Survival seeds, emergency seeds or emergency seed banks – whatever term is used – have had a lot of attention and marketing focused on their purchase, storage and use in the recent past. The scenario usually goes something like this: buy this vacuum packed, nitrogen flushed can of emergency seeds for feeding your family in a disaster or crisis situation. The seeds are specially packaged for long life, and a single can will plant a 3/4 – 1 acre garden. These emergency seeds will be good for anywhere from 4 -5 years up to 20 – 30 years, depending on whose website you visit. One container of seeds can easily feed a family, more often a neighborhood. You can save the seeds from the harvest, ensuring a continual source of seed to grow more food for yourself. Sounds reasonable and encouraging, doesn’t it?
There are some faults with this direction of marketing and thought, though. Let’s look at a few of them to gain a somewhat different perspective on this issue. First is the quality of the emergency seeds themselves. If the seeds aren’t high quality and from an experienced, knowledgeable grower with a good germination potential and are pure and true to type, you are starting with a mixed bag and will get poor results. This rests on the seed supplier. If they are like most “Survival” supply companies they are a reseller, buying all of their inventory from wholesale companies, marking up the prices and shipping the products to you. They aren’t gardeners or growers and are not knowledgeable about agriculture or the seeds they are selling. It is worth asking some questions of them, such as where their seeds come from and how are the seeds sourced.
Another concern is how the seeds are packed. Seeds are living organisms and need certain conditions to remain alive. Vacuum packing and nitrogen flushing are very commonly used sales terms in describing why you should buy a particular brand of emergency seeds. These techniques sound great in helping to extend the shelf life of the seeds, but are really unnecessary for real-life emergency needs, as we will soon see.
The viability or lifespan of the seeds in storage is much more dependent on the temperatures and humidity levels than what gas the seeds are flushed with. Storage in high temperatures or high humidity conditions will drastically shorten the germination ability of the seeds – sometimes to just a few months – instead of the years that are advertised. Yes, the container is sealed but is not immune to outside temperatures. Besides, after the seeds are opened, how is the nitrogen flushing going to be replaced? It’s not, and it doesn’t really matter because the seeds realistically should be used in a relatively short time-frame and not stored for decades. You need the food that the seeds will grow, not just a container of seeds. Think about how humans have kept themselves alive for thousands of years, planting stored seeds from the previous couple of years, without the modern benefit of nitrogen flushing and vacuum storage, not to mention freezers or refrigerators.
Speaking of using the seeds in a relatively short time-frame, meaning planting and producing food from them, the seed stock should be rotated on a regular schedule just like the rest of your food stocks. Under normal household conditions, most seeds will be viable for 3 – 5 years. Some exceptions are the onion family – onions and leeks – as well as the hulless pumpkins. Their viability and germination really starts dropping off after the first year. They should be used regularly to grow food for the family and then replaced as the stock for a variety is used up.
Now we come to the most important point of emergency seeds in storage – their use. Unfortunately, many folks will look at the purchase of an emergency seeds source as a check to be made on a preparedness checklist. They will get their can of seeds in the mail, check the list off, and put the seeds in a safe place and move on to the next item on the list. This is analogous to that same person buying a firearm and ammunition, checking off the list and putting them in the closet. When needed, they realize that they have bought a rifle but the ammunition is for a shotgun, they’ve never tried to load the rifle and don’t know how to aim or shoot with it! Oversimplified, yes, but the point is the same. Seeds have incredible potential but their food value when sitting in the closet is pretty slim. They have to be used – planted and grown – to produce the food and realize the potential that they represent.
Gardening is a skill, much like being able to shoot accurately, clean and reload the firearm in a safe and efficient way. Other similar skill-sets are first aid, fire-starting or other bushcraft skills. These are perishable skills that must be practiced to be effective. Gardening is much more than simply scattering some seeds, watering them a bit, waiting a few days and then harvesting some food, as anyone who has practiced the art of gardening for more than a year will attest to! It takes time to make the mistakes, realize them as mistakes and learn from them. The time to start learning to grow some of your own food is today, not when the power goes out or the fuel shortages have stopped the trucks from delivering food to the local supermarket. It takes some time to learn the techniques of good gardening, and waiting until an emergency is in progress to start could be a very costly mistake in many ways.
Another mistaken assumption is being able to save seeds from the first year’s garden to continue a seed supply into the next year. This really ties into the skill of gardening in the above paragraph. Almost no-one that is inexperienced in gardening will be able to gain the skills in that first year needed to understand and maintain plant isolation, pollination and minimum population needs to ensure a viable and genetically robust supply of all of the seed varieties that they plant in the garden in that year.
First year gardeners will have their hands full learning the intimacies of their garden’s climate, soil nutrition and moisture needs along with how to keep the small and large veggie predators at bay, keep the young seedlings from freezing in a late frost or the grasshoppers or bugs from eating all of the leaves during the height of the summer. Seed production is an entirely different chapter to learn! That is why seed companies are around. Once a gardener has some experience in growing their food, then simple seed saving can be started with a much better understanding of what is needed without overwhelming them. They will then be much more successful than someone who is just starting out and trying to learn and be successful at everything in the first season.
A final thought on relying on emergency seeds as a food supply: what kind of food supply are your emergency seeds going to provide in the middle of the off season – meaning the winter in most of the country, or the middle of summer in the lower desert regions? Emergencies or disasters don’t always occur when the weather is nice and the garden can be worked. For this reason, a supply of emergency seeds needs to have a broader focus than most on the market. What can be planted that will grow quickly enough to provide nutritious fresh edibles for a family, no matter what time of year it is or what the growing conditions are?
Sprouts are an excellent example of what can be grown in any climate, at any time of year, with no soil, sunlight or space requirements. Four square inches on a countertop is all that they need. Many backpackers will continually sprout seeds for a fresh food supply when on long, multi-month treks for just this reason. A simple rinse once a day is all that they need to ensure a tasty, highly nutritious fresh food with no work.
For these and several other reasons, relying on a pre-packaged container of emergency seeds to supply the majority of your food in an emergency is probably not the best plan, especially if you are not an experienced gardener already. A seed supply can supplement an emergency food pantry with fresh greens and tasty vegetables, making the dehydrated or freeze-dried menus much more enjoyable. Let’s look at one approach to growing some of your own food based on an emergency timeline. We need to examine several assumptions that must be made before going on, as there is no possible way to anticipate every disaster or emergency scenario, or forecast in this article the range of home preparations that can and should be made. Most of these are easily prepared for well in advance.
The assumptions are these –
- A reasonably well stocked refrigerator and freezer, with some dry goods on hand such as rice, lentils, beans, peas and dried fruit along with some canned foods which should be able to feed a family for a minimum of a week or better. Obviously, the well-stocked pantry will give more options and be able to provide food for a longer time. We are looking at how a reasonably stocked home can respond favorably to an emergency, not as a long-term “survival” event.
- A modicum of gardening knowledge and experience, such as a second or third year gardener would have. A completely inexperienced person can make a go of this and experience success, but would have challenges recognizing issues early on and won’t be as capable of trouble-shooting and correcting them quickly enough to be effective.
- A space to grow a garden, even on a small scale. Apartment folks can use a balcony with 5 gallon buckets or containers such as Earthboxes to grow a lot of food in a small space. There won’t be time to figure the growing space out or prepare the soil during an emergency, thus the reason to start gaining gardening experience now, even on a small scale. You won’t be able to run down to Lowe’s or Home Depot to get the 5 gallon buckets and garden soil when disaster hits!
- A source of water, as without access to fresh water, all of the preparations will do you no good.
Starting on the day the power fails or the emergency occurs, let’s look at a timeline of what is possible, things to have in preparation and how everything can tie together to feed yourself in the short and medium term.
For the first week you should be able to eat out of your refrigerator and freezer. This is where the importance of a fairly well stocked fridge and freezer comes into play. Those that only have stale milk and coffee in the fridge won’t have the other resources to accomplish what we are talking about. The refrigerator will keep things cool for 2 – 3 days, depending on your location and temperatures outside. The freezer will become your fridge in 3 – 4 days as things thaw out but stay cool.
On the first day of the emergency, several things need to be done to start the sequence of growing that will help feed and sustain you for the next week to month or so.
- Start sprouts in a jar. These will take 4 – 6 days to sprout and create tremendous amounts of nutrition that will keep you going in the short term. The amount of sprouts started will depend on how much you normally eat and the size of your family. You would be wise to start more than you think you will need, as additional work to get things set up in and around your home will require more energy. Extra food can be shared with friends and neighbors, strengthening those ties. It would be wise to do “succession sprouting”; meaning start a new jar of sprouts every day or every other day so that there is a continual harvest of fresh nutritious food available. The food from the refrigerator and freezer, combined with the sprouts should easily feed you and your family for the first week. This can be supplemented with some cooking of the dried foods or canned foods. Go easy on the canned and dried food stocks in the initial few days, as they are easiest to access but are finite and easy to exhaust in short order, making the situation worse.
- Plant fast-growing, short season crops that will give you food in around 15 – 30 days. These include radishes, carrots, beets, mustards, cress and such. Here’s a better breakdown –
- Sprouts – 4 – 6 days for mature sprouts from organic alfalfa seed, organic red clover seed, organic mung beans and organic radish seed
- Asian or Mustard greens – 21 days for baby, 45 days mature
- Beets – 35 days for beet tops, 50 days mature
- Broccoli Raab/Rapini or De Cicco – 40 – 45 days for first harvest, can harvest again and again
- Carrots – 50 – 70 days depending on weather
- Kale – 30 days for baby kale, 60 days mature
- Lettuces – if seeds are started inside, lettuce can be ready in just over 30 days from transplanting.
- Radishes – Some radishes are 25 – 35 days
- Spinach – 30 days to baby, 45 days mature. Works best in cooler weather.
- Swiss chard – 30 days baby, 55 days mature
As you can see from the list above, there will be a limited diet for the first three weeks to a month if you are not currently growing anything when the emergency occurs. This is why a well-stocked refrigerator, freezer and pantry are important, along with an on-going garden. Being able to use the fresh garden produce to supplement the dried, canned, freeze-dried and otherwise prepared foods will make meals much more interesting and tasty. Of course, if a garden is already in production then everything changes, as the food supply isn’t nearly as threatened.
A supply of emergency seeds can be a critical positive factor in any disaster preparedness plan. It is perhaps best to look at any seed supply as part of a “Life Assurance Plan” where the basic needs of your family are supplied without needing to run out and buy something (or everything) when an emergency happens. A Seed Assurance Plan, as part of life assurance, means investing in seed, growing knowledge and experience instead of waiting for the disaster to strike and hoping that the seed will grow into enough food to feed you.
Hope is not a plan when it comes to providing for your family, especially in a disaster or emergency. You don’t hope to find the job, business or career that will help feed, clothe and house your family in daily life. You make a plan, get education and experience, take risks and actions that move you in the direction that you want and need to go. The exact same thing applies to your seed supply!
One thing that we do hope is that this article has given you food for thought in how a good supply of heirloom seeds, along with common sense forethought, can help get you through any unforeseen emergency or disaster. Obviously, this is an introduction to some concepts that aren’t being talked about nearly enough. This is a complex topic with many branches, offshoots and directions to go that really can’t be introduced here. The next steps are up to you, but aren’t difficult. Get started today and start small. Read more, get more education, become more informed and start your garden, even if it is just a couple of 5 gallon buckets on the patio or back deck. Find what interests you and pursue that angle or direction.