Seeds are one of those many miraculous parts of nature that are just so hard to understand. What could be more perplexing than the thought that what you eat, and all the trees and plants around us and all plant-derived material, began with those tiny little things called seeds.
The variety of plants out there says a lot then for the variety of seeds that can be found — more than we could even begin to imagine. Seeds are without a doubt one of the very complicated ways that plants succeed.
Yet there is nothing simpler than putting a seed in the soil, caring for it and watching it grow. Little in life is as gratifying an experience as that, as any gardener will tell you. Buying and planting seeds for the average gardener is a complicated issue at all, but when the gardener decides to save seeds from the garden, then things can become more complicated, but also even more rewarding.
When saving seeds from your own garden, chances are that the plant that grows from the saved seed may not look exactly like the plant that the seed was harvested from, or perhaps the seed does not grow at all. Many things can go wrong. These complexities come about from possible hybridisation taking place amongst seeds from different plants, storage problems, cross-pollination and various other causes. Therefore it is important to understand how seed saving works so that when you plant your collected seeds, you can rest assured that what will grow is what you hoped for!
There are various reasons to save seeds. You may not want to buy seeds which are often hybrids and more often than not treated with poisons already. Your own seeds will also be more resilient and not poisoned. Seed sources are often unreliable due to issues such as unlabelled products and of course it does save you money as well.
For a plant to make a seed it must first be pollinated. Pollination occurs when pollen from the stamens, which are the male sexual organ of the flower, is transferred to the stigma, which is the female part of the plant. The pollen moves down the style and into the embryo sac. If the pollen meets a ripe ovule, fertilization will take place. It is the fertilized ovule that develops into forming the fruit, pod or other seed bearing form found on the plant later on. Inside the pod or fruit one finds the seeds.
In the case of self-pollination, it is the pollen from the same plant containing the ovule, that does the pollination. In the case of cross-pollination, pollen from a different flower of the same species pollinates the female organ on another flower of the same species. This pollen makes its way to different flowers in a variety of manners such as by travelling in the wind, on the feet of insects like bees, the beaks of birds or butterflies and so forth. This unveils part of the importance of biodiversity in nature.
The pollination story is not as simple as explained above, however, as there are many factors why some plants prefer cross-pollination and some self-pollination. Some plants make self-pollination a difficult task while other flowers only have a male or female organ therefore making self-pollination impossible. Plants that prefer cross-pollination will often go to great lengths to make their flowers as attractive to pollinators as possible. They do this by having bright colours or tasty nectar that rewards the pollinator.
We know that the processes in nature do not, without our intervention, create some of the ornamental flowers that we plant in our gardens. These plants are generally bred for specific traits, like yellow marrows, sweet corn, etc. In the breeding of these hybrid plants the breeder may take the pollen from the most yellow-looking plant for instance, and place it on the stigma of the other most yellow looking plant. The most yellow looking marrow should not self-pollinate because the genes of the plant will likely ultimately revert back to the original green colour. However by taking the pollen and ovule from different plants, the traits you desire can be encouraged in the gene pool.
When a gardener is trying to create this hybrid they will take great care to see that the plant does not self-pollinate. At the right maturity the flower’s male organs are removed and the flower isolated by covering it with something. When the stigma of the plant is receptive, the desired pollen, which has usually been collected previously, is put onto the stigma. After pollination occurs, the plant grows further to develop the fruit with the desired hybrid seeds inside. Needless to say, when these seeds are planted the seeds that the second generation produces will not produce the same plant as the first generation, as they will most likely revert back to the original seed.
The most important thing to remember is that plants rely heavily on dispersing their seeds for success. They will be ready to do this when the time is right, so you must be ready to collect seeds before they disperse — and there is no particular date. You need to collect your seeds as soon as the plant is ripe. You can test if the seeds are ready by rubbing the seed head, or shaking the capsule, and seeing if the seeds are released easily.
When collecting seed you can cut off the heads and put them in paper bags or a container — preferably not plastic, as they may rot inside.
You can also cut the whole stem in the case of a flower, tying the heads in a paper bag and hanging them upside down. By hanging them upside down the sap goes down into the seeds as the plant dries.
All packets should be labelled on collection.
Seeds that are not completely dry on collection should be dried in a dark, ventilated shed. Keeping the seeds in containers, you must leave them until the pods are completely dry or the seeds have been dispersed from the pod or head. If your seeds don’t dry completely they may develop fungal diseases and rot.
When your seeds are dry you need to clean them. Leaving dry seeds unclean can still lead to rotting. You should clean away as much of the material surrounding the seed as possible. This may be difficult in cases where seeds are numerous and/or tiny.
I’ve found that by rubbing the dry husks of the seeds onto a plastic sheet you can then separate the husks from the seeds by shaking them gently so that the seeds roll down into a bowl. I have also found that by blowing the husks and vegetable matter away from the seeds you can get them quite clean.
They should be kept in containers that are not completely airtight. Moisture locked into the container will cause the seeds to rot. If your seeds are kept in a good storage condition they should last up to twelve months and often much longer.
I have found that with some seeds, like pumpkin, butternut or marrow, it may be advisable to wash them first in luke warm water and then dry them thoroughly in direct sun.
Some people like to put their seeds in the freezer for a couple of days and then dry them out, but I have not tried this method myself.
Why not share your own seed-saving tips below?
Happy seed gathering.