Every gardener desires to be able to reproduce their plants. With that in mind I want to share with you a few of the propagation techniques that I have learned beginning with seeds.
The most basic way to reproduce plants is by collecting the seeds. This seems to be a fairly straight-forward idea but there are some things to know that will help you be more successful in this endeavor. Before we get to those let me share some important concepts you may not know. Not all seeds produce the parent plant. If you have a plant that has been hybridized – joining different types of a plant to produce a new plant – then the seed is not going to reproduce exactly the same plant. That means that if you joined a Cherokee Purple tomato to a Mortgage Lifter tomato you will get a new tomato that has characteristics of each of its parent plant, but the seed you will get from the new plant will not necessarily produce the new tomato but will produce one of the parent tomatoes or some variance of them or the seed will be completely sterile and produce nothing at all. I’m not saying you should never save hybrid seed but for the most part keep it labeled as such so you won’t be disappointed.
Also you need to be aware that when you plant different plants in close proximity to one another they can and often do cross-pollinate, once again giving you not a true seed of the parent plant. You need to educate yourself about which plants cross pollinate and how to protect them from this (covers, distance, etc) if you are desiring true seed. Some plants that readily cross pollinate are: mustard greens, spinach, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, squash, cucumbers, melon, parsley, cabbage, chard, radish, beets, onion, and basil. Again, I am not saying you can’t save the seed but realize it may not be the same plant you had.
Alright – those are two important things to remember about seed production. Here is another – plants can produce seeds internally like tomatoes, peppers, melons, etc or externally like flowers, green leafy vegetables (flower stalks), etc. Some plants really don’t produce any kind of usable seed and must be propagated through other methods. I will cover those later.
Wet method of collecting seed is based on seed from inside the fruit:
Take a healthy and prime vegetable or fruit and cut it open. You don’t want a diseased or unripe parent to retrieve the seed from. Also realize that you must let the item fully mature in order to get the seed. Just because you like a cucumber young, doesn’t mean that the seed is mature too. Allow a few to get fully ripe and save the seed from them. Be aware that allowing fruit to stay on the plant to full ripeness also triggers the plant to slow or stop production so it is best to wait to the end of the season to allow your plants to mature for seed collection.
For seeds from tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, melons, etc -
Remove the seed mass and place in a bowl or glass of warm water. Allow this to stand a couple of days (2 to 4) to ferment. This will help kill off viruses and help separate the good seed from the bad seed. Bad seed and the pulp will float and good seed will stay at the bottom. Pour out the pulp, water and bad seeds. Then I put the good seed into fine mesh strainer and spray using the sprayer on my sink. I wash off the residue and then flip the seeds onto a dry paper towel or napkin. Separate the seeds with your finger so they will dry quickly. Generally I will turn the seeds over every now and then just to make sure they are drying on both sides and not getting stuck to the paper. Once they are dry sort through them and take out any that look damaged or too small comparatively speaking. Once I know they are fully dry I put them in a glass jar and store them in a cool, dry place and label them with the name and date. If mold forms then you did not dry them well enough and they need to be thrown out.
Dry seed saving
This is for most flower producing seeds from plants like beans, peas, green leafy vegetables, onions, carrots, corn, herbs -
These seeds are allowed to stay on the plant as long as possible to dry naturally. Again remember that allowing the seed to stay on the plant signals that their production is almost done and the plant will not be creating new material so do this later in the season or when you feel you have harvested enough. If frost threatens and your seed is still not dried on the plant usually you can pull the entire plant and bring it into a garage or shed that is dry and hang it upside down and allow the seed to complete its drying process. This is not the best solution but does need to be done from time to time. Most plants in this grouping will send up a flower stalk at some point and the flower will produce the seed. Familiarize yourself with what the seed pod looks like and keep close watch on its drying process. Birds are as eager for the seed as you are and are masters at knowing when they are ready. You will have to be faster than they if you want a supply.
Allow beans, peas, etc to stay in the pods until fully dry. Then you can break them open and collect your seed. I will also collect entire seed heads from plants and put them in a paper bag. Once they are dry you can fold the bag closed and shake it or hit it a few times and the seeds will break out of the pod and fall to the bottom of the bag – then just pour them out and blow away the dried pods and chaff. As with all seeds be sure they are dry before storing in a cool dark place and label them well with date and name of plant. Many seeds look alike and while we think we can remember which is which, we usually forget by the next season as evidenced by the rainbow chard which came up in my bed of beets.
Finally it is important to educate yourself on the shelf life of different types of seeds. Lettuce and onion seeds do best if used in the first year but that doesn’t mean that you won’t get any to germinate after three or 4 years. It just means that their rate of germination goes down rapidly the longer they are stored. Beets, spinach, cabbage, squash and pumpkin can last 5 or 6 years and still have fairly good germination but that is on average. I will say this – I never throw away seeds. I keep them dated and I try to use up old ones first but I still don’t throw them away unless they have been damaged by insects or moisture.
As our society continues to break down, there is a very real possibility that governments will interfere with the seed companies to the point that we will be unable to buy seed in the future. If not the government, we know that companies like Monsanto are modifying the genetic structure of seeds and causing great damage in the name of progress. Be cautious about where you buy your seed. Use heirloom varieties as much as possible and I encourage everyone who gardens to make an effort to save their own seeds. It is wisdom and wisdom comes from the Lord!
Now that you have saved your own seed, let’s talk about planting that seed for your garden. There is definitely a deep satisfaction that comes from using seed of your own to grow the next generation of plants to feed your family. I want to share with you some things that have helped me to become more successful in this and has greatly increased my confidence in supplying food for our family.
Let’s begin by saying that some plants do not do well as transplants – meaning it is best to plant the seed directly in the place where it will grow and mature without being moved. That doesn’t mean to say that you cannot grow the seeds in pots and then move them but they just do better if they are not transplanted. The reason for this is generally because they grow long tap roots very early and if you move them the tap root is disturbed and can be easily damaged or stunted. I am reluctant to post a list of these plants because, sure as the world, someone will comment that they have transplanted every one I list and they did great!! So I will just leave it to you to educate yourself further.
Okay Step 1 – Planting the seeds
Choose good seed. Check your seeds for size, color, damage, mold. Pick out the best ones to use. Always plant extra! It is just the nature of the beast that some of your seeds will not germinate. The older the seed the less your germination rate will be.
Use a seed starting mix if you can – here is the recipe:
- 3 parts peat moss
- 3 parts compost – sifted to remove large pieces
- 1 part perlite
Mix this together well.
Greensand comes from the ocean floor and is super rich in minerals and a high natural source for potash which helps fight plant diseases.
Soak the seed starting mix and then put it in your pots. It packs better this way and since it is very difficult to get the mix wet it is best to allow it soak a bit first. I pour rainwater into a large bucket of the starter mix and then just mix it up with my hands. Pat the mix into the pots in order to settle in and fill any air-pockets. Then choose your best seed and place one or two in each pot. I say two in order to help the odds of having at least one germinate per pot. Spritz the top of the seeds with a light mist of chamomile tea helps to prevent damping off disease. Then sprinkle some fine peat moss on top and spritz again. You can cover the pot/seed tray with plastic wrap to act as a kind of greenhouse until the seeds germinate but you must remove the plastic wrap immediately. I use the plastic tray covers that come with them and they work really well and give you about an inch or so of room for the first day or two. Once the plant is up then you have to remove the cover to allow for growth. Once you remove the cover you will need to keep a regular check on moisture.
Special considerations*** – some seeds need special treatment before planting. Scarification, stratification and seed soaking are three special treatments.
Scarification is when the seed coat is extremely hard and you need to weaken it to help germination. This is done by scratching or nicking the hard outer coating so that moisture can penetrate the seed. Examples are: Scarlet Runner Beans, Hyacinth Bean
Stratification is when the seed needs to have cold temperatures to prepare it to germinate. This can be done by putting in the refrigerator or even the freezer for a certain amount of time. Example: parsley, delphinium, lupine
Soaking is needed for some plants as well and is simply a matter of placing the seeds in a container or warm water for a period of time – up to 24 hours. Example: beets, English peas
Step 2 – Growing the seedling
Now you have all these little seedlings growing you have to pay attention to several factors: moisture, lighting, airflow, temperature and fertilization.
Moisture - most folks lose their seedlings due to moisture problems – too much or two little. The soil should never become dried out with seedlings because the tiny feeder roots are just not able to work as well yet. BUT if you keep the soil soaked then the little roots will drown and of course this will kill the small plant as well. Your best friend in this will be a good spray bottle that sprays a mist. The first days of seedling life it is good to use chamomile tea to spritz the plant – chamomile fights off the fungus that cause damping off disease. Periodically you will need to water the soil more thoroughly and it is always best to water from underneath. Topside watering can cause damage to delicate stems and also wash little roots up to the surface of the soil where they will die. I have top-watered seedlings but very slowly and carefully when I needed certain plants to have a little extra water.
Lighting - Some seedlings do not require light to germinate, in fact some will not germinate with light. These are usually covered with soil more deeply to keep them from getting any light. Check your seed information to determine the lighting needs. Most seedlings do need light and we will discuss those options.
The simplest choice for lighting by most folks is a windowsill. This is a natural source of light and works well, but there are some things to remember. If your window gets direct sunlight then it will also get direct heat from the sun. At the hottest part of the day this can easily burn up little plants. You will need to remember to keep a check on this and move the plants or close the shade during this time. Also bear in mind that your plants will be getting light from only one direction and therefore they will bend and grow toward that direction. It is best to give them a 1/4 turn every few hours to help keep them growing steadily. Finally you should check for drafts coming through the window. It is amazing how much cold air can come through the gaps in and around windows and sills. Plants can literally freeze in just a short period of time even though there is plenty of heat in the rest of the room.
We have been purchasing a new grow light every year to add to our seedling station. I buy the ones that have replaceable bulbs so that I don’t have to replace the entire mechanism when the bulb blows out. These lights work very well if you pay attention to the distance above the plant. They really need to be about 3 to 4 inches above the plant in order to supply sufficient light. As the plant grows you will need to raise the light. Keep the lights on for about 14 to 16 hours per day in order to allow them to develop a more natural growth cycle. This still makes for a longer day but it works well.
Airflow - A commonly missed principle for folks starting seeds at home but very important! Naturally speaking the air is never completely still outside. There is always some type of wind blowing even though it may be imperceptible to us humans. Plants need airflow – breeze – movement. This strengthens them, causing their root system to develop better and keeps the moisture levels more balanced. To accomplish this indoors you will need a fan of some sort. Yes, you can blow on the seedlings if you want to but I doubt that will last for more than a minute or two. I sit an oscillating fan about 10 feet away and turn it on low and let it blow most of the day. You will be amazed at how much stronger the stems of your plants will be. Move the fan to another location periodically to mimic nature and strengthen from all directions.
Temperature - This is a make or break principle in starting seeds. God designed plants to be grow in certain seasons of the year. It just makes sense that the seeds of these plants do best when we mimic the temperature of the soil that the plant was designed to grow in. There are many charts available online that will give you the optimum soil temp for germination of different seeds. For the purposes of this article I want to share with you a couple of methods specifically to warm the soil for your seeds.
I want to say first that we are not folks who have lots of money laying around to buy the high tech gadgets that are available on a regular basis. We have to make do or do without in most cases, so these methods are borne with that idea. Years ago while visiting a friend who had a nursery, he shared with me a wonderful idea on warming seed starting trays. Waterbed bladders and heaters. I couldn’t find a waterbed bladder but I was blessed when our son-in-law’s mom was cleaning out her attic and just happened to be throwing out an old water bed. There were two heater pads that were still working and had the cords and gauges with it. Tada!!! Praise the Lord!!! I began to watch the thrift stores and yard sales and was amazed that I found several more. Usually they were in a box of “we don’t know what these are” items for a dollar. Very simple to use – you place the pad on a shelf (something that won’t burn preferably) and plug them in. Set the gauge dial on the temp you want and put the probe where it can touch the seed tray. Works beautifully. As the plants grow larger, we turn down the temp a little at a time so the plant can strengthen itself a bit more. Now if you have space and have the bladder you can put the heater underneath it, fill the bladder with water and then place lots of seed trays on top of it. It would require a much larger area though and I keep my seedlings on a shelf unit instead of a large table.
The next idea is to use christmas lights. You can use bricks, rocks, whatever to set your tray on and place the lights underneath – woven amongst your stand items. You want to be sure there is no fire hazard and I would recommend turning them off when you are going to be away from home and at night when you are sleeping. But I have seen many garden forum posts that highly advocate this. In fact I have bought some rope lights to try this myself this coming fall.
Fertilization – Plants really do not need fertilizing until they begin developing their first true leaves and then you don’t want to do too much unless you are using a sterile potting mix. Sterile mixes have no fertility and therefore you have to add something. I use my own compost and that is usually enough to feed the plants till I move them outside. Fish emulsion, well diluted manure tea, comfrey tea are options – just remember that these plants are like children – adult size anything can kill them so go easy and dilute whatever you use.
Okay now we turn our attention to the next step which is moving these seedlings outside to their permanent environment. Obviously it would be too harsh to move them from a relatively climate controlled environment to the harsh realities of the world outside. You must first prepare them by “hardening them off”. The plants must slowly become acclimated to the heat/cold, humidity, wind, rain, etc of the outside and the best way to do this is by placing them outside for a little while each day. Begin with putting them in the shade for a little while during the day and increasing their exposure each day for about a week to 10 days. It may seem a bit tedious but I assure you it will pay off. When you do finally transplant them to the garden, be diligent to water them often to allow them a good start and less chance of shock. Don’t overdo it though and drown them.
Hope this helps a bit and I will be adding more information over time. One last thing – when you are saving your seed – be sure to share with others! :-)