Seed Sowing & Saving Solutions

It doesn’t make sense to be gardening in the hottest months of the year, apart from regular watering and zuchini picking, but if you want to be eating vegetables through autumn and winter, January and February are exactly when you should be planting and tending seeds and seedlings. A couple of crops (leave a week or three between plantings to get an ongoing supply) of carrot, parsnip, cauli, broccoli, cabbage, kale, silverbeet, beetroot, leeks, brussel sprouts, just for starters! Warm soil and regular watering will mean rapid germination and growth.

From this lettuce mix seed.....

... to this in a matter of days

After several failures with carrot and parsnip seed this year, I’ve found a fantastic method that works for all seeds. Soaking it in water (ideally tepid) for two or three days before planting in seedraising mix gives a reliable, very quick (within days) germination and strong seedlings. Change the water after a day or so (I use jam jar lids, saucers or small plastic containers) and label your seeds. When you plant, don’t let the seedraising mix dry out at all, or the seeds will ‘switch off’.

I’ve had lettuce seed up with two leaves within a day of planting the soaked seed. Parsnip and carrot will take longer, but still a huge improvement. Planting at the ‘right’ time according to planets and moon phases also speeds the process. A great activity for kids who are interested in gardening because the process from seed to plant is pretty much observable. And quick. The purple broccoli seedlings (below, left) about a week after sowing and (right) beetroot seedlings just emerging about 4 days after sowing:

I’ve also been saving seed – my pea bonanza has yielded enough seed to feed a village and ditto the spinach. The spinach was especially sweet and productive, so I saved it (and tried to avoid cross pollination with other plants of the same family). Interestingly, the seeds are almost like spiny burrs – very sharp – and not at all like the normal spinach seed apart from their triangular shape. Will be interesting to see what grows from them – I suspect cross pollination, perhaps with the silverbeet nearby – and if it tastes as good as the parents.

greenfeast pea seed

harvesting seed once plants are fully dried

Peas, lettuce, beans and tomatoes are amongst the easiest seeds to save because they self  pollinate – pollen from the male part of the flower (stamens, which carry pollen on their anthers) directly pollinates the female part (stigma). In beans and peas, pollination happens before the flower even opens! So no worries about keeping your seed true to type here.

Lettuce, tomatoes, capsicum, chilis and okra self pollinate but can cross with other varieties. So if you have a red cherry tomato next to a yellow pear and you save the seed from fruit of either plant, there is  a slight chance (2 – 5%) that the saved seed will produce some sort of ‘mongrel’ tomato, a mix of the two. Could be the best tasting fruit you’ve ever eaten, or a bitter, floury disappointment.

Other plants, such as the brassicaceae (cauli, broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, etc) and the umbelliferae (carrots, parsnip, parsley, celery, celeriac, fennel, coriander, dill) or the chenopodiaceae (beetroot, silverbeet, spinach, orach) families are harder to save if you have many types growing and flowering at the same time. In this case the odds of getting a ‘mongrel’ is much, much higher. The brassicas are probably the most promiscuous plants amongst veges and will cross pollinate with any of their kin.

If serious about seed saving any of these families, you should aim for pure seed and keep species and varieties separate. Grow them apart – by distance (think about how far bees and other pollinators fly) or by timing (so they are not flowering together) or cover the blossom with a bag or pantyhose. Commercial growers will cage or grow plants in a poly tunnel and exclude all insects, until flowering when they will introduce bees or other insects into the cage.

See the flower shape of the celery (below left) and carrot (below right) and the typical brassica flower (left).

  Pumpkins and melons and others in the cucurbit (squash, zuke, cuke) family are another case altogether – they have separate male and female flowers on the plant. The only way to ensure purity of seed is to grow just one variety each season, or to hand pollinate and bag the flower until the fruit begins to develop.

Despite these issues, it is really worth saving your own seed – not only to save money – but because seedlings grown from seed tend to be stronger than overcoddled nursery stock and you can plant them small, early, to avoid the transplant shock that comes with larger seedlings sold at nurseries. A more diverse diet is possible, because nurseries only tend to stock common garden varieties. There is more than one variety of cauliflower, or capsicum (just have a look at seed catalogues from some of the small heirloom and heritage seed companies…) Importantly, over time you will have selected and adapted plants to suit your own local climate and environment – your very own seed bank. The ultimate food security.

7 thoughts on “Seed Sowing & Saving Solutions

  1. Genevieve Barlow says:

    Thanks for this Janet. I loved this information. It helps me understand what I need to do now.
    I’ll start soaking seeds today.

  2. Saide Gray says:

    This has been really useful for me too, Janet. Last week I soaked some radish, kale and carrot seed. I planted them all into seed raising mix on Tuesday. Today (Friday) all the radishes seem to have emerged and am watching for the other seedlings with anticipation. Such prompt and immediate seed responses are really encouraging, so thanks very much for sharing these experiences.
    with good gardening wishes, Saide

    • janet barker says:

      I reuse plastic sealable seed packets, vitamin bottles, envelopes, jars with good fitting lids. I have a large watertight, pest proof, tin box to put them all in and I also place small dessicant tablets (the ones that come in miso packets, or in vitamin bottles) in the box and some of the seed containers to make sure they all stay dry. Best to sow the seed again within a year or two, though it will last a lot longer than the use-by recos on commercial seed packets. Make sure the seed is totally dried out before you store it in a cool dry (dark?) spot. I also store my seed according to the planting phase/type (eg. root, flower, leaf, fruit) makes it easier to find and plant.

  3. Saide Gray says:

    I am wondering what the differences are between hybrid and non-hybrid seeds and whether one seed type is preferred. How does one perceive the difference or can one only know by knowing the history of particular seeds? I have only ever heard of ‘mongrel’ applied to farm dogs. Is this the same as hybrid seed?

    • janet barker says:

      A hybrid seed is the result of (controlled) pollination between two distinct and genetically different parents. Hybrids are bred for specific traits, such as disease resistance, or yield, or growth habit. The disadvantage is that the seed will only be good for the one growing season – you cannot save seed from hybrid plants because it will be sterile or else produce something completely different to the parent plant (the genes seggregate). Seed packets will be marked “hybrid” or “F1” (ask your nursery if you are buying seedlings) Hybridisation (or crossing) is done in a highly controlled manner so that all the resulting plants are genetically identical. This is an advantage for commercial growers who want crops to mature all at the same time, have a uniform appearance and other exactly identical characteristics. Not so good if disease wipes out the lot! It is a problem for growers in developing countries (or anywhere else) who can’t afford/don’t want to buy seed from multi-nationals each year and who have developed their own seed to suit specific microclimates and situations over many generations. It’s a food security – and choice – issue.
      Open Pollinated (usually heirloom or heritage seeds, but can be modern varieties) means the seed is pollinated by wind or insects or bees – not by plant breeders in controlled conditions. The resulting plants can vary genetically but the seed will always be viable and stable over time.
      My “mongrel” reference was more about crossbreeding that comes with mixing different open pollinated plants from the same genus, eg brassicas. So if you have broccoli and kale growing near each other and you allow them to flower at the same time, the resultant seeds may be broccoli, or kale, or some frankenstein mix (could be delicious, could be horrible). That’s about purity, not about viability. Plant scientists would be very upset if you called their hybrids a mongrel!

      • Saide Gray says:

        Thanks Janet, now I understand more about hybrid and non-hybrid seeds, I shall definitely favour the non-hybrid ones as an investment in the gardens future seed-bank!

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