Plant Answers  >  Seed Saving by G. Greg Grant

Seed Saving by G. Greg Grant

Texas Gardener Magazine (pp. 45 - 47)
November/December Issue, 2009

I've been fascinated with seed since I was a small child. When I was six years old at Mozelle Johnston Elementary School, in Longview, Texas, my legendary teacher, Miss Mozelle herself, appointed me "keeper of the class terrarium". Being a gardener and flower lover herself, she quickly noticed my interest in both. My mother was also a first grade teacher and it took her a while to take care of her after school chores before hauling us home. This gave me (along with my seven and eight year old brothers) some time to kill after school let out. We spent most days on the play ground I suppose, but my main duty was to pick the pill bugs out of the terrarium.

Among the many enjoyable learning and social experiences we had in Miss Mozelle's class was "show and tell". Kids brought everything from Indian artifacts to flying squirrels (my personal favorite). One day somebody brought some stalks of mature cotton to show off. Of course I was intrigued by the soft white balls of cotton. The student went home but the cotton stayed behind. After class, Miss Mozelle tucked it away on one of the lower storage shelves. The draw was irresistible. When Miss Mozelle left, I secretly got out one of the cotton balls to explore. I couldn't help but notice that there were little hard structures inside the soft fluff. I assumed they were seed and carefully extracted them. Next I poked them into the soft moist soil in the bottom of our terrarium.

Of course after a few days went by I completely forgot about my little experiment. UNTIL one afternoon when Miss Mozelle said "What on earth are all these little sprouts in the terrarium?" I was embarrassed and afraid I would be in trouble so I plucked them out along with that day's crop of wandering pill bugs. They WERE seeds!

Luckily my parents gave me a small garden spot in the vegetable garden at the farm. Of course I was most interested in growing flowers along with weird and unusual things that nobody would eat. One day one of my dad's business clients sent me the most fascinating bean I had ever seen. It had a giant pod and huge pink seeds. What turned out to be a sword bean got quickly planted in my little garden. Of course I had to provide native bamboo ("switch cane") poles for it to climb on. I felt like young Jack with his giant bean stalk. My addiction to seed was complete.

I ordered every seed catalog I could find and loved devouring page after page of botanical wonder and opportunity. I was allowed to order a few seeds from Park Seed each year. However my dad got most of our garden seed from Horaney's, our local feed store. It didn't take me long to realize that the seed catalog and feed store only carried a limited range of seed. In order to grow the botanical diversity I was interested in, I would have to learn to extract and save even more seed.

Saving seed is a time honored art and necessity. I'll always remember the little paper sacks and plastic bags in my grandparent's deep freeze where they stored their seed for the next year's garden. I loved the way the bags felt and smelled. I also loved the promise that they held. I continue this tradition, storing most of my saved seed in the refrigerator. Saving your own seed is of course economical but even more importantly it's the only way to insure that you continue to have access to unique and adapted plant material that isn't commercially available. Also, if you like to dabble in plant development like I do, it's absolutely essential. As an added bonus you can also eat your extra pea, bean, and corn seeds!

It's very important to know and understand the basics of seed cleaning and storage so let's start from the beginning. The most important aspect of seed collecting is knowing when the seed is ripe. I can't tell you how many times I've seen somebody collect unripe seed pods expecting to grow new plants from them. Seed pods must be fully mature, most often plump and dried and starting to dehisce, or open up. In order to avoid losing seed I generally harvest them a little before they shatter and finish drying them in a paper bag or an open bowl. If it's one with exploding seed pods, like bluebonnets, you'll need to put a paper clip or close pin on the top of the bag to keep them from jumping on the floor.

Fleshy fruit like tomatoes, papaws, peaches, berries, and the like, must also be fully ripened, to the point of being soft and inedible. You must then macerate the fruit (removed the pulp) as fruit pulp generally contains germination inhibitors. Some fruits I do by hand and some I mash through a screen or sieve. The seed then needs to be washed and dried on paper, rags, towels, or a fine screen.

After the seed is collected and dried I run it through a series of screens to remove dirt, rocks, flowers, pods, and other plant debris. I use fancy brass soil sieves but you can fashion your own out of screen wire or even make do with assorted kitchen ware on hand. Once it's down to even sized particles I use a mouth or blow dryer to winnow off the bad seed and other trash. I supposed you could use a hand fan if you really knew what you were doing. You must be VERY CAREFUL at this stage or all your seed will be on the ground waiting to be swept up and cleaned again.

Next you'll need to store your seed. The cardinal rule for seed storage is low temperature and low humidity. Both are best but it's essential to at least provide one. I store most of my seed in sealed and labeled plastic bags in the refrigerator. Other plastic containers or glass jars can also be used. Just make sure your seed is completely dried before putting it in the container or it will mildew or mold. Many types of seed will last for years being held cool and dry.

Here's where you might need a book, an experienced horticulturist, or access to the internet. Although most vegetable seed requires no treatment other than an occasional water soak, other types of seed have special needs that must be met before they'll sprout. Seed with very hard coats, that don't allow water absorption, need scarification or scratching/nicking of their seed coats. This includes bluebonnets, Texas mountain laurel, wisteria, redbud, and coral bean. Some folks use a hand file to make a tiny abrasion in the seed coat. I often use a carefully held hand grinder for larger seed. It's important to only nick the seed coat, not the inner seed. A microscopic hole is all it needs. Most nursery operations use dangerous concentrated sulfuric acid to treat entire batches of hard seed. Soaking them in warm water or running them through a cement mixer doesn't do the trick.

Other seeds like peach, pear, apple, maple, dogwood, and many temperate zone trees have an internal dormancy and require stratification (cold-moist treatment). Just holding them in the refrigerator does not fill this need. It must be cold and moist at the same time. I take the clean seed and mix it with an equal part of moistened (but not wet) vermiculite, perlite, or sand. Then seal up the labeled bag and place it in cold (but not freezing) storage for around three months. Keep an eye on them because once the internal dormancy has been met, they will often start to sprout in the plastic bag.

Remember that all seeds need to soak up moisture before they germinate. Once they take up moisture you can't dry them down and store them again. I pre-soak certain seeds like okra, sweet peas, and spinach before I plant them. I also pre-water all flats of potting soil along with garden rows before planting my seeds to speed up the germination (sprouting) process. It's almost magical to watch a seed go from seemingly lifeless to a small green sprout full of hope.

I spend many hours cleaning, culling, labeling, and storing seed. When I told somebody the other day that I got up at 4 am each morning they were flabbergasted and asked "What do you do?" When I told them I cleaned seed they laughed as if I was joking. Seed to a gardener is no laughing matter. The world wouldn't exist without seed. Many folks see my botanically brimming kitchen and ice box and wonder what the heck I eat. Well, seed of course!


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