Thursday, October 9, 2008

Seed Collecting and Saving

Seeds and Seed Collecting

Seed collecting and trading has become a fine art for us. We feel it is important to offer our nursery customers new and interesting things and to keep current with the newest developments in ornamental plants. We do, of course, keep and dry some of our own vegetable seeds, but we also harvest seeds from the perennials and annuals that we like to grow and trade them to other gardeners around the world. This way we can get a wide variety of interesting and hard to find plants for the garden. The US does not allow plant material across it's borders but I haven't had a problem with seeds, although I've read that others have. Trading plants and seeds with other, mostly European, countries has not been a problem, but shipping costs can be prohibitive for plants.

I collect the seeds and dry them on paper towels on an old window screen on the veranda. Sometimes I write the name on the paper towel. I used to trust myself to remember what it is, but...well, not anymore, so I write it down, if I remember to...

The screen sits over a container to catch small seeds that fall through and to allow air to circulate underneath. The seeds sit on the screen drying and maturing further for a few days, until I remember them and put them away.

It is important to wait until the seed pods are mature. For me, this is the hardest part. The seeds that I collect have dry, brown seed pods when they are ready. If the seed pod is still green and soft, it is not mature enough to pick the seeds. You will have to check them daily to catch the seeds before they are dispersed. Occasionally immature pods will ripen and the seeds will germinate, even if picked early and left to dry, but most seeds needs to ripen on the plant to get good germination rates. In order to have seed pods, you must leave the dead flowers on the plant. Clipping and cleaning up the garden will also clip off the future seeds.

I store seeds in regular letter envelopes, seal the long end and tape it securely with masking tape. Then I can cut open the small end and roll it closed and clip with a paperclip. This way I can continue to add more seeds to it as the autumn progresses. Here is a picture of my seed collection thus far this year. The envelopes are labelled with the name and any other information I might want to keep. In this box I can also keep plant labels for new plants, a box of paperclips, tape and a pen. The seeds need to be kept in paper envelopes to stay dry. A container that allows air to circulate will help, as well. Keep it in a cool, dry place. The top of the fridge is too warm and the bathroom is too humid. A plain box serves well for this. A basket with a handle did this job previously and looks so "country cool". I don't know what happened to that basket...

Below are a few of my favourite perennials and annuals that I continue to grow and love. Most of these seeds will need winter stratification in order to germinate. That means that they will need a few weeks of damp winter cold before they will grow. I save these for winter sowing.

Winter seed sowing is a great hobby for those of us who hanker for the smell of the Earth and growing things in February, when the world is covered with a sheet of ice and snow. Here in Ontario, winter falls in late Dec or early Jan and we don't see the ground again until Spring, approximately mid March. I keep potting soil in the basement and seed equipment. Any plastic container with a clear lid makes a great winter sewing container. I save those clear, hard plastic cookie boxes from the grocery store and plant in those, after poking holes in the bottom. Then I put these lidded containers out on the deck in the snow and leave them there. They sprout quickly in the very early spring, as soon as the days are long enough. You can obtain winter stratification in the freezer, but it is a lot dryer than the outdoors and doesn't work for eveything. You get much better germination rates by winter sewing. You can also plant these seeds directly in the ground in the fall but they sprout earlier in covered containers. It's like being in a cold frame. gives me an excuse to dig in the dirt in the middle of winter. (More about winter sewing when it happens.)

I do have several other perennials and flowing shrubs, but they don't often reseed. The annuals grow to their full potential in the first year and can be reproduced to cover large areas quickly. Below are some that I consider among the best and most beautiful reseeders.

This is impatiens Grandulifera. The big, yellow, fuzzy bumblebees love it! It gets 6 ft tall and looks like this in flower:

The seedpods are sometimes called "touch-me-nots" because, when ripe, they expode if you touch them and scatter their seeds everywhere. You have to collect them carefully. I close my hand, gently, over the entire pod before applying any pressure and try to get all the seeds. Many escape when the bees set them off or the wind shakes it. You can also use a small paper bag closed over the end of the branch, but I have not tried this method. They reseed themselves prolifically and I am always moving them to better places when they come up everywhere in the spring. Due to their height, I keep them at the back of the bed. They look spetacular in large, dense groupings.

This is impatiens Balsamina. It gets about a foot tall and reseeds itself generously. These have exploding seed pods, as well, so have to be gathered carefully.

This is pink nicotiana, also called "Nikkies" among gardeners who grow them. Their seeds don't develop until vary late in the season for me, then all at once. The seedpods have begun to mature now.

Lupins are perennials that reseed themselves generously and come is a variety of colours. I have purple (picture at right) and red plants and I also have some pink and purple seeds to plant for next year. The picture to the left is not mine, but they do look just like that.

I love the look of nasturtiums. They are also good and healthy in a salad. They come in yellow, orange and red and look great in planters or hanging over raised edges. They are annuals but grow quickly from seed. These are mine, as of a month ago.

My poppies are annual peony poppies and bloom all summer long. I don't have or care for the perennial poppies that bloom for just a few days and are gone and reseed. My annual peony poppies grow to 2.5 ft tall and come in single, double, and balled. They range from white to dark maroon in colour and every shade of pink in between. These bloom all summer long and reseed profusely. I have an envelope full of seeds from these. Planning where to put them is the hard part. I may scatter whatever seeds I don't use or trade into the field and see what happens. These pictures are not mine, but my poppies look just like that and come in those shades and more.

We occasionally keep the best of the vegetables for seeds, thereby improving our stock with each generation. Some seeds do cross pollinate or do not grow true, but that's the interesting part. We try not to plant vegetables too close together that will cross pollinate. Squash and pumpkins of the same family need to be separated by a large space.

Vegetable seed collecting is fairly straitforward, except for a few exceptions. Cucumbers and tomatoes have to be very ripe when picked and still need to age for a week or two on the counter top, until almost rotten. Then the seeds are collected, put into a container of warm water and left at room temperature to ferment a few days. Stir them occasionally and after about three or four days, strain them, rinse well and dry. All fruit and vegetable seeds need to be collected from fully ripe, if not over-ripe, vegetables and fruit.

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