Seed Banks – Good Idea or Hype?

Someone asked me what I think of seed banks. I liked the question because it tells me people are thinking ahead, and that is something not enough of us do. Especially in the city. I know we are strange bedfellows, we sustainability freaks. Many of us are greeners because we love the planet. Many of us are gardeners because we love fresh food. Many of us are here because we are concerned parents who want the best for our children. Many of us are here because we believe we inherited a divine creation that has been desecrated and defiled and we are doing our best to make things right again. Many of us are here because we believe tough times are coming and we want to be more prepared. And some of you are here because your spouses force you to be.

The sentiments behind feeling like we need a seed bank are valid: if times get tough it will be quite awhile before seed houses can meet demand and you can bet your peapods prices will shoot up – especially where hybrids and GM seeds are concerned. You didn’t think seed growers and scientists were busy patenting seeds for no good reason, did you?

And to continue thinking we are immune to shortages and hunger is foolhardy. Even in my affluent neighborhood full of working two-income household professionals I was a little unnerved by how many comments I got at the last neighborhood potluck. Things along the lines of “if anything happens I’m coming to your house.” My response has been to provide as much gardening advice to neighbors as humanly possible because I may have enough food for the winter for us but I sure don’t for my entire neighborhood. Think food security in your neighborhood is good? How many meals do you think people can go without before they stop being polite? Start being aggressive? Begin stealing to feed their babes? My guess is not more than 6 meals.

But I don’t think seed vaults are the answer and here’s why:

Some seeds do keep for years under perfect storing conditions, but others, especially those really filling things like peas, beans, winter squashes, roots and potatoes – the things I would rather have versus a plate of sprouts in a survival situation – may not last longer than the next growing season.

It takes a few months to grow most foods. Some things need four or five months to really ripen, especially with the paltry sun and cool temps global warming has gifted the Northwest. If you are out of food, you don’t have four months, or even two. You may not even have the four days it takes to sprout greens.

Here is a better strategy:

Plant a four season garden.

Include as many perennial vegetables as possible.

Include lots of reseeding things, like arugula, hardy and wild lettuces, and kale.

Save seeds from plants that are easy to save, like peas and tomatoes and beans and corn and greens.

Grow things that store well over the winter, like potatoes and winter squashes and dried peas and beans. You can’t count on home canned goods or frozen things. What if there is an earthquake and all your jars break? Or utilities shut down and you lose the food in your freezer?

If you think utilities would never shut down for long think again. A few years ago we had torrential flooding in Seattle in mid-December and huge sections of the city lost power. Not just for a few days. Many for a few weeks. We were lucky in that our side of the street didn’t lose power but the houses across the street did – for 10 days. We ran power cords across the street for each other, cooked hot meals and provided showers for neighbors. We made a party out of it but if we had been without power it would not have been so festive. It was eye opening.

I can tell you that if there were suddenly no food at the grocery store I would get busy dehydrating the meat in my freezer and start planting. But before I did that, I would get my neighborhood together and teach them how to provide for themselves as well. An even better idea? Turn your next blockwatch into a preparedness meeting.

Perennial vegetables come in many varieties but I am most familiar with those that grow in my area. Here are some of my favorites:

    Alexander’s Seeds (Smyrnium olusatrum)
    Alfalfa (for rabbit and goat food – then for chickens to eat the spill and droppings, then into the garden)
    Bush kale (Brassica oleracea ramosa)
    Good King Henry
    Jerusalem artichokes
    Leaf Celery
    Perpetual Swiss chard
    Salad burnet
    Sea Kale (Crambe maritima)
    Tree Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala)
    Turkish rocket (Brassica unias orientalis)
    Walking onions

Where can you get seeds for these? I have found them all over the place, but just a few here and a few there:

  • Nichols Garden Nursery
  • Forest Farm
  • Sand Hill Preservation
  • Food Forest Farm
  • If you want to know more about perennial vegetables I highly recommend this book:

    Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles

    It’s worth it for the resources section alone.

    Rather thank banking seeds – start banking self-sufficient skills. I would rather rely on that than a bucket of overpriced seeds if it comes down to it.

    12 Responses to Seed Banks – Good Idea or Hype?

    1. Oh Annette, I love your blog. It’s nice to hear from you again since I know you’ve been so busy with your book. This post is awesome. I’ve been thinking more and more about how I can have a greater impact on our food system if I share what I know about gardening with others. I’ve also thinking more about disaster preparation. I’m working on a PowerPoint presentation I can teach to groups. That way, in addition to what I’m doing for my own family, I can help other families do the same. You’ve posted a lot of veggies I haven’t heard of or that I’m not growing. I’ve got the Perennial Vegetables book on hold at the library and I’m ready to find room in my garden for more perennial veggies and herbs. Thanks for your inspiration!

    2. Thanks Brittney! I’ve really missed blogging this winter but I’ve been so overwhelmed and honestly depressed writing the book that I haven’t been able to blog. It feels good to be coming out of the fog again!

    3. I recently posted something very similar about seed banks. You would NOT BELIEVE the venom I got over it. I actually got called ignorant and uneducated. Your post makes me feel better, that I’m not completely out of my gourd to state the obvious. Thank you!

    4. Great blog post! Great thoughts on seed-saving and on encouraging neighbors to provide for themselves!


    5. Well said! Did you know the LDS prophets have been telling people for decades to be prepared, plant a garden, store a year’s supply of food where possible, and be as self-sufficient as possible? We would all be a lot better off if people kept more than lawn and some frozen meals around their houses! I read that it would take 3-6 days for grocery stores to entirely run out of food if trucks weren’t able to get through!

    6. Rachel you are NOT! Those same people will be beating down your door begging for food. Thanks Ann – Brittney I hope you will post your powerpoints!
      Myrnie I really think I should have been born Amish. :)

    7. “Start banking self sufficient skills” : what an excellent line! Something we are couscous that we just need to keep working on. Great post, thanks.

    8. Annette, I am so glad that you are back posting on the blog again. I keep checking back hoping you would surface again and I was pleasantly suprised to find you had. Not only did you reappear, but you posted about a very important topic too. Just to go on the record, we are not mormon, but we do practice “prepared” living which means we keep a supply of basics (dried beans, wheat, oats, rice, salt, sugar, dried milk, baking needs, etc) that are kept in long term storage containers and we use and rotate all the time. This is then supplemented with our four season garden, home canned items, eggs from our hens, and purchases at the store of fresh dairy, meat, and fruit we are unable to grow ourselves. In a bad situation, we could easily survive without the fresh dairy, meat, or extra fruit options. Its a frugal way to provide very good food for my family and gives some food security in the event of emergency or prolonged job loss.

    9. Thanks Kirsten – and Laura. Still frantically trying to get everything started and the garden cleaned up and readied after a long and neglectful winter. I don’t even want to tell you what my house looked like. I’ve been playing catchup!

    10. This is a really interesting post. I have to say, I don’t see seed banks and your suggestions to bank self sufficiency skills, planting a four season garden, growing perennial veggies, etc as mutually exclusive. Seed banks are created to preserve biological diversity. Let’s say Monsanto makes a GM variety of tomatoes that goes haywire and cross pollinates with all nightshades and results in a massive crop failure of tomatoes and potatoes. Having a seed bank that contains varieties of crops before they were genetically contaminated would provide an opportunity to re-introduce those crops back into our food system. I’m sure that seed banks have done a lot of testing around how best to preserve and store seeds to retain their viability or there wouldn’t be justification for funding them. I don’t expect seed banks to feed me in a food shortage crisis, but I see them potentially benefiting humanity overall in the long run. That’s my 2 cents.

    11. Hi Justine – I think we are talking about two different kinds of seed banks. I am really dissing on those buckets that people are selling to individual families in case of doomsday. I feel like if they aren’t already gardening those seed buckets aren’t going to help much. I completely agree we need those big seed banks!

    12. ohhhhh, that makes SOOOOO much more sense! I was worried for minute! ;) I have’t seen such seed banks/buckets and I’m glad! Thanks for clarifying!

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