Seed Savers Exchange
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated - December 23, 2002

The annual deluge of seed catalogs is underway. New vegetable varieties are offered every year. As improved varieties are developed and marketed they may replace older ones.

The disappearance of past favorites can be disconcerting to gardeners. Plant breeders have seen the loss of plant varieties as alarming because plant diversity (that is, genetic diversity) is the "raw material" of plant improvement, a never ending challenge. Concern for preserving plant diversity resulted in establishment of a world wide network of gene banks which serve as repositories and sources of "raw material" for plant breeders.

Similar concerns among gardeners interested in preserving heirloom and special quality varieties have prompted the development of organizations dedicated to this purpose. Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa, a non profit, is one of the largest. The current inventory of seeds offered by Seed Savers Exchange members to members contains 11,000 varieties. SSE has an on-line or by mail retail catalog, too. Flowers, herbs, fruits and grains are included. A fondly remembered old favorite might be found through SSE: there may be a long lost variety here in Hunterdon County to be shared. For more information about SSE and for a catalog, visit or write SSE, 3076 North Winn Road., Decorah, IA 52101.

Sources of heirlooms have expanded in recent years. The growing interest among gardeners in growing "heirloom" vegetables and other crops has no doubt spurred their inclusion in many seed catalogs. But, gardeners growing older varieties may be saving seed themselves. Any seed saved from past years (whether home grown or purchased) should be checked to be sure its still viable before depending on it for this year's planting.

Roll several seeds of each type in damp paper towel, put the roll in a plastic bag, hold at 70 - 75° and check every couple of days for sprouting. Vegetable seeds with the shortest "shelf life" - one to two years - are okra, onion, parsnip, sweet corn, Swiss chard. Other vegetable seeds may be viable up to five years assuming they were stored cool (35 - 50 degrees) and dry. Remember, also, that seed from hybrid plants should not be saved - the second generation will not be like the parent. And home grown seed from melons, cucumbers, squash, and corn will produce unfortunate surprises unless the plants were specially handled for seed production.