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Collecting and saving seeds

One of the most satisfying ways of growing plants from seed is from seed saved from plants in your own garden or from a friend or neighbour’s garden. It is certainly the cheapest method – providing the seed you are using is viable.

F1 hybrids and fruit trees

Most seeds saved from plants in the garden come true to type and look identical to the plants they were taken from. However, those saved from highly bred F1 hybrids, or seeds saved from fruit tree varieties, will produce a mixture of varied plants that bear no resemblance to the parent plant they were taken from due to cross pollination. They are more than likely to be so inferior that they are not worth growing.

Collecting

Seed should only be collected once it is completely ripe, but before it is dispersed from the plant – often a very fine line. So keep an eye on plants as the seed heads mature. Collecting seed before it is fully ripe will reduce its viability to germinate satisfactorily, or at all; or it may deteriorate and rot in store.

  • Whenever possible, collect the seed on a fine, dry day as this will help ensure the seed is perfectly dry. Seeds have to be dry for storage, since damp seed will rot or go off very quickly.

  • Remove seed heads, pods or capsules when they are nearly dry; they may fade to brown or become papery when ripe.

  • Place the seed heads in an open, dry paper bag or in a tray to dry further.

  • Line the tray with kitchen towel and leave somewhere warm.

Alternatively you can collect the whole stem, bunching several together, hanging them upside down enclosed in a paper bag.

  • Tie the neck of the bag and hang in a dry, airy place.

  • Shake regularly to release the seed.

  • Before storing, all debris should be removed by picking it out, sieving or gently blowing it away.

Large, fleshy seeds do not respond well to drying and should be left to mature on the plant, collecting them just before they are dispersed. Place a paper bag over the seed heads to prevent dispersal.

Berries and fleshy fruit

For seed enclosed in berries or fleshy fruit, you have to take care to remove all the fruit and properly dry the seeds.

  • Leave the fruit on the plant until it is fully mature.

  • Where possible, remove the loose flesh, then place the fruit in a sieve and gently squash to break down and remove as much flesh as possible.

  • Place the remaining seed mass in a jar of tepid water and leave in a warm place for up to 24 hours.

  • Decant off any flesh, debris and floating seeds. If necessary, refill with tepid water and repeat until all the flesh has come away from the seeds.

  • Remove the seeds from the jar once all the flesh has come away.

  • Pick off any remaining skin by hand and place the seeds on kitchen towel to dry thoroughly before storing.

Storing

Although the vast majority of seeds can be stored, there are some seeds that quickly lose their viability, do not store well and have to be sown fresh. This includes Anemone and Galanthus.

  • Once the seed has been thoroughly cleaned and dried, store it in cool, dark, dry conditions.

  • One of the best ways to store seeds is in a small airtight plastic box or glass bottle. Alternatively, place small amounts of seed in paper packets and seal in an airtight plastic box.

  • Store somewhere cool; a fridge is usually the best place.

  • To ensure the seed remains dry, use sachets of silica gel in the container, which will absorb moisture from the atmosphere. Most seed stored properly in this way can remain viable for at least two or three years.

Viability test

Here is a simple way to check whether saved or stored seed is viable (alive):

  • Place 20 seeds on damp blotting paper or kitchen roll on a saucer.

  • Cover with Clingfilm and place somewhere warm, such as in an airing cupboard.

  • Check daily and count the number of seeds that have germinated after seven to 14 days. Multiply this number by five to give the percentage germination or germination rate.

Most bought seed has a germination rate of 80% and greater. If your seed has a lower germination it would be worth sowing more thickly; if it has a very low rate then it may not be worth sowing at all.

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