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Gardener's Diary September 2006

Harvesting and storing seed

It is very satisfying to harvest seeds from your own garden year after year. Apart from saving money by not purchasing commercially supplied seeds, it is a good way of collecting quality seed, producing masses of your favourite plants, and getting some unusual results from plants that have cross pollinated. For example about ten years ago I was given some petunia seeds that were brought back from Tenerife, having been collected from a particularly vigorous strain. They were deep purple. Each year I have collected seed from the resulting plants, and now have a variety of colours ranging from almost white through to a deepish mauve. They are extraordinary plants, remarked upon by many visitors. 

  • Before you start harvesting seeds from your garden, there are a few things to be aware of. If you plan on collecting seed from plants that you previously planted as "hybrid" seeds, the results will be inferior. In fact some hybrids are grown to flower profusely and not produce seed at all. Half the fun of collecting seeds is to see the unusual colours that result from cross pollination when plants such as petunias of varying colours are grown close to each other. 

  • By studying the cultural needs of types of seeds you wish to collect, you are more likely to have success. For example, seeds of Astrantia and Hellebores need to overwinter in the ground before they will germinate, and you may need to mimic these conditions by putting seeds in the refrigerator for a period of time, to kick start them into growth. Personally with the two types I just mentioned, I find they self-seed profusely if left to their own devices..

  • If you want to harvest seeds from certain fruit and vegetables, let the fruit over-ripen on the plant,  then harvest it and gently pull it apart to get the seed, which you will then need to soak in water for about two days. The seeds that have sunk to the bottom of the water are the ones to keep, so dry them thoroughly on a piece of kitchen paper. The seeds that rise to the top of the water can be discarded as they are either too dry or infertile. 

  • Flower seeds need to be collected during a dry spell. I find early evening is a good time when the morning dew has thoroughly dried and the plants have had the benefit of a day of sunshine. I usually collect the whole seed head of a plant, especially if the seeds are a little under ripe, allowing them to finish the ripening process in dry conditions. For several years now I have been growing the miniature sunflower "Pacino" which grows between 24ins and 48ins tall. Each year it produces perfect, strong plants, and I usually collect one of the biggest flower heads, overwintering it in the greenhouse. Who said sunflowers are for kids only? 

  • Proper storage is the key to strong, healthy plants. Place your harvested seeds onto newspaper or in paper (not plastic) envelopes until they have thoroughly ripened. Then remove any husks or seed heads, with a sieve, leaving only the ripe seed, which can be returned to the paper envelopes. Make sure the envelopes are correctly labelled and dated, before putting them in an airtight container such as a biscuit tin, with a sachet of silica gel or some uncooked rice to absorb any moisture. Finally store the tin in a cool dry place.

  • Allow for failures - it is all part of the fun and satisfaction of experimenting, much the same as taking cuttings, which at the end of the day, cost nothing..

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