Collect seeds now and plan for next crop

This week’s In the Garden column, is written by Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Gardens.
Collect seeds now and plan for next crop

Calendula seeds are easy to save for sowing next year

THE past few weeks have been anything but ideal in the garden, and a lot of plants are looking fairly miserable right now, but let us not despair because we can still get something good from them by collecting and drying their seeds to sow when the time is right.

At this time of the year, plants will be switching their roles from flower production to seed production for the sole purpose of survival, and when it comes to survival some seeds are ingenious.They can remain dormant for a very long time until the optimum conditions prevail, allowing them to germinate.

The National Geographic magazine published an article in 2012 claiming the oldest plant ever to be regenerated has been grown from 32,000-year-old seeds, beating the previous record holder by some 30,000 years.

A Russian team discovered a seed cache of Silene stenophylla, a flowering plant native to Siberia, that had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel near the banks of the Kolyma River. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the seeds were 32,000 years old.

The mature and immature seeds, which had been entirely encased in ice, were unearthed from 124ft (38 meters) below the permafrost, surrounded by layers that included mammoth, bison, and woolly rhinoceros’ bones. The mature seeds had been damaged, perhaps by the squirrel itself, to prevent them from germinating in the burrow. But some of the immature seeds retained viable plant material.

Seed-saving is easy, once you get into the swing of it. The technique varies a bit from plant to plant but allowing one or two plants to go to seed is a good idea if you’d like to save some money on seeds and continue to have a steady source of seeds to plant. You will get good quality seed, and you can keep your own varieties going for future years.

Attractive seed heads of alliums contain many seeds.
Attractive seed heads of alliums contain many seeds.

Contrary to what you might think, saving seeds from food plants is really simple. People have done it for thousands of years without the benefit of university degrees and complicated protocols. You simply allow some plants to complete their life cycle rather than harvesting them before they have a chance to do so.

A plant’s sole purpose is to regenerate. Most of them do so by creating seed to complete the life cycle, but we often harvest vegetables before they have a chance go to seed; plants like tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers have visible seeds inside the fruit, and for these, it is not necessary to let them ‘go to seed’.

There are any number of simple plants from which you can start collecting seeds, including lettuce, kale, radish, sunflowers, and pumpkins.

The steps are easy. You grow your plants then let some of them go to seed, that is, allow them to mature, flower, then let the seeds ripen, and then you collect some seed. Keep them safe and dry until the following season, when you can begin the cycle again by planting your own seeds to grow food.

You do not need to do anything special other than let the plants grow. But, just as with growing the plants, there are a few snippets of information you need to know in order to keep your varieties pure. Saving your own seed will obviously save you money on buying-in seed from the suppliers, and another bonus is that seed saving also enables you to select the best plants to grow for your area, in your soil. One key thing before you start — you cannot save seed from F1 (hybrid) varieties.

Seeds denoted on the package as ‘F1’ are hybrids, meaning two varieties have been bred with one another, in other words, cross-pollinated, to produce a third variety with a combination of traits from each ‘parent’. If you were to save seed from this hybrid offspring and plant it, each seed would grow into a plant with a random combination of the traits found in the gene pool of the original parents, these rarely produce something that you would want to eat.

The only way to reproduce the hybrid ‘true-to-type’, as plant breeders say, is to cross the two original parents. Certain plants are self-pollinating, while others are cross-pollinated by insects or wind. For beginners, the seeds of self-pollinated plants like peas, beans, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes are the easiest to save. This is because you can be fairly sure your seed will produce plants that look like their parents.

Seed collecting often begins long before the seed pods or fruits have matured. Of course, you can gather the seed from nasturtiums, marigolds, poppies, cosmos, beans, peas, and tomatoes by collecting it when the seed is ready. But, if you want to improve existing plants or cultivate something new, keep your eyes open for exceptional plants throughout the growing season and take seeds from those.

Before you begin to collect seeds, first let them ripen fully on the plant because, if you collect them when they are immature, they will not germinate.

Clearly labelling seeds as they are being saved is important.
Clearly labelling seeds as they are being saved is important.

Do not harvest too early or too late. As you make your routine rounds of the garden, keep an eye on maturing flower heads and seed pods. Seed pods will deteriorate if left on the plant for too long, so once the majority of the pods have dried, pull the plants and extract the seed,

Gather seed on dry days, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. You want them to be very dry before they’re stored, so if there is any hint of moisture, lay them out to continue drying for a few days to weeks before storing by placing them on some newspaper in a warm, airy position, near a radiator is ideal. Good air circulation is also a bonus.

Be sure to choose seed heads from your best, most vigorous and healthy plants. Label your seeds as you collect them as it may be difficult to differentiate later. Once the seeds are thoroughly dry, place them in labelled envelopes and tuck the envelopes in a glass jar. The jars can be kept in the fridge until you are ready to plant. To further discourage moisture you could make up some simple moisture-absorbing packets by placing two tablespoons of powdered milk in a tissue and twisting it shut. Put one milk packet in each jar. To save seed is to participate in the process of natural selection.

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