Roots and Shoots: Seeds, Glorious Seeds

By Pamela Doan

Every fall I resist harvesting the globe thistle seeds. They’re tempting: big spiky balls left over from the summer’s blooms. The goldfinches and dark-eyed juncos love them, though, so I do resist for the pleasure of seeing a bird perched on the tall stalk in winter enjoying a snack. I like to imagine the seeds of this native plant dispersing in the wind, too. It’s a campaign I’ll never know the results of but continue nonetheless.

Here are a few reasons to save seeds. It’s not too late, either. There are probably flowers in the yard now that could be harvested.

Preserve biodiversity. Organizations such as the Hudson Valley Seed Library and other seed banks across the world want to make sure that certain species don’t go extinct. As climate change makes habitats unsustainable for plants, this effort has become especially important. A global seed vault managed by CropTrust (croptrust.org) on an island between Norway and the North Pole has nearly a million varieties and is built to hold 4.5 million. This ensures ongoing cultivation will be possible.

Knowledge. Here in your backyard, the goal could be a fun project without the stakes of human survival. But if everything goes badly, wouldn’t it be a good skill to have?

Thrift. Transplants can cost anywhere from $2 to $20 depending on the plant. Although I shop end-of-season sales, I paid $15 for a wild indigo when I could have gotten an entire packet of seeds for far less. But did I mention the color of those flowers? Impulse control does not come easy to gardeners fantasizing about next summer’s blooms.

A frankensquashmelon from the garden convinced me that cross-pollination works. (Photo by P. Doan)
A frankensquashmelon from the garden convinced me that cross-pollination works. (Photo by P. Doan)

Seeds are cool. I love starting plants from seed even though a lot of my vegetables are transplants because that’s the amount of time I have. Seeing shoots coming up from the soil makes it seem like everything is possible. Some seeds are tiny specks. I get a childish feeling of wonder to see it develop into a plant — a dramatic process that takes place unseen while it’s buried in the earth and then it emerges toward the sun’s light and warmth.

Propagate a variety you like. I try to keep a garden log but it’s morphed into a shoebox lid full of the plastic stakes that come with plants and seed packets. When I cannot remember what I planted as new growth is starting in the spring, I dig through the box and try to put a name to a leaf. If you have a particular tomato or pepper you enjoyed this summer, save its seeds.

How to save seeds

The most important fact to understand is that some plants are self-pollinated and others are cross-pollinated. Solanaceae family vegetables, also known as nightshade plants, include tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Their flowers have male and female parts and don’t need insects for pollination. These types of plants are the easiest from which to save seeds. A caveat is that they can also be cross-pollinated and varieties can become less similar to the parent. Keep the rows separated and far apart.

Cross-pollinated plants like squash, corn, cucumbers and melons aren’t good candidates for seed saving. These plants are pollinated by insects. I know from experience they don’t turn out like the original. This summer a squash vine volunteered itself from compost in a newly planted flowerbed. Out of curiosity, I let it go. The produce was a squash-melon hybrid with no flavor.

Here’s the next twist. If you’re going to save seeds, choose open-pollinated varieties, not hybrids. It’s impossible to predict what characteristics the seeds will have from both plant parents. Purity matters in this case. The Minnesota Cooperative Extension lists Brandywine and San Marzano tomatoes as good possibilities for open pollinated plants.

Depending on what seeds you’re saving, the process may differ slightly but the basics are to dry the seeds thoroughly. They need to be stored at cool temperatures, around freezing. The CropTrust seed vault is kept around minus 18 degrees Celsius but your seeds will be fine in the refrigerator, a shed or garage. Moisture triggers the seed to grow, so the seeds need to stay dry, too. A few resources I’ve read recommend using powdered milk to act as a desiccant.

Don’t get too caught up in worrying about what to save and how to do it. Like anything that happens in the garden, experience is the best teacher.