Carolyn Singer: Seeds & seedlings: Fall saving and sowing
The Seasoned Gardener
Fall is a perfect time for gathering seed.
Seed should be as fresh as possible when sown. Gather from your own garden, and store in moisture-free packaging in cool temperatures. The Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway uses sealed foil packets. Temperature inside the seed vault is maintained at -0.4 degrees F. As home gardeners we will provide less than these ideal conditions, but most seed will last for years kept cool and dry.
Seed must mature on the plant to be viable. When I recently gathered seed from a perennial foxglove (Digitalis lutea), I noted that the pods were dry and beginning to open. Removing one from the stalk, I could see that the seed inside the pod was ready. A good storm and most of the seed would be on the soil.
Holding the stalks upright, I cut them from the foxglove. A few were shaken in areas where I wanted more of this treasured plant. The remainder were spread out on paper towels. When I am ready to store seed, it will be shaken from the still green stalk. Any green plant material in the storage package adds moisture which can spoil the seed.
Some seed takes weeks to mature on the plant. My paperbark maple is loaded with seed from its spring bloom, the interesting winged seeds slowly maturing from green to brown. Many will remain on the tree through winter winds.
Other seed I must monitor closely. Maryland golden aster has multiple flowers along its four-foot stalk. It is only a few days after a flower fades that the seed is ready, catching the gentlest breeze to disperse.
I do sow older seed, but percentage of germination is usually lower. Some vegetables, such as members of the onion family, age quickly. They may have very low germination when they are only a year old. Seed of squash cultivars lasts for many years. I have had success when the seed was five years old. Test seed from previous years by placing several between moist paper towels and monitoring the percentage of germination. Those that do sprout may be planted into a growing medium before leaves form.
In the edible garden I save beans seeds from the Northeaster pole bean. The last beans to form are allowed to remain on the vines. There is usually enough time before a killing fall frost for the seeds to mature.
Dill seed is allowed to self-sow for early spring volunteers. Some is always saved for summer sowing next year. This year I had so much dill in my garden (but never enough!) that I could use it freely in food preparation and allow some of its flowers to attract beneficials. I felt confident that there would be an ample seed supply for next year.
But I was in for a surprise, a magical moment in the garden! In September one evening, I finished my harvest for that day and closed the gate. Rather than turn and walk to the house as is my usual pattern, I stood quietly for a moment gazing into the edible garden. Suddenly dozens of small gray birds were flying in from all directions, lighting on the dill heads and feasting on the delicious seed. A friend tells me they are Kinglets. I wonder if I will have any volunteer dill next year. I think I may have to sow some of my older seed from past years for both spring and summer harvests.
Fall is also the perfect time for sowing many seeds.
We all know how easily weed seeds germinate and thrive, whether in the best compost or in poor gravelly soils. Yet those expensive seeds we have purchased seem more challenging, less likely to succeed. Moisture is a primary factor in germination and early growth.
A frequent question from readers, “how often should I water the seed I have just sown?” has a complex answer. Even experienced gardeners are often mystified by the moisture requirements of seeds and seedlings.
The first irrigation after fall sowing should moisten the top few inches of soil. A good soaking rain? Then daily watering until seed germinates is best. If winds or sun are drying the soil surface, several irrigations a day may hasten germination. After seed germinates irrigation may be less frequent, but always deep enough for those tiny young roots to grow as quickly as possible in the warm fall soil.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her website at carolynsingergardens.com.
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