In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
August, 2005
Regional Report

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Larkspur is grown for commercial seed in this California meadow.

It's Seed-Saving Season

Many gardeners enjoy saving seed from their favorite annuals, perennials, and vegetables. Some people do this for financial savings since purchasing new seed for a wide variety of plants every year can add up quickly. Some people do it to preserve an heirloom seed strain. Some save seeds to share as gifts from their garden during the holidays. And some people enjoy swapping seeds, much like the
trading cards of our childhood, and then growing them out to see what they get.

If you save seed from hybrid plants, the progeny may or may not resemble the parent from which you took the seed. Some hybrids also fail to set viable seed altogether. But with open-pollinated plants, saving seeds is more predictable.

Select the very best plants and save their seeds. Over time, by saving and replanting your own seeds year after year, you will have selected your own personal seed strain. The resulting plants will be optimally suited to your local growing conditions, including your soil and weather. Eventually, you may even be able to select for a certain color or size or other notable desired characteristic. This is how many famous seeds strains (such as the Shirley poppies or Russell lupines) were originally developed; someone painstakingly rogued and culled and grew them out year after year.

Collecting Techniques
If you haven't tried saving seeds yet, this is the time! First identify your very best candidates for seed harvest. Then keep in mind that the most important aspect of seed-saving is to keep the seeds dry. To this end, wait until the seeds are mature before you harvest them. Usually seeds will rattle within the seedpod, or the capsule will be nearly bursting open when they are ready.

When you harvest the seed, work on a dry day and start collecting after the dew has dried. Air dry the seeds a few more days on plain paper, until you are positive they are truly dry, then package them for storage. Some gardeners use ordinary paper envelopes tucked in the back of a desk drawer, others use tightly sealed tins or jars or glassine envelopes. Either way, make sure you label them. Mark the name, date, and year collected, and any other pertinent information. Then keep the seeds in a cool, dry place until planting time.

Storing
I keep paper seed envelopes in a glass jar or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, along with either a packet of silica (recycled from inside the packaging for new shoes or camera equipment, for example) or a little homemade packet of dry milk powder wrapped inside a paper towel and secured with a small rubber band. This will absorb any little bit of excess moisture and help preserve the seed quality. Then I store the jar in the back of the refrigerator where the temperature is relatively constant. This works for leftover store-bought seed packets as well as homegrown and saved seeds.

Last but not least, check the germination requirements of your chosen seeds. Seeds of certain annuals, such as poppies and larkspur, can be sprinkled on the soil surface in the fall or very early spring when there is still plenty of freeze/thaw activity. There they will germinate with abundance and you will probably need to thin them out.

Some seeds, especially of the more popular perennials, need pretreatment in order to germinate. Usually this involves a damp chilling period to simulate winter. To provide this, place your seeds in a seed pan with damp seed-starter mix, place the container inside a plastic bag, and set it in the refrigerator for the required number of weeks. Remember to label the package. Mark your calendar so you remember to check periodically for swelling or germination, and plant them once the cold stratification period is complete.


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