Gardener: Save seeds to help your favorite plants live on
One of fall's most pleasant chores is collecting, drying and saving the seed from my favorite garden flowers and vegetables. It's relaxing, and fills me with anticipation about next year's garden even as this one is winding down. I also love to share seeds with other gardeners. This preserves and propagates favorite plants across the land -- and propels them into the future.
You can collect most any seed, but I recommend starting with easy-to-save kinds like sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), Zone 3-8, or hollyhock (Alcea rugosa), Zone 4-8, and those whose seed is expensive to buy commercially, like gerbera daisies (Gerbera jamesonii), Zone 8-10.
Hard-to-find seed like Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Zone 3-8, are good candidates, too. Collect from as many healthy, robust plants as you can. This helps preserve genetic diversity and reduces the chance for passing on undesirable traits such as susceptibility to disease.
It's best to harvest from heirloom or open-pollinated plants -- those propagated by wind, insects and other "natural" means -- rather than hybrids.
Nature promotes survival by random variation, so you can expect heirloom "kids" to have traits similar to their parents; not exactly the same, but viable. Hybridized plants come from breeders who carefully develop unique offspring with traits bred into them by artificial selection. These traits may or may not "breed true" in the hybrids' offspring, so the selected traits often disappear. Some breeders even create genetic "kill switches" that prevent their patented products from reproducing at all.
To collect seeds, leave the flowers on the plant while the seeds mature, and then gather when fully ripened, usually about a month after the flowers fade. It will be crisp, papery or stiff. The seed should be brown or black.
Gather the fruit in the afternoon on a dry, sunny day -- moisture will promote mold in storage. Drop the pods into individual bags for each species. And if you want to collect all the seeds possible, tie small paper bags over the ripening pods. Cut the stem outside the bag when the fruit is ripe.
Once harvested, open the flowers and remove the seeds. Chaff -- bits of dry plant parts -- will mix with the seed. Winnow it out by pouring the seeds back and forth between two jars in front of a fan set on low speed. The lighter chaff will blow away and the seeds will drop into the jars.
After they're cleaned, place the seeds on newspaper or a plate or anyplace where they can safely sit for several days to ensure they're fully dry before storing. In humid climates, dry the seed for about a week in a jar containing packets of moisture-absorbing silica gel. Afterward, try smashing one with a hammer or bending it in half. If it shatters or snaps, it's dry enough.
Place your seeds in envelopes or a small container, and label with the plant name (botanical name, if you like) and harvest date. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry basement, interior closet or the vegetable crisper in the refrigerator.
When it's time to plant your seeds, you can sow then all or, even better, hold some seed back. You never know what the weather will do. If there's some flood, drought or other calamity, you won't lose your favorite plant and you'll have some left over to plant in subsequent seasons or share with friends --one of my favorite parts about saving seeds.
Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.