And Open Thread, of course...don't restrict yourself to garden talk!
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You can save seed from your garden for next year's flowers, fruits, or vegetables, but there are a few considerations.
Hybrid plants, which includes most modern vegetables and fruit plants, won't breed true. Most likely, the daughter will resemble one of the parents or grandparents, and won't produce edibles of the same size, color, and quality. For most vegetables, it's best to purchase new plants ever year.
Squash is an interesting exception for the hobbyist. Although unreliable, squash plants will happily reproduce with any other squash, producing some fascinating hybrid plants in your garden over the years.
Hybrid flowers, or non-hybrid flowers that are capable of reproducing with others of the same or a compatible species, will produce unpredictable flower colors. While this can be tremendous fun, it can also be annoying to gardeners that carefully plan their gardens year to year (as I do).
What You Can't Collect
Collection of seed from patented or trademarked plants is illegal. However, many of the plants commonly available at greenhouses are not patented or trademarked. It's legal to save ("heirloom") these seeds. For the most part, the tag for the plant will advise you as to whether it's patented or trademarked.
I "Accidentally" Collected Patented Seeds
Technically, you need to throw those away. However, even if you do grow them, they're unlikely to produce plants that resemble the patented varieties. The hybridization process that produces these requires the growers to re-cross the parent plants every year.
Seeds You Shouldn't Bother Collecting
Some plants are advertised as mules, such as mule marigolds (a cross between French and Mexican marigold). These won't produce viable seeds as the plant is sterile--and many mules produce no seeds at all.
Again, hybrid plants won't breed true and tend to revert to a previous generation. Don't bother saving these seeds either as the daughters will tend to disappoint you.
Very small or very difficult to grow seeds tend to be on most people's "don't bother" list. Among these, I never bother with angelonia (requires too much time), lisianthus (ditto), ageratum (too small), petunia (far too small), French marigold (too cheap to bother and won't breed true), and a dozen others.
For your first efforts, stick to seeds of a manageable size from plants that are easy to grow. In the garden, zinnia (will cross-breed with other zinnia), red salvia, and marigold (they may be different colors than you started with) are easy. Although celosia seeds are very small, they're trivially easy to grow.
What Does a Good Seed Look Like?
For most plants, a viable, healthy seed will be brown or black, plump, and not have any visible damage or discoloration.
There are exceptions. Pumpkin seeds are pale, as are the seeds from most gourds and many vegetables. Seeds should, however, be plump and lack discoloration.
How Many Do I Need?
More than you think you will, probably! For most species, I plant 3 to 10 seeds in each cell of the tray and still end up transplanting sprouts with a toothpick into cells that had no sprouts. As a general and not very good rule, the larger the seed the fewer you'll need to plant to have one grow.
As an example, 3 sunflower seeds (very large) are usually enough to get 1 to 2 sprouts. However, 3 celosia seeds (very tiny) are also enough to get 1 to 2 sprouts. A great deal depends on the seed viability, and that varies by the species.
Over the years, you'll notice that your sprout percentages tend to rise. You'll get better at seed collecting and seed starting, plus the plants in your garden are all descended off of plants that managed to sprout under your care.
From How Many Plants?
If you're going to purchase plants of the same species to put into your garden, it doesn't matter terribly much.
If your entire supply of this particular species is from seed you collect, try to get a set of seeds from many flowers to maintain genetic diversity. Even so, over time you may notice plants growing weaker or changing as they revert closer to the wild version.
Weakening plants due to inbreeding can be solved by purchasing a set of new plants and mixing them with the existing ones. They'll happily reproduce with their new friends.
Reverting plants can also be solved by purchasing a new set of plants and mixing them in, or you may discover that you prefer the reverting version of the plant.
My Melampodium, cleome, and salvia are all growing larger as the generations pass. Mostly, this is due to the fact that larger plants tend to produce more flowers and hence more seeds, so contribute more to the genes in the next generation. Some is because all three examples were dwarfed long ago to be more compatible with smaller gardens. Over time, those genes tend to breed out of the species and they revert to resemble those in the wild more.
Collecting Most Flower Seeds
This applies to most of the flowers we'd consider "round," such as marigold, zinnia, daisy, and the like. Everybody's picked apart a dead marigold head to reveal the long, thin seeds inside of it. The philosophy here is the same.
For most flowers, when the flower fades and the dying flower head nods toward the ground, you can remove it. Clean off the dead petals. As a general rule, the seeds are contained in a capsule in the very center of the old flower, held in place by several dead leaf-like structures.
Open these up over a piece of white paper and the seeds should either fall by themselves or be dislodged easily onto the paper.
For sunflowers, the seeds don't tend to dislodge quite so easily. Run your thumb along the edges of the flower to dislodge the outermost spiral of seeds. Continue moving inward until all seeds are dislodged onto the paper.
Pick out any chaff (things that are not seeds).
Collecting Spiky Flower Seeds
Most spikes produce flowers progressively up the spike, with the lower flowers fading first (liatris is an exception where the flowers progress down the spike and fade from top to bottom).
Run your hand up the spike with enough pressure to dislodge flowers that aren't firmly held (expect to ruin a few spikes until you learn the trick). Place the dislodged flowers into a bowl. If you find you removed a lot of fresh flowers, don't worry about it. These won't contain seeds. I tend to find that seed collection works best when I have a mix of older and fresher flowers, but not the freshest ones that are in active bloom.
Extracting seeds varies. For plants with larger seeds, such as red salvia, let the flowers dry for a day or so. Rotate the flower heads in the bowl several times, then move the flower heads to another bowl. The black seeds will fall to the bottom where you can remove them and put them on paper.
Tighter flowers, such as blue salvia, bluebells, and the like, may require that you grind the flowers to dust gently between your fingers. Shake the bowl at an angle to force the heavier seeds to the bottom, then carefully remove the ground flower bits. The small brown pellets at the bottom of the bowl are the seeds.
What Flower...These Are Solid Spikes...
Liatris, celosia, and so on are solid spike flowers rather than growing small flowers off a central stem.
In the case of both, it's easiest to shake spent flower heads over a bowl and collect seed that way. With celosia, you can remove complete faded flowers and place them in a bowl. Over time, the seeds fall off, or you can shake them.
Celosia seeds are a color exception. While some are black, many seem to be brown or a russet-toned brown.
Other Types of Flower Seeds
Some form capsules within the seed head, some form dependent capsules on the stem, others air disperse seeds so effectively that timing is critical. Almost any species of plant can be looked up for the best way to collect seeds. I'll be glad to answer questions in the comments if I'm familiar with the species.
Allow the last vegetable to remain on the vine until frost, by which time it should be wrinkled and look rather...old. This is when the seeds are at their most mature. If the vegetable falls off the vine on its own, it's ready. If not, it should come off with a gentle tug.
Cut the vegetable open and remove the seeds, freeing them from the pulp. Try not to damage the seed when you do so!
Place the seeds on paper or on a plate and let dry.
Leave the fruit on the plant until it releases easily (by which time the fruit tends to look rather wrinkled). You may need to wrap the fruit in cheesecloth to keep birds and insects away from it.
Cut the fruit open and remove the seeds, freeing them from the pulp. Try not to damage the seeds when you do so!
Place the seeds on paper or on a plate and let dry.
Warning: Tomato plants are heavily hybridized and the daughter plants won't resemble the parent, nor will they produce the same tomatoes. While heirloom tomatoes are entirely edible, they're rarely the quality the parents were.
Most of These Look Like Seeds But...
You may have white bits that look very much like the seeds but are definitely the wrong color. These can be the spent ovum capsule of the plant, or can be unfertilized or underdeveloped seeds. In either case, you can remove these and discard them, or dry them with your seeds. When it comes time to plant, don't count the white pieces as seed!
Conversely, some vegetable seeds may be dark or discolored. Discard these as they tend to be infected or undeveloped seeds.
Drying Your Seed
Now that you have your seeds on paper or plates, leave them out to dry in a room temperature area, out of direct sunlight, preferably with good air flow. Most air-conditioned rooms in houses are perfect.
I tend to place mine on my bookshelves--including atop the bookshelf where I don't have to look at them all the time.
No special fans or air flow devices are required. However, if you have layers of seeds on your paper or plate, stir occasionally to mix the bottom layer to the top. Keep an eye out for growing fungus and discard seeds that exhibit it. Single layers of seeds will have fewer fungus issues, and seeds that generally don't touch are the best way to dry.
The amount of time to dry varies by the size of the seed. Smaller seeds, the size of a cucumber seed or smaller, will dry in seven to ten days. Almost all flower seeds are in this category, including sunflower seeds (which are larger, but tend to be dry to start with). Large or wet seeds, as from many vegetables, may require two weeks to a month to dry thoroughly.
When the seed feels dry and has felt dry for at least three days, it's done.
Storing Your Seed
Perfect storage involves baby food jars and storage on the coldest shelf in your refrigerator over winter, once you're certain your seeds are completely dry. Most of us are hesitant to refrigerator-store our seeds, particularly if we're uncertain the seed is completely dry or we store a large number of species.
A few hot-weather plants shouldn't be stored in colder temperatures. Most of these will be tropical plants, and fairly obvious.
Perfectly acceptable storage is much easier. Label a letter envelope with the name of the flower and the year. Put the seeds in the envelope. Don't seal the envelope to allow air to slowly circulate. Store the envelope in a reasonably cool, dry location--if your cellar has heating and air conditioning, this is an excellent place to store them. If not, any storage location out of direct sun is fine.
Exceptions to the rule include any seed that requires a freeze or frost period, or special treatment to sprout. Special treatment can include temperature oscillation, cold stratification, or a dozen other things. Fortunately, most seeds aren't in this category, or will sprout at lower germination percentages even if they are.
Mark Your Calendar
Many people are great at storing seeds (and bulbs) and not so great at remembering they're there when the time to plant hits. Mark your calendar with a reminder!
Check the planting instructions for the species you saved as there are many variations. Some seeds prefer to be up top, others prefer to be buried. Still others don't care.
If this is your first year, don't rely on your stored seeds--something may have gone awry, or that particular species may not seed particularly well. If you can get an early start in flats, trays, or pots, you can grow your plants early and discover any particular headaches they have in store for you.
I tend to recommend seed storage for people who grow flats of flowers indoors before frost ends. That way, an error in seed collection can be rectified with a trip to the local grocery store and a packet of seed off the shelf.
A Word on Easy Crossbreeding
Please note this only works with varieties of the same species (or, in rare cases, compatible species).
Let's say, as I did, you find you like one non-patented variety of salvia's leaves, and another's flower style. You can plant mostly the leaf you like (or the flower) mixed with just a few of the flower you like (or the leaf). Then collect seeds from the few plants instead of the many--it's probable that they reproduced with the larger number as opposed to the smaller number of like-styled plants.
In future generations, remove plants that revert to the parent and keep only those that successfully cross-bred. Eventually, and faster than you might imagine, the vast majority of plants will be your own personal cross-bred variety.
In my case, I liked the deep green leaf of one type, but the long scarlet flower of another. Four generations later, all of the salvia in my garden are forest-green leafed, but have bright, long, and very scarlet flower stems. Both the hummingbirds and I approve.
If you fail in your crossbreed, no matter. You can try again, or simply enjoy the daughters of your plants for their very real charms.
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