How to Harvest Seeds for a Sustainable Food Source

heirloom seeds 

How to Harvest Seeds for a Sustainable Food Source

Many of you have probably heard of what are called heirloom seeds. There is quite a debate on what constitute an heirloom seed. Some experts claim that the original “cultivar” must be at least 100 years old, others say 50 years old and still others use the end of World War II as a deciding factor.

For the sake of this article, and to prevent the discussion of the confusing definitions, which apparently no one can agree on, an “heirloom cultivar” will be defined as one nurtured and handled down (through its seeds) for the express purpose of maintaining the plants heritage (and to develop a sustainable food source). This means that at the end of every growing season plants are harvested for their seeds.

Hybrid seeds will produce a plant but the seeds produced from a hybrid plant will not produce a plant identical to the one from which it was harvested. This can be confusing, and this does have consequences if you are developing an alternative food source to sustain you in a survival situation. You cannot harvest hybrid seeds and expect to grow an identical plant, or any plant for that matter, from that seed. However, there is certainly nothing wrong with having a stockpile of hybrid seeds in your seed bank, but remember they would not be considered a renewable food source.

Hybrid seeds are not to be confused with Genetically Modified (GM) seeds. Hybrids are seeds bred to make plants more resistant to pest, droughts, and diseases and to bear more or larger fruit but the natural characteristics of the plant are maintained.

GM seeds are essentially made in a laboratory (manmade) where genetic material from other plant species is combined to produce a particular seed. There are many questions on how healthy this is for humans and animals alike. Currently genetically modifying seeds in this manner is legal.

Food sources must be renewable and sustainable, which means that you can produce your own food year after year without the help of commercial establishments and the government. You have the ability to harvest and store your own seeds for future plantings.

Harvesting Wet and Dry Seeds

Examples of dry seeds would be seeds from peppers, okra, basil and the onion family. In other words, the seeds are not surrounded by pulp. Wet seeds include seeds from tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes.

Wet seeds must be processed correctly or otherwise they may not develop. There is a process called fermentation that may be necessary for some seeds to sprout. It is not necessary to ferment all wet seeds and yet some that are not fermented may not germinate, so it is recommended. The fermentation process will be described as well as the process of separating the seeds from the pulp without the fermentation process. Seeds from squash and eggplant for example, do not need to be fermented but the process increases the germination rate and kills certain bacteria and fungus that inhibit the germination process.

Processing Wet Seeds without Fermentation

Scoop seeds and pulp into a bowl and cover with room temperature water. Live or healthy seeds will settle on the bottom while dead seeds will float on top. Using your fingers gently rub the healthy seeds between your fingers to remove the pulp. The pulp will float to the top. Once cleaned carefully pour off the water to remove the floating seeds and pulp, pour so that the good seeds remain in the bowl.

Add more water to the bowl to rinse the seeds and once again pour off to keep the good seeds in the bowl. You can repeat, as many times as you feel is necessary. Once the seeds are cleaned pour into a strainer and let set for 20 minutes and then they need to dry on a solid surface, and not on newspaper or cloth. The seeds will stick to paper and cloth making it very difficult to remove once dry and you can damage the seeds. A solid counter top, pieces of glass, plates or a large piece of tile can be used for a drying surface.

The seeds can be stored in glass sealable jars and store in either the refrigerator or an area that does not receive any direct light. The seeds can be stored for years this way.

Fermentation of Wet Seeds

Scoop the seeds into a bowl and cover with room temperature water, using about twice the amount of water to volume of seeds. You want plenty of room for the pulp, fungus and bacteria to rise leaving the seeds at the bottom. In some cases, it may take up to three days for the pulp to ferment and rise to the top along with fungus and any bacteria present. The water will begin to foam and may bubble which indicates the process is working. Leaving the seeds too long may cause them to germinate in the water so watch closely. Start out assuming it will take one and half to two days for the process to work.  Once you have seen foam and bubbles for at least a day clean and dry and then store the seeds as described earlier.

Dry Seed Harvesting

Seeds that develop in pods such as onion and basil seeds should be left in the husk until dried and then gently crumble the husk and separate the chaff from the seeds. You can separate the husks by gently blowing the chaff away after crumbling. Do this on a tabletop so you can recover any blown seeds.

Cucumber, squash, peppers and other dry seeds can be harvested once the fruit is past maturity date; some gardeners refer to this method as “letting the fruit go to seed”. Separate the seeds from any plant matter and air dry. Store as described above.


Carefully select the plants you plan to harvest the seeds from because the seeds will replicate the plant exactly, so make sure you do not choose any plants that appear underdeveloped. Choose several different healthy looking plants so any health problems from the plants over the years can be literally weeded out without depleting your crops.