Thursday, August 19, 2010

An article I had in The Rocky Mountain News in 2004....valid in most climate zones


One of the rewards of a cold climate region’s autumn season is the chance to gather and preserve newly-formed seeds to plant and grow the following summer. Doing this takes little time, can save a lot of money, be a great project for children of all ages (even those belonging to AARP!) and offer some very cool surprises when they germinate and grow. All we need is native curiosity, tightwad instincts, cheap envelopes and a pen, scissors and an old cottage cheese or yogurt tub, and a few sheets of newspaper.

The first frost or two will usually finish up the ripening of seed heads unless they were green; look for ones that look fully browned and brittle. Snip the seed heads into the yogurt tub with scissors and let them dry a few days to release the seeds....tiny seeds like those of snapdragons or amaranth will fall out of their capsules if you swish them around a bit with your fingers. Big seeds like calendula, morning glory and beans need to be "schmoonched" up with your fingers to separate the seeds from their pods or husks. If they seem dry and ready for storage, write the name on a small envelope (box of 100 for $1 at Family Dollar, etc.) like "Heavenly Blue Morning Glory, open-pollinated 2004", pour the seeds in, seal the envelope and store them in your fridge till planting season returns.

Many times in Denver I have gone to public parks before city crews pulled up and hauled away the brown, frost-killed annuals, and harvested snapdragon and other seeds right into the envelopes on site...hey, why let them go to waste in a landfill?

It is commonly advised to NOT save seeds of hybrid flowers and veggies as they will not breed "true" but instead revert back towards their ancestors with each generation of seed saved. But this can be FUN! When I first moved to Denver in 1987 and for a few years after I saved the seeds from hybrid zucchinis and other squash and was amazed the following growing to see what came up! All were productive and edible but some were LOOKED like a zucchini but was white...even the stem attaching it to the vine was white! To do this just scoop out the seeds into a colander and rinse them well with a hose so the water can go into your soil and not down the drain, spread them on a sheet of newspaper to dry in the shade for a week or so, then label the envelope (i.e. "Black Marrow Zucchini, second generation 2004") then store them in your fridge (not freezer!) till planting time. Snapdragons and fragrant sweet peas "revert" ( or cross with nearby neighbors) very creatively. And pansies, if reverted enough generations, revert back first to Violas then Johnny Jump Ups and eventually their wild violet ancestors. Petunias do this too and become VERY fragrant upright, small-trumpeted pink and white flowers. Many rosarians save "open pollinated" rose seeds just to enjoy the surprises revealed a few years later then that first bloom appears.

If you belong to a gardening club, have a potluck where people can also bring and swap seeds...just have a bunch a pens and a box or two of cheap envelopes. We did this for years at the Colorado Permaculture Association potlucks. Visit your friends’ gardens and "plunder" them years past the Denver Botanic Gardens allowed me and others to rescue seeds before the brown frost killed plants were pulled and dumped so see if your local municipal gardens will allow that too.

With the economy slow and many of us inclined to pursue simpler pleasures in part as relief to living in toxic times, autumn seed saving can be a way to help your budget, foster child-like curiosity, meet and make new gardening friends, and to cultivate the sheer joy of surprise in the garden year after year.

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