Garden Edition: Gardening from seeds: March, 2001
by Linda Coyner
When gardeners need seed, most turn to print or on-line catalogs or head out to the seed racks at Agway or Home Depot. Buying seed in a packet is a relatively new phenomenon.
Long before there were packages of Burpee seed, farmers, local growers, and gardeners saved and swapped seed. Besides being thrifty, gardeners saving seed serves an important purpose: it helps to restore the diversity of varieties that have been lost since seed companies took over. It's another enoyable part of being a gardener.
A good place to look for more information about the issue of diversity and the history of seed-saving is The Seeds of Texas Seed Exchange web site (see page 2 for URL). My approach to harvesting, collecting, and storing seed is, shall we say, less than scientific. That casual attitude is obvious from the remnants of seeds in the pockets of my clothing long after they've been laundered. I've been known to collect seed in wads of tissue or 'envelopes' hastily made from scraps of paper. The kitchen counter, dining room table and any unoccupied horizontal surface usually has a saucer or lid or tissue with seeds drying. Once dry--when I get tired of looking at them--I transfer the seeds to little bottles leftover from prescription drugs or plastic bags.
Aside from exchanging seed with relatives, I haven't done any seed swapping with other gardeners. But I must admit to being intrigued by the seed exchange listings that used to be at the back of Organic Gardening. Now all that has blossomed on the Internet, a perfect forum for such interaction. Personal web pages or community listings are full of the seed 'wants' and 'haves' of gardeners all over the world.
What follows are guidelines from on my own experience and research. It's easy to make anything complicated, but I've tried to keep it simple. After all, we're in this for pleasure. I also took a peek into the world of Internet seed-swapping and can steer you in the right direction.
When the urge to collect seed has bit, it's hard not to restrain oneself while touring a botanical garden, nursery, or friend's garden. Garden etiquette, of course, requires one to ask permission first.
It is best to allow seeds to ripen to full maturity before they are harvested--mature seeds have higher germination and survival rates than seeds harvested too soon.
Keep in mind that seeds from strong, healthy plants are your best bet. The seeds and seedlings will be larger, more-viable, and more-vigorous than seedlings produced by weak, diseased, stressed plants.
Avoid small or misshapen seeds. They are shorter-lived under storage conditions than larger, better-formed seeds. Small seeds also contain less stored food to help them emerge from the soil and produce healthy seedlings.
Do your harvesting before it rains. If it has rained recently, let Mother Nature dry the seeds for a few days before you bring them in for final drying.
Most seed from flowering plants stays viable longest if dried before being stored.
Place your harvested seed in a cool, dry, shaded location with good air circulation to complete the process slowly. Be patient; some seeds may take as long as six weeks to dry thoroughly. Too much heat can cause seeds to dry too quickly and die.
Spread seeds one or two thick in an airy, dry location--such as an air-conditioned environment or other place where relative humidity stays between 20% and 40%--for two or more weeks. Seeds change in appearance as they dry. Some will darken, shrivel, etc., during the drying process.
I do this after the drying process. This serves several purposes. By separating and discarding any material that isn't seed you find out if you really have ripe seed. Some flower heads will look like they are full of seeds, but after cleaning there will only be two or three ripe seeds. You also need to know how many seeds you have if you plan to do any trading.
Most importantly, cleaning removes chaff that can cause dampness during storage (leading to mold or mildew) or when the seeds are planted (possibly causing "damping-off," a fungus that kills seedlings).
The task can be simplified if you limit the amount of extraneous material when you harvest seed. For instance, snip away leaves, cut off excess branches, stems, etc., before you put flower stalks or pods into a paper bag to dry. In many instances, you can simply shake the seeds loose inside the bag when they've dried sufficiently, then remove the stalks or emptied pods.