Every seed – from tiny rhododendron to giant coconut – holds magic. Size, shape, color, and the preference for desert or swamp: all these characteristics come to life the moment specific elements merge and germination takes place.
Exploring the world of seed collection encourages a deeper understanding of natural cycles and provides a satisfying way to enhance the home landscape. Swapping seeds with friends is a great hobby, and packets of home-collected seeds make memorable gifts.
Seeds can travel a thousand miles or more by wind or water, they get carried along for shorter distances by birds or squirrels, they explode in spring-loaded bursts or cling to animal's fur. Germination requirements – the right mix of oxygen, moisture, and heat – also vary considerably, even though the general requirements for seed storage (in a cool, dry, dark place) are fairly uniform.
Surprisingly, seed viability – the length of time a seed retains its ability to regenerate, if properly stored – ranges from several years to a decade or more for common plants like tomato, cucumber, lettuce, beets, and peas, and up to fifty years for evening primrose. But in a few cases, poplars for instance, the seeds must be sown within days of ripening.
Another subtlety: the conditions for breaking seed dormancy vary from mild to extreme, from a few drops of water, to seasonal cold, to the heat of forest fire. And yet, success is easy if you just try.
Plants just want to reproduce, and the phrase “gone to seed” reflects that fact: a garden that has not been cleaned, deadheaded and thinned, soon takes on a wild look.
So, using garden seeds judiciously means observation and planning…and action. You may unlock a treasure chest of wildflowers, ferns, ornamental bulbs and annuals, shrubs, even trees – in seed form -- that are all ready to reproduce in your yard… where you decide they should grow.
Some garden flowers form heads full of small seeds that spread and germinate quickly, often in the same season. These include love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), money plant (Lunaria annua) and poppy (Papaver spp). Instead of letting these seeds spread in place and become crowded, cut the seed heads before they are entirely dry and have split open, and move them into new areas you wish to develop. Simply lay the seed heads in place and by the following spring new plants should be growing strong.
That same technique actually works for many other flowers; there's no need to start plants indoors in individual pots over the winter if these are just being transplanted anyway. I have had great success with starting various lily seeds directly in the garden; same thing with cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), and Echinacea.
I have even grown ferns in place by blowing spores from mature fronds into cracks and crevices where I would like new ferns to grow. This method may take two years to show results. Likewise, some woody shrubs require two years to show growth from seed.
A different technique is to collect garden seed before it completely dries and disperses, then air dry the seeds further indoors on clean paper for storage and later use. Iris seeds are easy to collect and store, as are nasturtium (Tropaeolum), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and herbs like dill and cilantro. Be sure to label seeds by variety, date, and place collected.
Note that hybrid varieties seldom grow “true” to seed, but revert to an original type.
It helps to know something about seed structure in order to understand the requirements for germination and early growth.
Collecting seeds doesn't go by the calendar, but rather by when each plant shows the signs of readiness. In general that means a husk, seedhead or pod is thinning, turning brown or beginning to break apart. That's when to collect seeds. How? If possible, use garden scissors to cut seed heads or pods directly over an open envelope, bowl or bucket. That helps assure that loose seeds are not lost. Sieve or clean and separate seeds by hand, then fold into paper and label by plant and date. Store in a cool, dark place.
Black-eyed Susans have a stiff, brush-like brown seedhead when ready, cosmos have a smaller, looser seed head; irises produce sturdy ovate pods that hold rows of kernel-like seeds and turn brown when mature. To collect nasturtium seeds for pickling, remove the seed heads while they're green and plump; for next year's garden wait until papery husk is drying. The one seed you don't want to see is the dandelion, although it is lovely flying through the air! The brilliant Web site www.theseedsite.co.uk has photos of hundreds of mature seed pods for identification.
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