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.
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.
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.
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.