Our garden season is winding down, and many plants are setting seeds instead of flowers or fruit. Starting new plants from seeds off your current plants is a great way to stretch your plant-buying dollars.
All plants that produce seeds can be grown from seeds, but not all plants should be grown from seed. Some seeds are easier to germinate than others, and some seeds produce better results.
Annual plants are often the easiest seeds to grow, including flowers and vegetables, but many perennial plants are also easy to grow from seeds. Woody plant seeds -- from trees and shrubs -- often have dormancy requirements before the seeds will germinate, and the new plants can be slow to flower. Knowing something about the seeds' requirements for germination will save you a lot of trouble.
Keep in mind that not all seeds are worth saving. If you grow pumpkins, cucumbers and squash, saving those seeds will result in a cucurbit of some sort, but not the variety you originally planted. The same thing is true of fruit trees. These plants cross-pollinate and the resulting fruits can have attributes of both parents. Sometimes you may like the results, other times not. Likewise, if you are growing hybrid plants, the same principle applies -- the resulting seeds will not be genetically the same as their parent plant.
Save seeds from your best producing and favorite vegetables. Vegetable varieties that are easily found locally often aren't worth the trouble it takes to save their seeds. But if you have favorite heirloom varieties that are open pollinated, then your seeds could be the only way to have that variety again next season.
Make sure the seed-bearing fruits are fully mature before you harvest seeds. Peas and beans should be allowed to dry on the plants before you separate the seeds from the pods and air dry them.
Tomatoes are a bit trickier. The seeds of tomato plants are embedded in a gelatinous substance in the center of the tomato.
Fill a jar half full with water, place the seeds with the gel into the water and swirl them around. Put a lid on the jar and then move it to a cool place. Shake the jar several times a day.
After four or five days, the seeds should have separated from the gel and you can strain the mixture, saving the seeds only. Let the seeds air dry for at least a week.
Once your seeds are dry, put them in an envelope or paper bag until you use them. Make sure to label them and store them in a cool, dry place.
Wildflowers are often grown from seed, and the best time to plant is in the fall.
If you have coneflowers, milkweed, rudbeckia and other perennial wildflowers in your garden, allow the spent flowers to remain attached to the stems. Once the flower heads have turned brown and dried, harvest the flowers and crush the blooms to remove the seeds. These seeds can be stored until spring or planted now in a prepared bed outdoors.
Some of our plants will self-sow. Many gardeners have had impatiens, basil and zinnias reappear year after year. Hellebores and Japanese maples often have seedlings growing nearby. When you do your garden cleanup, don't be too fastidious -- scatter the seed heads in the garden, or easier yet, leave the spent plants in the garden to help feed wildlife and let the remaining seeds self-sow next spring.
Dogwoods, redbuds, magnolias and buckeyes are loaded with seeds now.
Some seeds have longer dormancies than others; some seeds have hard outer seed coats that need to be dealt with before they can sprout; and some seeds need to go through a moist, cool storage period called stratification before they will germinate.
Most or our native woody plants would naturally receive cool, moist conditions in the winter months outdoors. This natural stratification is easily mirrored at home by storing seeds in your refrigerator in a plastic bag with moist potting soil. In Arkansas, they would normally receive cool, moist conditions for roughly three months, so do the same in your fridge.
Dogwood seeds are among the easiest to stratify. While dogwoods can self-sow, you can harvest as many seeds as you like before the birds and squirrels get to them. When the fruits turn red, the seeds should be ready. Harvest the fruits, remove the red outer pulp and place the cleaned seeds in a plastic bag with fresh, sterile potting soil. The soil should be moist, but not wet.
Label the plastic bag and place the bag in your refrigerator for the winter. In the spring, pot them up or plant the seeds in the ground, and they should grow.
Magnolias need the same stratification, but they also have a hard outer seed coat. They need to go through scarification-- a scarring of the seed to allow the seed to germinate. Commercially that is done with an acid solution, but home gardeners can physically scar the seeds. You lightly crack the seeds with a small hammer or abrade them with sandpaper or a file.
Seeds that need scarification can be scarified in nature by passing through the digestive system of an animal that eats them, or through the freezing and thawing processes.
Not only do magnolia seeds need to be scarified, but they then should be stratified before they will germinate. Harvest the seeds now, removing the outer red pulp. Hold the seeds between two pieces of sandpaper and rub them or use a tack hammer and lightly crack them. Then place the magnolia seeds in a plastic bag with moist potting soil and refrigerate, just like the dogwood seeds.
Buckeye seeds need to be planted quickly upon harvest, as they lose viability rapidly. While you can stratify the seeds indoors, you can also plant them in pots with fresh potting soil outdoors. Containerizing them contains the tap root that emerges from the seeds in the spring and makes future transplanting easier.
Growing woody plants from seeds takes patience. While you can grow a camellia or wisteria from seed, it can take five to eight years before the plant blooms. Also, many plants won't breed true from seed. A seedling may have similar flowers to its mother or be slightly altered or totally different; you won't know until the plant begins to flower and fruit. Patience is definitely required.
Growing plants from seeds is an inexpensive way to share your plants with friends or neighbors or to fill up your own yard. There are many books that can give you "recipes" (step-by-step instructions) for specific plant needs, and of course the internet is loaded with tips.
And as always, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again!
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Read Janet Carson's blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.