The Self-Sufficient Life

  • Storing Seeds

    QUESTION: What is the best way to store my seeds?
    - A gardener from Alabama

    ANSWER: That is a common question among gardeners everywhere, especially within the seed-saving circles. If seeds aren't stored properly, they will not germinate well in future years and all your hard work will be for nothing.

    Since seeds sprout when they’re introduced to moisture, warmth, and light, you want to keep them far from such influences while storing them. If stored at room temperature, seed will approximately last 2-3 years, more or less depending on the particular vegetable. The seed life doubles with every 10º the temperature is lowered.

    A dry, cool, and dark room is ideal. Store them in the refrigerator, basement, or cellar. You can use all sorts of containers – glass jars, Tupperware containers, buckets, cups, bags, etc. Sealed containers with lids are best, but we do not recommend vacuum-packing because seeds are living organisms that need oxygen to live. Without air to breathe, they're suffocated and you will notice a decrease in the germ rates.

    We also do not suggest freezing your seeds. There are a lot of varying opinions and stances on this matter. Let me explain why we don't recommend it. If seeds are placed in a freezer with more than 6% moisture content, they will inevitably crack and will not germinate. Sometimes the damage can be so small that the fractures in the seed are not easily visible. Don't store them in the freezer or else you risk losing seed that wasn't completely dry and ruining your hopes for future plantings.

    It's very easy to give your seeds the right environment and encourage them to live long lives in your garden. Take care of them and they will, in turn, take care of you.

    Here's a list of approximate years to expect from seed saved and stored properly:

    Vegetable Seed Longevity

    Beans----------------------- 2 – 4 years
    Beets------------------------ 3 – 6 years
    Broccoli--------------------- 3 – 5 years
    Cabbage--------------------- 4 years
    Carrots---------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Corn------------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Cowpeas--------------------- 3+ years
    Cucumbers------------------ 5 – 10 years
    Eggplants------------------- 2 – 5 years
    Lettuce---------------------- 2 – 6 years
    Melons---------------------- 5 – 10 years
    Okra------------------------- 2 – 5 years
    Onions---------------------- 1 – 2 years
    Peas------------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Peppers--------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Radishes-------------------- 3 – 5 years
    Spinach--------------------- 2 – 5 years
    Squash---------------------- 2 – 6 years
    Tomatoes------------------- 3 – 10 years
    Watermelon---------------- 4 – 5 years

    How do you store your seeds? Do you have any questions? Let us help!

  • Pollination & Isolation

    If saving seeds is your goal, then the process of plant pollination must not be overlooked.   Plants produce their fruits once their blooms have been fertilized by pollen.  While this is a desired result of seed-saving, if the plant has been pollinated by a different plant, their seed will be a cross between the two.

    You may not notice the alterations in that first year harvest.  The initial fruit should be fine.  However, if you save that seed and plant it next year, it will contain genes from both parent plants.  That's why pollination control is essential to saving pure seed.

    The way to control pollination is by isolation.  Protect the blooms and you protect the seeds.

    First get acquainted with the vegetables within each botanical family, as we mentioned in our previous post 5 Rules to Saving Seeds.  Remember, only plants within the same family will cross with each other.  The rest are fine and will not affect seed results.

    There are 3 main methods of plant isolation:

    1.  Time Isolation involves planting conflicting varieties at alternate times.  Either plant your second variety once your first has already begun to flower or separate their planting dates far enough apart to be safe.  It is important that the first sets its seed before the second variety flowers or there will be reason to be concerned that cross-pollination has occurred.

    If you want to grow two types of sweet corn and save seed from both, for example, plant varieties approximately 3 weeks apart.  Once the first is done tasseling and is ready to pick, the second variety should be starting to pollinate.  Maturity dates may vary with each variety, so the required time isolation may differ some.

    Lettuce, corn, and sunflowers are just a few of many crops that favor this method.

    2.  Bagging is your second option for isolation.  This process requires you to cover the flower heads to keep unwanted pollen out.  Whatever you use for protection, it must allow air in and keep insects out.  Nylon mesh bags, lightweight fabric, or bridal tulle secured around the entire plant or individual blossoms will work well.  Once the variety has finished flowering, mark the fruit with a string and uncover barrier.

    (If you don't bag the entire plant, make sure to protect multiple blooms in case something happens to one of the fruits later.  You wouldn't want to put all your seed saving hopes on one tomato, let's say.  If that tomato ended up getting chewed on by bugs later in the season, you will have lost your only chance.)

    This method does take some extra work and attention to detail, but it also gives you a little more freedom with what you can grow where.  Tomatoes, which are mostly self-pollinating, are often saved this way. However, others like spinach, beets, and corn are pollinated by wind and should not be isolated through bagging.

    Image courtesy of

    3. The other main choice you have is Distance Isolation, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Plant space in between family members to prevent pollination.  If you have ideal growing space, this may be your solution.  Follow our chart below for recommended and required distances for proper seed saving.  (And don't forget about any nearby neighbors who might be growing conflicting varieties adjacent to yours.)

    Smaller gardens may have a problem providing enough distance, however.  If so, they should try one of the methods already mentioned.  Everyone can save seed.  They just have to figure out what works best for them.

    Plant Isolation Distances
    every Seed-Saving Gardener needs to know:

    Plant Isolation Distance
    Bean--------------------- 25 – 100 feet
    Beet--------------------- 1/2 mile
    Broccoli------------------ 1/2 mile
    Cabbage----------------- 1 mile
    Carrot------------------- 1500 feet
    Corn--------------------- 1/2 mile
    Cucumber--------------- 1/2 mile
    Lettuce------------------ 25 – 50 feet
    Melon-------------------- 1500 feet
    Okra--------------------- 1/2 mile
    Onion------------------- 1500 feet
    Pea---------------------- 50 feet
    Pepper------------------- 500 feet
    Radish------------------- 1500 feet
    Squash------------------ 1/2 mile
    Tomato------------------ 25 – 100 feet
    Watermelon------------ 1/2 mile

    Do you save your own seed?
    If so, what method do you use to control pollination in your garden?

  • 5 Rules to Saving Seeds

    Saving your own seeds does not have to be as complicated and impossible as people believe at first.  With just a few supplies and a little preparation, anyone can do it!

    There is certainly a world of information out there on this popular subject among gardeners and survivalists alike.  We will tell you about some books we recommend which offer great, in-depth information in just a bit, but first we'd like to go over the basics of seed saving.

    1.  First, you need to know the difference between Hybrids and Open-Pollinated varieties.

    Open-Pollinated — These varieties, so long as they are properly isolated from other plants of their species, will produce “true to type” seed with the same traits as that of their parent plant. That is why gardeners everywhere consider OP seed to be irreplaceably important, for it allows them to produce their own seed supply.

    Hybrid — The result of deliberate crossing of two distinct parent varieties from the same species, for the purpose of combining the ideal characteristics of separate varieties into one. While at first this may sound appealing, any seed saved from an F1 hybrid will not grow the same “true to type” traits a second time. Plant breeders must deliberately cross the parent varieties every time to obtain new hybrid seed.

    2.  Familiarize yourself with the different botanical families and vegetable groups.

    Varieties of the same botanical family can cross-pollinate each other and produce altered seed as a result.  However, different varieties of vegetables can be grown together unprotected and will not cross.  It's essential to securing a pure seed supply that you are familiar with each botanical family member you're growing and prevent unwanted pollination.

    For example, a tomato will not cross with a bean, but it will cross with a different tomato. That is because tomatoes and beans come from different botanical families.  They can be grown side by side without any worries.  Just learn your vegetable groups.

    Certain vegetables are grouped together in one family.  The Brassica family, for example, includes cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. So in this case, a cabbage plant could cross with a broccoli plant.  Again, learn your vegetable groups.

    One odd exception to the family rule is the matter of squash.  Take a deep breath!  You can get this!  Squash are divided into four different family groups and must be protected from their members within those individual groups only.

    (Includes Crooknecks, Zucchini, Scallops, Straightnecks, Spaghetti, and some pumpkins)

    (Includes Butternuts)

    (Includes Bananas, Hubbards, & Marrows)

    (Includes Cushaws)

    This means, i.e. that “Moschatas” only need to be protected from other “Moschata” siblings.  They'll be fine next to the “Maxima family”.

    3. Control pollination to maintain pure seed.

    The process of cross-pollination consists of pollen being transferred from one plant to another and where fertilization occurs as a result.  Now that you see the influence of the families on each other, another question arises.  How do I prevent unwanted cross-pollination then?

    There are various ways to prevent this and protect your plants.  Here's a few:

    -Plant only single varieties in your garden. One variety of watermelon, one variety of beans, etc.

    -Organize successive or alternating plantings, where one variety finishes blooming before another one begins.

    -Isolate plant blooms, either by “bagging” or distance.

    (We will talk more about this in-depth in our next blog post, so stay tuned!)

    4.  Allow fruit to fully mature before harvesting for seed.

    Each vegetable has its own maturity date.  It's important you let it finish growing or the seeds you save may be underdeveloped.  Tomatoes are one that you must pick ripe from the vine and scoop the seed out.  Beans, on the other hand, should be allowed to dry completely on the vine right up to the first frost and then shelled.

    5.  Seed must be stored properly to preserve a high germination rate in following years.

    Again, we will be touching on this more in a couple weeks on our blog, but as a general rule keep all seeds in a cool, dark, and dry environment.  We recommend in a refrigerator or in the basement.

    So there you have it.  5 rules to save seeds by.  For more information and instructions, check out any – or all – of these great resources:

    Seed to Seed
    by Suzanne Ashworth

    The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds
    by Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough

    Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving
    by Carol Deppe

    What seeds have you saved?  If you haven't ever tried it, what's holding you back?  We're all still learning here, so feel free to share your thoughts and ask questions.

  • Preserving the Harvest VS. Put 'Em Up

    I'm sure many of you are reaping the bounty of your harvests this summer! It's always a fun and busy season when that produce starts kicking in and the “preserving” season has begun.

    It can also be a stressful time, though, and that's where a great book to guide you makes all the difference. We have 2 amazing books on food preservation - The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol W. Costenbader AND Put 'em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton - which often leads people to wonder which they should choose.

    When we go to Garden Shows or Expos, I have been asked many times, 'What's the difference between the two?' or 'Which one do you like better?'

    So I thought I would compare the two and share what each book has to offer.

    Lets talk about PUT 'EM UP:

    1. Includes step-by-step instructions for freezing, drying, pickling, and canning.

    2. Covers 33 different vegetables and fruits.

    3. Easy referencing. For example, when you find yourself in abundance of tomatoes, you only have to look under the “Tomato” section and find recipes like “Heirloom Tomato Salsa” or "Easy Bake Tomato Paste". Just simply look up your vegetable or fruit, and find the recipe you are looking for.

    4. You can also find different preserving recipes for whichever vegetable you are working with. Just choose the method that is right for you.

    5. No need to be an expert! The recipes are easy to follow.

    6. Practical recipes with basic ingredients.

    7. Includes a great resource section in the back of the book about local, sustainable farming and home preservation.


    1. Tells us the best methods of preserving for over 60 vegetables and fruits,including canning, freezing, drying, cold storage, pickling, and juicing... just to name a few.

    2. Gives information on when to harvest and what to look for when produce is ready in the garden.

    3. Step-by-step instructions.

    4. Divided into sections such as “Canning” with all the instructions followed by several canning recipes. Then you'll find the“Drying” section, followed by several drying recipes, and so on.

    5. Easy to follow. Packed with a lot of “extra” information, including hundreds of “tips” throughout the book.

    6. Learn how to make your own vinegars and seasonings.

    7. Several fun ideas for gift-giving your preserved food.

    So even though both books teach us how to preserve our food, both have a unique spin and give us something special. And each one is FULL of valuable information, whether you are a beginner or an expert.

    What is your "Go-To Book" when the produce starts filling up your kitchen? What's your favorite way to preserve food?

    Leave a comment below, along with your email, and your name will be entered in our Gift Certificate Giveaway! Winner will be notified by email on September 10.

  • Gardening With Garlic

    During this time of year, if I stand in the very center of our garden, my head spins. To my left, there are prize tomatoes ripening to perfection and bell peppers fighting for the spotlight. To my right, the ever-prolific cucumbers, which need pickling, are grabbing my attention as the cantaloupes and watermelon continue to sweeten on the vine. It's true that our gardens need a lot of love right now, but we must not overlook the smaller, stand-alone crops while our heads are “in the tassels”.

    One such crop that should never be underestimated is garlic. A strong member of the onion family (Allium sativum), garlic has proven itself in the garden as a great companion plant and defender against harmful insects. It yields bountifully within a limited amount of space, making it very valuable for family gardeners and commercial growers alike. Since biblical times, this beneficial plant has been favored and was referenced in the ancient writings of the Hebrews, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans. It is considered to be one of the most valuable foods on earth.

    The hardy perennial is usually grown as an annual for its underground head of cloves and grass-like shoots, which can be used like chives. Since it prefers cooler weather to get started, the best time of year to plant would be in late August to mid-October. After it sets over the winter, the garlic will be ready for warmer weather and will begin forming bulbs. Be sure to supply the plants with fertile, loose soil in an area that offers full sun.

    Generally, 2 lb. of cloves (which would be about 150 cloves to the pound) are recommended for each 50 ft. row you plant. Plant the individual cloves in the soil with their points facing up about 2 – 3 inches deep and 3 inches apart in a wide row. Either leave the points sticking out of the ground or just barely cover them. One planted clove is expected to produce an average head of 15 cloves.

    Stop watering the garlic once the leaves get about a foot high. Then, once the leaves die and fall over, which usually happens around August, you can begin harvesting the bulbs. Wash them well and let them sit in the sun to dry for about a week until they turn completely white. That's all there is to it!

    To truly appreciate, however, all of the benefits of garlic, you must understand how it improves our lives beyond the garden or even the kitchen table. No discussion on garlic is complete without the mention of its healing properties.

    Garlic is believed to be good for virtually any disease or infection, aiding in the treatment of arthritis, asthma, cancer, insomnia, liver disease, hearing disorders, circulatory problems, colds and flu. It contains antioxidant nutrients like vitamins A and C and protects against infection by enhancing the immune function. In fact, during World War 1, due to its antibiotic properties, garlic was used to treat wounds and infections and to prevent gangrene. It truly is a help to the heart, lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of blood clots – which aids in preventing heart attacks – and keeping blood vessels healthy. It also offers serious protection against DNA damage as well as sunlight and radiation damage.

    Builders of the pyramids supposedly kept garlic in their daily diet because they believed it to increase their strength and endurance. Is it any wonder we're encouraged to take garlic on a regular basis ourselves? The benefits from garlic are certainly indispensable for the self-sufficient gardener!

    Homemade Garlic Spray for your Garden -

    For a quick, simple remedy to problems with insects and plant blight, try blending several garlic cloves together with some water and 1 T. cooking oil or soap emulsion. Then just dilute to 1 qt. and spray on. Use as frequently as needed to help you win the battle!

  • Simpler Living with Solar Power

    With the growing concerns of finding "planet friendly" energy sources and the cost of living rising each year, people are looking for alternative ways to supply their family's needs.  Raising and growing their own food supply is becoming popular again, as well as is seeking more economical and cleaner energy.  Solar, wind, and hydro technology have advanced leaps and bounds over the years.  This blog is about our family's journey in search of simpler living and using today's innovations to accomplish it.

    Over 4 years ago, we were led to leave the "hussle and bussle" of a fast-paced world to the slower pace of country living. We were concerned about the ever-increasing losses of our freedoms and government "interventions," so we decided to go "off grid" as much as possible.  Our belief in self-sufficiency would require some changes in our lifestyle, however.  Our power needs would be at the top of this change.

    Our family of five and the energy required to maintain our accustomed lifestyle would be substantial.  Little did we know the changes that were in store.  For a solar set-up design for our home, I contacted Backwoods Solar, a company I would highly recommend for anyone interested in setting up their own system.

    I was told by them that I needed to figure our power needs first.  How many watts of electricity would my family use in a day?  The list included everything from refrigerator/freezer use, lights and their light bulb wattage, how many hours the TV and stereos would be used, even how much we used a toaster or hair dryer.  (With three adult women in the house you can understand that one!)  The list was long with things we had never considered before.  Phantom loads of electronics like alarm clocks and timers could not be overlooked. And the use of fans, irons, electric blankets, and air conditioning were also important to figure in. All of these had been taken for granted when the local electric company was the source!

    After the energy audit was completed, the solar system was designed.  It would be a 48 volt system with 12 solar panels that would be able to supply approx. 5000 watts a day.  That seems like a lot, but when a fridge uses 800 watts per day, a single light 60 watts per hour, a washer 200 watts per day, and so on, it doesn't take long to add up!  We found out anything that used a heating element in any way either had to be used sparingly or not at all.  We had to use a propane oven and a propane water heater instead of their electric counterparts.  Air conditioning was out the window.  A wood burning stove would be our sole source of heat in the winter for the entire house.  Yes, our simpler lifestyle would require some major changes.

    For months I was constantly monitoring the solar readout panel.  My family constantly heard me saying, "Turn off the Lights," "Do we really need that on right now?" or  "We are low on electricity!  I don't think so," even "Sorry Honey, no Christmas lights on tonight!"  ( I've definitely paid my dues for that one!)  But as time has gone on, we've learned to adjust to this new way of life. The appreciation we have for sunny days increased a hundred fold.  When a huge winter ice storm put our neighbors out of power for over a week, we were so grateful for our solar system, which allowed us to go on without skipping a beat!

    Most people always end up asking what it cost us to put this system in.  Let me just say it will take a commitment.  You will have to consider it as a long term investment in your family's future.  The beauty of a solar set-up is that you can start small, supplementing your power use, and over time, build up to become completely off-grid and self- sufficient.  And the overall benefits include a piece of mind of reliable energy, no monthly bill in the mail, and the contribution to an eco-friendly world!

  • Apple Cider Fixin's

    Our family has always had a fascination with apples. Starting in 1982, our 700 tree apple orchard contained wonderful varieties such as Jonathan, Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, Macintosh, Summer Champion, Early Blaze, and Lodi. Out of a small red barn back in the orchard, we sold our apples and oftentimes had trouble keeping up with the demand! People loved them. There was a “You Pick” operation, which made it possible for everyone, including school groups who came out often, to pick their own apples and enjoy picnics. But don't think we weren't out there too! We picked fruit, cleaned it by hand and used a large grading table to sort apples according to size. For nearly 10 years, we sold apples and cider straight off the land.

    When we moved to southwest Missouri, we hated saying goodbye to that orchard, but we kept our faithful cider press and immediately started making plans to plant more fruit trees.

    We had to call on that faithful old machine press just a few days ago. It's quite obvious our craving for homemade apple cider never fully left us.

    The young trees here on our farm blossomed beautifully this spring, but still failed to come into their own this fall. So for this particular “Cider Day,we had to gather apples from a nearby local orchard. When the guys returned with a truckload of beautiful apples, our excitement grew. The time was at hand. We couldn't wait for that first bite from an “orchard apple.” Believe me, you can tell the difference!

    First we had to sort the apples. In our experience, the best kinds of apples to use for cider are Jonathan mixed with Red and Yellow Delicious. Mixing a tart apple with a sweet apple gives the ideal blend.

    The so-called perfect apples were separated from the blemished ones; the latter of which would eventually become apple butter or pie filling. Since the apples were all destined to be juice, their size didn't really matter. We just had to keep the varieties separate. All in all, we ended up with 15 bushels.

    Next we would have had to wash them, but nature happened to do the work for us that evening with a nice steady rain. The next           morning we found our apples all polished and waiting for us.

    Anxiously, we got straight to work. First someone had to pour the apples into the grinder, which chops them into a chunky pulp. It's important that whoever is in charge of this keeps the tart vs. sweet ratio straight or else we end up with a very tart cider or vice versa. We too had to learn that the disappointing way.

    After that, the pulp was then layered on the press in wraps of cheesecloth between what we call the “crackers.” These crackers are the hard plastic dividing the layers on the press. Once this was all in place, we just sat back and let the press work its magic.

    Slowly, but surely, the press squeezed the layers together until juice came pouring out. We grew thirsty watching it drain into the bucket. Next we had to “taste test.” After each round the cider seemed to improve.

    There was still work to do after that, though. We then had to find where to store it. Cider can spoil rather quickly, so we immediately poured what we had into jugs to refrigerate and freeze. Fresh cider tends to only last for about a week while frozen cider can last up to a year. We ended up with over 30 gallons of cider altogether – some of which are going to make great Christmas gifts!

    Finally, we took the leftover pomace and hauled it to our gardens, where it will add great compost as it breaks down over the long winter ahead.

    The whole process ended up taking about 4 hours. It was another successful and fun “Cider Day.” Hopefully just one of many more to come.

    As for me, I'm really looking forward to those fresh cider slushes, just like Grandpa used to make for us kids. Cider really has many great uses, but knowing my family, what we have now probably won't outlast the winter!

    Check out our Facebook page for more pictures from the day.

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