John Coykendall’s Tips for Seed Saving

John Coykendall, with the help of documentary filmmaker Christina Melton, has recorded the stories and images of his annual pilgrimage to Louisiana in Preserving Our Roots: My Journey to Save Seeds and Stories. In this book, Coykendall discusses the ancient art of seed saving—preserving and cultivating a variety of seed species for use in future seasons and by future generations. Here, in an excerpt from Preserving Our Roots, Coykendall gives some tips on seed saving.

Photographs by Sarah Hackenberg

Author John Coykendall leans on a rustic fence.

Saving Seeds

I think seed saving is one of the most basic things anyone can do. Our ancestors were seed savers by necessity. They didn’t have a seed store to go to, and they didn’t have money to purchase seed. It was crucial for a family’s survival to save their seeds year after year. The technique they used to harvest and preserve seeds was passed down with the seeds.

Today, storing seeds is easier than ever before, and we can all play a role in saving and sharing them. I always say the three main enemies of seed are heat, light, and moisture. You should never dry seeds in direct sunlight or store them in damp conditions. When storing properly dried seeds, especially beans, peas, and corn, plastic containers and zipper bags protect well in the freezer. Envelopes and clean plastic medicine vials work well for smaller seeds, such as tomato, okra, and squash.

I think seed saving is one of the most basic things anyone can do.

John Coykendall

I try to encourage people to become self-sufficient when growing their own food, even if they use their own seeds for just one tomato or bean variety. It’s gratifying to know that what you harvest is something that’s yours, and that you were totally independent in growing it. To save vegetable seed varieties, here are a few basic tips:

Purple-ish beans spilled onto a blue plate.

Beans and Peas

English peas, field peas, butter beans, and most varieties of beans are probably the easiest seeds to save. To make sure beans are fully mature, I most often let the pods dry on the vine. After I collect the dried pods with the peas still inside, I sit on the porch or by the fire and shell them. Many of my Washington Parish friends put the hard, dried pods in a burlap sack or crawfish sack and beat them with a stick to break open the pods and let the peas and beans fall out. I usually store seeds for the next season in the freezer in a tightly sealed container or jar or in a plastic bag. I label the bag with the seed name and harvest year. Freezing keeps pests away. Dried hulls are good for kindling.

The three main enemies of seed are heat, light, and moisture.

John Coykendall

Melons, Pumpkins, Squash, Peppers, and Eggplant

Saving seeds from these vegetables is a little different because you harvest seeds from the ripe vegetables. Once you remove the seeds, rinse them thoroughly in cold water. Spread the seeds out on a nonstick surface (like a cookie sheet) to dry, away from direct sunlight. Drying usually takes about a week. Once dry, store the seeds in a paper envelope or tightly sealed jar. I often use clean, recycled prescription-pill vials.

Freshly picked okra in a blue bucket.


Saving okra seeds is a process similar to saving other dried pods. I usually allow okra pods to dry on the stem or away from heat and light. I then break open the dried pods and separate the seeds. Okra seeds should be stored in a cool, dry location.

Tomatoes and Cucumbers

Saving tomato and cucumber seeds is slightly more complicated than most seeds, but not difficult. First, you let the tomato ferment to remove the gelatinous membrane that surrounds the seed. To do this, remove the seeds from the fruit and let them sit in a cup, out of direct sunlight, until a whitish mold forms on top, usually about three to four days. Rinse the seeds thoroughly in a fine sieve to remove the slimy goo. Then spread them out on a nonstick surface to dry, away from direct sunlight, for about a week. Store them in a paper envelope, tightly sealed jar, or prescription-pill vial.

For more tips on saving seeds and finding heirloom varieties, as well as a sampling of family recipes from Washington Parish, purchase your copy of Preserving Our Roots: My Journey to Save Seeds and Stories here.