Everyone expects to grow beautiful flowers and fresh yummy vegetables. Some grow in elaborate landscapes while others prefer a more casual garden. Whichever personal method you practice, being able to grow your cherished plants year after year means you will eventually discover the joy from collecting, saving, storing and stratifying your own seed.
There are many reasons to become a Seed Saver. Some have emotional reasons that include growing plants your family enjoyed growing. Other gardeners will desire to be frugal. After all, collected seed usually only requires your time and very little materials which you probably already have on hand. Some will like producing their own strains that experimental gardeners find challenging. No matter the reason, seed saving is a simple process anyone can do. The oldest commercial seed company is less than 200 hundred years old. Our ancestors routinely saved and swapped seed. You can too.
Where Do You Start?
It’s always best to start at the beginning. Locate a plant type for which you wish to save seed. Next locate a particular plant, a few of the best should be your goal. This may seem to be a no-brainer, but there is considerable logic to support this simple fact.
If you were a vegetable farmer, your interest is in providing the best vegetables possible for sale. You would weed out or eat the inferior examples to provide ample room for the best plants to sell. Chances are you will sell the very best. You will keep examples that come close to the very best for seed.
Some annuals allow you to save the very best plants while cutting select flowers for sale or enjoyment at the same time. In this case you will want to tag particular plants you find produce exceptional flowers. You may be tempted to use something that doesn’t draw too much attention such as white cotton string or wire bread bag ties. The problem with these is that they become invisible quickly. Use something brightly colored and a bit larger. White paper tags with attached thread strings work well. The little square of white helps identify the plant when it is time to harvest the seed. A brightly colored slip tie plastic plant label is even better.
Letting a plant have the time for the seed to ripen may be a concern. Some gardeners can’t stand plants once the flower has faded. They just have to deadhead. Seed savers must leave spent flowers in place. The length of time for mature seed can be as short as a few weeks to most of the summer. This can present a visual situation.
Often only a few maturing flowers will be needed depending on how many plants one wishes to grow next season. Considerably more seed is produced (usually) in just a few flowers than most need for next season. You won’t have to keep that whole patch of maturing plants with spent bloom. Keep more the first few seasons until you learn just how much is enough.
When to Harvest
Learning when to harvest is an experience that has to be developed. Each plant seems to have its own time table and method of letting the gardener know when the seed is ready. Lettuce will let you know, because little fluffy parachutes pop out to disperse the seed. Daylily pods will turn brown and split open. You need to act quickly when you see this. The seed will fall and scatter from daylily pods when they split open. Bean pods will turn brown and hard. Tomato seed is ready when you desire to have one with your salad for dinner. Cucumbers get large, turn yellow and are often mooshy when you have to open them for their seed.
There just isn’t any one way to learn when your seed will be ready to harvest. Some will be obvious. Some will have societies devoted to the genus like daylilies, hostas, daffodils and many other popularly grown plants. Their web sites can help.
Watch wildlife. Some of the compound flowers, like Rudbeckia, Echinacia and more have birds that like to feed on ripe seed. When you discover them feeding, act quickly or they will eat all your seed. Hopefully you will be conscientious and keep extra to ripen for them.
Drying and Storing
Once you have collected your seed you may have to process them for storage. Many are still not dry completely. Their moisture content is too high. A high moisture content encourages mold and decay. Perhaps this will help you to understand why farmers wait well into fall before harvesting their corn on a bright clear dry day. The economic cost of air drying their harvest is quite expensive. Harvesting when the crop is at peak moisture content reduces additional cost.
Store your collected stems with seed pods in large paper bags for several weeks until you have a chance to separate the seed from the old plant material. Winnowing may be necessary. A slight breeze, a quick puff of breath or a slow speed fan will help with this. Finding a mesh strainer that has the right size holes means saving even more time with this process.
Some plants allow you to collect seed without much extra plant material. It is easy to collect seed such as Cleome or Canna or 4 O’Clock. You will still need to have these dry in open containers several weeks.
Stratifying Your Seed
Your next concern will be where to store your seed to encourage them to sprout. Natural weather patterns frequently include a cold season or a dry season. Some seed must be compromised before germination can proceed. This will prove to be your greatest challenge. Fortunately our modern society has quick and easy access to information on the internet. Knowing the native habitat for a plant will help immensely.
There is a faster way to test for cold storage. Simply take and portion out your seed. You will need to portion at least in half, though more portions will let you experiment with varying times in cold storage. Some seed need to experience a period of cold before they will sprout. Your refrigerator will be sufficient to provide the necessary conditions.
Not all seed need a cold period. Most vegetable and many common annual flowers don’t need a cold period. They do need to be kept dry, however. Storing in the house where you live works well. Basements, crawl spaces and most garage locations are often too damp. Seed is designed to absorb moisture. Too much moisture encourages spoilage, or even germination.
Testing at least half your collected seed at room temperature and half after a long period of cold storage will let you know which method is most effective for maximum seed germination.
Some seed must be compromised to germinate. This means the seed coat must be opened to allow moisture inside. My favorite example is the Bird of Paradise. Seed from this tropical flower are small very shiny round balls with a brilliant orange Mohawk. The Mohawk allows the seed to float in water. As it washes along in the water, the bottom of the seed scrapes in gritty soil. Soon a small patch is scraped open, allowing water to reach the sleeping embryo.
The most difficult to germinate are those seed where a chemical unlocks the seed coat. Consider soaking in a hydrochloric acid solution those seeds frequently foraged by animals. Small fruit comes to mind. These fruit are first eaten by herbivores and then spend a long winter resting in a natural fertilizer until spring warmth and rain let the seed know it is time to grow. This can be quite challenging to copy, so most advanced gardeners may discourage you trying this until you are quite skilled.
Benefits of Seed Saving
Within a few years of seed saving, you will be able to isolate and encourage particular qualities. Some people prefer a family Heirloom Tomato. A somewhat recent Bell Pepper was discovered and then mass produced from a variety grown by a woman that produced exceptionally large sweet fruit. By saving seed, you can soon have plants you like that may be unavailable through commercial companies.
There is a drawback to selective seed saving. If you want to encourage a particular plant aspect, you will have to limit growing others that could potentially cross-pollinate. Significant distance must be established between closely-related plants. So if you choose to grow and specialize in a particular type of Pepper, then you will want to only grow that one kind, unless there is considerable distance between them and another variety.
Seed Saving: Fun and Easy
Seed saving is a lot of fun. Identifying plants you want to grow next season is the first step. This is the most fun part. It is fun to watch and evaluate pretty flowers and tasty vegetables. Next is harvesting ripe seed. These often need to be cleaned and dried thoroughly. Storage until next season may include one or more ways to let seed know it is time to germinate. This is known as stratifying. It can include a period of cold storage or some physical compromise to the seed coat that lets the embryo know it is time to grow. Whatever the method, while seed saving may seem intimidating, it is really quite easy – and enjoyable.