. It’s hard to match the diversity of plants that can be found there.
  • Purchase organic heirloom varieties
    Another option is to buy heirloom seeds from reputable companies. Try High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont, Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, or an organization in your area. Remember that neither hybrid nor GMO plants develop viable seed for saving, so heirloom crops are recommended.

Grow Plants

  • Learn how to save seeds
    Collecting seeds and tubers from your plants isn’t hard, but a little know-how helps. Try the Seed Saving Handbook for easy-to-find tips on specific varieties.
  • Don’t forget the native flora
    When collecting seeds, don’t forget the native ones. Native plants are naturally adapted to your region and can provide valuable food and medicine. Of course, harvesting wild plants requires special considerations—from the preservation of endangered species to the containment of invasive ones—so be sure to do your research or attend a workshop with a local expert first.

Pass It On

  • Start a personal seed bank
    With a home-based seed bank, you can build a supply for next year and the future. For great tips on how to get started, check out this guide from Rural Spin.
  • Back up your collection in two places
    If you are saving seeds for long-term or emergency situations, be sure to keep your supply in two different places—deposit some with friends or family in different cities, if possible
  • Share the wealth
    Once you’ve successfully saved seed, don’t forget to share the bounty (and your newfound knowledge) with others.


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