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Seed Saving Blog

Your Personal Seed Bank: Doomsday Vault or Your Best Shot at an Abundant Future?

October 24, 2022 | Kari

A seed bank is a place where seeds are stored to preserve genetic diversity for the future.  More than 1,000 sizable seed banks exist around the world, varying in type, ownership model, and focus. The seeds are typically kept at low humidity and in cold conditions – around -20°C. This helps to preserve the seeds, ensuring they can still grow when they are needed later.

The largest seed bank is the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) in Sussex, managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It opened in 2000 and nearly 40,000 seed species, including most of the UK’s native plants, as well as seeds collected from countries across the globe.  Currently, MSB stores 2.4 billion seeds at temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Another famous seed bank, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, offers safe, long-term seed storage for more than a million seed varieties contributed by the international community.  Sometimes referred to as the “Doomsday Vault,” Svalbard is considered to be the  ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply. Seeds are stored in a bomb-proof vault deep in the Norwegian permafrost to ensure that they will remain frozen even if the power fails.However a 2017 melting of the permafrost created a flooding issue at Svalbard  demonstrating that even “ultimate insurance policies” can fail.

Massive seed vaults such as these exist to safeguard genetic material for much of the planet’s domesticated crop and wild plant species and in some ways make us all feel safer and more secure about these precious resources.

BUT, unless you deposited your own seeds at Svalbard or are a career research scientist eligible to get seeds from MSB, the banked seeds are not available for home food production, nor would we want them to be.

In  a time of crisis, such as a worldwide food shortage or financial crisis, seed banks such as these will be of no immediate use to you or me.  For this reason, every gardener needs a personal seed bank to store seeds for future use. 

GASU makes the case for personal seed saving in the following blog article: Seed Power — 10 Reasons to Save Seeds.  Assuming you are already convinced of the need to bank seeds, once you have them, what do you do with them?

Determining the Purpose for the Seeds You Save

There are two common approaches to seed saving: one is static and the other dynamic.

A static approach to seed saving focuses on packaging seeds securely and stashing them in a freezer, only to see the light of day should calamity strike.  This approach has some merit, but it is much like depositing cash into a savings account — the stash is there when you need it, but its purchase power and growth potential are suspended.

On the other hand, a dynamic approach to seed saving unlocks the seeds’ potential while also ensuring that the seed stash remains available in the event of a crisis.  This approach resembles a static approach by stashing seed for a crisis. But seeds are not left there indefinitely.  Instead, a dynamic seed saving approach removes some of the saved seed to plant each growing season.  The seeds grow and produce a harvest that the gardener can eat or preserve.  A few of the strongest plants are not harvested completely, but allowed to go to seed.  The seeds are collected, packaged and stored in the freezer.  The process repeats the following season, putting into motion a cycle that recurs each season thereafter.

Dynamic seed saving has all the benefits of having seeds stored for a crisis, while also unlocking the potential that they hold.   Here are a few of the potential results:

  1. Seeds can adapt.  Wolfgang Stuppy, seed morphologist at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, affirms the power inherent in seeds by stating that the only time a plant can evolve  is as a seed   In short, when you grow crops using your own  saved seeds from your best plants for next year’s crops, the seeds begin to adapt to the growing conditions (temperature, moisture levels, pests, diseases, and so forth) that exist in your garden.  This adaptation makes your garden stronger over time.
  2. Seeds are a hedge against climate change.  Seeds stored in the freezer long term do not have the ability to adapt to climate change.  But seeds that are used to grow crops year after year have the opportunity to adapt to incremental climate changes.  Should global temperatures climb as predicted, these seeds will have a much better chance at survival and productivity than seeds that have been stashed away.
  3. Seed saving grows a seed stash exponentially. A single plant can produce dozens or hundreds of seeds, though it only takes a single seed to grow that plant.  By sowing some of your seed each year and saving seeds from the resulting plants, a seed bank can grow extravagantly.
  4. Seeds can be shared. Seed savers often harvest more seed than they can ever grow.  This provides the opportunity to share seeds with other gardeners, to donate to a community garden, to deposit seed in a lending library, or to trade seeds with other gardeners to increase the diversity of your collection.
  5. Seeds produce food to preserve for the future. A seed planted at a moment of crisis will take weeks or months to produce food.  By growing a portion of your seeds each season, you’ll be able to preserve the food you grow and have seeds to grow in the future to replenish your food supply.  Relying on government disaster assistance programs to provide adequate food during a time of need holds no guarantees and it may not happen quickly enough to prevent your family from having to ration or go hungry.
  6. The gardener develops their skills. Having seeds storage is of little benefit if the seed saver does not know how to cultivate them.  The experience of growing plants from seed builds the gardener’s knowledge and skills that will be vital should they need to depend upon their garden for food in a crisis.

While storing your seeds in your own seed bank is important, tapping their potential is even more valuable than waiting for a theoretical crisis to put their power into motion. Using a portion of the seeds you have saved systematically and ensuring you don’t waste them is key for a thriving survival garden now and a stronger garden in the future.

Jumpstart your personal seed bank with GASU seed bundles, found here.  Each bundle contains plenty of seed to grow, save and share amongst 10 or more gardeners.

If you happen to be in the Phoenix area, register to attend the Phoenix Seed Up on November 4th and 5th, 2022.  This is a live, in-person event held in Phoenix, Arizona. Registration and more info can be found here.