GARDENING - OCTOBER 1995
by Terry Kramer
IF YOU'RE A GARDENER WHO GETS A LITTLE put off at paying $1.09 for a small packet of simple nasturtium seeds, you might consider collecting your own. There are some caveats, but collecting seeds from your garden for next year's planting can save you money. It's also a way to continue the lineage of a favorite vegetable or flower.
Seed collecting was a vital part of food growing for our ancestors. Obviously they couldn't receive mail order catalogs, or drive over to the nursery to buy a packet of seeds dressed in pretty pictures. But when seed companies sprouted up earlier this century, they offered a multitude of seeds, many of which were selectively bred hybrid plant seed. Soon people stopped collecting their own seed.
Today the possibility of losing heirloom flowers and vegetables, combined with the skyrocketing cost of seed, has prompted many gardeners to collect their own again.
Although collecting seeds is an easy and pleasurable task, there are a few points to consider. First and foremost, before you begin harvesting seed, realize the importance of not collecting seed from F1 hybrid plants.
Hybrid flowers and vegetables result from a cross of one species of plant with another in the same genus, or between distinct varieties within the species. The seeds resulting from a cross are F1 hybrid, which means the seed will produce a superior plant in color, scent, yield, taste, resistance to disease or size of fruit. It's called hybrid vigor.
But if you save seed from F1 hybrids, you will not get the identical flowers or vegetables that you planted in the first place. Hybrid seeds do not reproduce true. For instance, many of the impatiens offered today are F1 hybrid. If you saved the seed from a favorite impatiens and sowed it next year, you would not get the same flowering plant. Collect seed from open pollinated flowers and vegetables.
Fall is a good time to collect seeds that will be sown next spring. And because there is such diversity among the sizes and shapes of seed pods and seeds, there are various ways to collect.
Some seeds are lodged deep within the fruiting body of a plant. For example, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and squash have seed inside the fruit. The best way to harvest is to let the fruit become very ripe, but not rotten. Harvest the fruit, collect the seeds within and let them dry thoroughly.
When cucumbers turn yellow, tomatoes become very red and soft, pepper skins begin to wrinkle, it is time to harvest the seeds. Beans and peas are easy because you simply let the pods ripen and turn a bit brown on the vines.
To collect seeds from vegetables that offer small seeds on flower heads try tying a paper bag poked with holes around the seed heads as they begin to ripen. This way you can catch the seed before it falls to the ground. Seeds from brassicas, onions, lettuces and mesclun greens can be collected in this manner.
With annuals such as cosmos, bachelor buttons, poppies, marigolds, dahlias, snapdragons and zinnias, wait until the flower heads begin to fade and turn brown. Collect flower heads in small paper bags, carefully labeling them as you collect. Labeling is extremely important if you want to keep track of what you have.
Seeds should be harvested in the afternoon when it is sunny and dry. If it is foggy, rainy of dewy, mold and mildew can get into the seed pods. Do not collect when there is moisture on the pods.
Also, do not take seed from plants that are in any way inferior, or have been plagued with pests or disease. You will collect these problems along with the seed.
After collecting the seeds it is necessary to make sure they are sufficiently dried before storing. A good way to dry them is to scatter the pods and flower heads on cardboard soda pop flats. Spread the seed pods and heads evenly.
Store them in a warm, dry well-ventilated room for a week or two, letting seed pods and flower heads dry naturally. Don't try to speed things up by placing seeds in an oven or a hot window.
Once seeds have dried completely, clean them up by discarding pods, stems, petals, insects and all bits of vegetation. With most seeds this can be done by jiggling the cardboard flat for a few minutes and passing the seed through a screen or wire mesh.
Large seeds, like beans, can be hand picked. Or you can winnow the seed by passing it from one cardboard flat to the next, blowing off the chaff along the way.
Seeds must be stored in a cool, dry dark place before planting next spring. Studies have shown that if temperatures are too warm during seed storage, enzyme activity increases and the seeds will not be viable. Most seeds, if properly packaged, can be frozen. But don't do this to beans or peas. Freezing seed will also kill any insects lurking about.
Film canisters, baby food jars and cocktail olive jars are ideal containers for storing seeds. Little manila envelopes are nice, too.
CLEANUP -- Time to rip out the moldy zucchini vines, withered bean plants and spent corn stalks. Shred coarse material with the lawn mower and add this material, along with manure and grass clippings, to the compost pile for use next spring. Keeping beds clean and weed-free eliminates winter hiding places for slugs, snails and other pests.
CONDITION SOIL -- Fall is an excellent time to till under beds, add lime and enrich the soil with manure. To further beef up the soil, plant green manure crops. These plants include fava bean, vetch, clover, rye and buckwheat. Green manures will protect soil from erosion and nutrient loss. They also deter weeds and will add nutrients and organic matter to your soil. Come spring, cut them back and till under.
PREPARE FOR BARE ROOT -- Act now if you're planning to add fruit trees, berries, asparagus, artichokes or rhubarb to your garden this winter. These crops are available during the rainy season, a time when digging and tilling is next to impossible. Till under beds and add organic matter. Dig holes for fruit trees and blueberries and add compost. Cover prepared holes and beds with black plastic after a thorough watering. When bareroot season arrives, you are ready to plant immediately.
PLANT GARLIC AND HERBS -- Fall is the time to plant garlic. Set cloves out now in soil thoroughly prepared with composted manure, compost, lime and bone meal. During the cool, short days of winter, cloves develop strong roots. In early spring foliage begins to sprout and fat bulbs form for harvest later on. Plant perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, bee balm, artemisia, tarragon, yarrow, lavender, mint and germander.
PLANT WINTER FLOWERS -- Perk up beds and pots this winter with colorful anemones, pansies, violas, Johnny-jump-ups, primroses and Iceland poppies.
PLANT PERENNIALS -- Take advantage of fall weather and plant perennials such a campanula, candytuft, catmint, coreopsis, delphinium, dianthus, foxglove, gaillardia, geum, penstemon, salvia, Shasta daisy, yarrow and verbena. Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer at planting and don't forget to mulch.
PLANT BULBS -- Availability of spring flowering bulbs is at its peak this month. Plant some now for a splash of color next spring.
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