Demand was “over-the-top insane,” says Dan Jason, owner of Salt Spring Seeds in British Columbia, and the shortages are expected to continue in 2021.
One way to ensure next year's crop is to save seeds this fall. Increasing numbers of gardeners are saving their seeds and swapping them through networks like the Seed Savers Exchange or even public libraries.
Seed saving “is always a good idea,” says Bill Best, who founded Livingston, Tennessee's Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. You can save seeds from heirloom varieties of plants as well those from your hardiest, best-producing plant specimens to allow you to gradually breed for improved seed strains.
Harvesting and saving seeds
Once you know the right time and method for harvesting seeds (see sidebar), seed saving is cheap and easy. It's hard to go wrong with four self-pollinating annuals: tomatoes, lettuces, beans and peas.
Seeds from an heirloom self-pollinator, like True Red Cranberry beans or Best's favorite, the Candy Roaster Squash, will reliably produce the same variety when planted, if your plants are spaced properly. But if you stock your garden with common hybrids from the hardware store, be ready for surprises.
"Hybridized seeds [could] come back the same or different,” says Bevin Cohen, a Sanford, Michigan, farmer and author. “When cross-pollination happens, each grain of pollen comes from different sources, so each of those seeds is going to be slightly genetically different.”
Seeds from insect- and wind-pollinated plants — like squash, corn and watermelon — are cross-pollinated from a wide number of sources, so their seeds will also defy expectations.
Tomato seeds are easy and fun to harvest, though you'll need to clean and dry the seeds before storing them. Best recommends letting the seeds and surrounding gel ferment for two to three days, then filling their container with water. The viable seeds will sink to the bottom. To dry seeds, Jason recommends spreading them on a fine window screen from the hardware store. Cover with another screen to keep fruit flies out. If your area has high humidity, you may need to aim a fan at your seeds to ensure they dry fully.
Oregon plant breeder Carol Deppe, whose many books include The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, recommends using a dehydrator to thoroughly dry any seeds you want to preserve beyond next year. You can store seeds in any cool, dark place, but the freezer is ideal.
Best became a freezer convert after successfully sprouting his mother's decades-old seeds. After his mother's death, Best's sister defrosted the freezer and “on the very bottom she discovered seeds that had been in there 35 years. And I had 100 percent germination” with them, he says. “That convinced me of the value of freezing."
Store seeds in airtight containers (or even in paper packets, if you're only saving them for one year) and label them with the species, variety and year. You can also note how much the plant yielded and attach a photo.
Swapping and lineage
At seed swaps around the country, increasing numbers of gardeners gather to exchange seeds and family tales. At the Appalachian Seed Swap in Pikeville, Kentucky, Cohen met a woman who was growing her great-great-grandfather's corn seed. “Her family history was entwined into this variety” of corn, Cohen says.
Seed swappers also share the surprisingly rich histories of the seeds themselves. “All seeds have their own name[s], stories and lineage,” says Jessika Greendeer, seedkeeper for the Minneapolis indigenous preservation organization Dream of Wild Health. Even if you and your next-door neighbor start with the same variety of a plant, she says, the seeds that each of you save and grow will develop different characteristics after a few generations. “They will evolve in different ways,” she says.
How to Harvest Seeds
Leave six to 12 plants in your garden to overripen through the season's end. How you harvest their seeds depends on the variety. Seeds that are dry when they come off the plant, like lettuce, cilantro, beans and peas, don't need to be dried before storage.
Lettuce: Let a few of your lettuce plants bolt, or produce flowering stems, at the end of the season, says Rebecca Newburn, cofounder of the Richmond Grows seed library in Richmond, California. To collect them, tap the stalk against the edge of a bucket.
Cilantro: Gather the small, round seeds in bunches.
Corn: Hang a few ears from their husks to dry out, then remove the seeds.
Arugula: Wait until the plant's pods grow brittle, then pick them and let the harvested stalks dry until the seeds become too hard to dent with a fingernail. Break the stalks open to collect the seeds.
Beans and peas: Let a few pods dry on the plant, then collect and shell them.