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Dirty Fingernails: Some savvy advice on seeds
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Dirty Fingernails: Some savvy advice on seeds

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Raising local seeds

Locally grown seeds from The O’Hara Commons Seed Library are in big demand, said Director Samantha O’Byrne.

Q: I found some vegetable seed packages, leftovers from last summer. Can I plant them, or should I throw them out and buy fresh seed?

A: There is no single answer to your question because seeds differ. Some have longer lifespans than others. Onion and parsnip seeds are notoriously short-lived. Pepper and corn seeds live more than a year, but not as long as tomatoes and beans. Pea and lettuce seeds live for many years.

Hybrid seeds tend to have shorter lives than open-pollinated ones, no matter which vegetable they came from.

Seed packages have printed dates; the package will say “packed for such-and-such a year,” or perhaps there will be a germination test date. Those dates will let you know if the seeds truly were purchased for last year’s garden, or if they already had been saved from a previous year.

How your leftover seeds were stored makes a difference in their viability. Seeds are alive. They age slowly if they are cool and dry, faster if they are damp or warm. The best place to store leftover seed is in a jar with a screwtop lid, in the refrigerator or the freezer. Since our climate is dry, at least muggy summer days will not have caused the seeds to sprout and die in the package.

If you are not sure whether planting the seed is worth the gamble, try a simple germination test. Put ten seeds—each one representing ten percent of the total—in a damp paper towel. Seal the towel in a plastic bag or a jar. Set it somewhere at room temperature, which is good for sprouting, and in a spot where you will see it every day. Make sure the paper towel stays damp. If half the seeds sprout in about a week, they are worth planting. If only a few seeds sprout, send them to the compost. When most seeds are dead, the others are old enough to be no longer vigorous.

Q:What do you think about saving seeds from the garden rather than buying commercial ones?

A: What kinds of seeds? I save many flower seeds, particularly of the annuals usually described as “self-sowing.” They include annual coreopsis, cornflower, larkspur, love-in-a-mist, poppy. They require nothing of the gardener except to leave a few (not too many) flowers to ripen and drop seeds in the bed, or to circulate through a compost pile to a different flower bed.

I wish that I could grow all annual flowers from their own seeds, left to their own devices. Unfortunately, some annual flower seeds will not survive a Montana winter. If they are to be saved, they must be harvested, stored indoors, and sown again the next year. Other annual flower seeds might survive a cold winter but require months to grow to flowering size. If their seeds sprout when the garden soil finally warms, the flowers open only a week or two before fall frosts cut them down.

I also save seeds from some biennials like foxglove and some perennials like lupine and columbine. These are seeds which I allow to ripen on the plant and then scatter themselves. With these flowers, I am encouraging my favorite colors. I cut off the flower stalks of less beautiful ones before they make seeds. I also cut off many flowers on plants I want to propagate, leaving only a few flowers whose seeds will grow strong and well fed.

With these perennials, I do not know what the flowers will look like until the plants’ second year, when they bloom for the first time. If some are not the expected color—or at least a beautiful one—I dig out the whole plant.

If I want to start biennials or perennials in a different place, I often do so by bagging seedheads and then scattering the ripe seeds in my chosen spot. Letting the plants do most of the propagating work is my idea of a good partnership.

I do not save vegetable seeds, for two reasons. Vegetables often are hybrids, and the children of hybrids will not resemble their parents. Chances are slim that children will have the best characteristics of a parent plant. When I get only one chance a year, I do not want to waste either my time or my garden space on any vegetable that is not top of the line.

Even if the parent plant is not a hybrid, there is an excellent chance that cross-pollination has produced seeds different from the parent. To be certain that the zucchini seeds in my garden were the same pure strain, I would need to grow only one kind of squash. I would also need to be sure than no other gardener within the flight range of bees was growing a different squash. If pollen from another kind of squash arrived on the legs of a bee visiting my garden, my zucchini seeds could be an unexpected cross.

This is not to say that no local gardener should save seed. Some do so, quite successfully. It is simply to say that they are welcome to the work involved, to isolate their plants and keep their seed strains pure. It is not how I choose to spend my gardening time.

The second problem with saving seed is our short growing season. Plants must not only make seeds but ripen them. That often takes three weeks after seed formation, and many vegetables do not have that much time. Unripe seeds will not sprout, ever.

Many years ago, I allowed a couple of lettuce plants to bloom and make seed. I collected the ripe seed, sorted and saved it in the house for the winter, and replanted it the next spring. Considering the time and effort, my wages were in the negative range. Again, I decided to leave seed-saving to those who love the work.

I do know of a gardener who grows only Black-seeded Simpson lettuce and never buys seed. She lets some of her plants mature and lets the next year’s lettuce grow wherever it chooses. She likes that system.

Q: How many times a week should I water my house plants?

A: There is, sadly, no possible schedule. Plants drink water at varying rates which depend on their size, their pot size, whether days were sunny or cloudy, whether there were flowers, the season of the year. Generally, plants need less frequent watering in winter, but even that is not a rigid rule.

I do a quick survey of my house plants every day or two. With watering can in one hand, I use the other to lift the pot. Is it light in weight? Give it a drink. Does it feel as usual? Skip it. Or I may choose to touch the top of the soil with a fingertip. Is it dry? Give it a drink. Is it damp? Wait until the next trip. I spend no more time with many short watering excursions than with a few long ones. And every trip lets me enjoy and admire the plants.

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