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Sowing 'real' seeds in Spring

Happy Easter, to those that celebrate it!

I wanted to say something about sowing and sharing seeds, and why this is so important in protecting the biodiversity of our gardens.

Cuttings or seeds?
When you take a cutting of a plant, the plant that grows from the cutting will be genetically the same, or a clone, of the parent plant. This makes perfect sense if one has a named cultivar, as your new plant will retain all of the characteristics of the parent that you want to see. It also makes sense if you are propagating plants which are notoriously hard to raise from seed and to produce plants which mature and so flower and fruit more quickly.

There are two major pitfalls in this kind of propagation. Firstly, it is very easy to transmit disease from one plant to another in the act of taking a cutting itself and secondly, if you have a massed planting of cloned varieties in your garden, there will be very little natural genetic resistance to disease and fluctuations in growing conditions. SO if one plant is affected it is highly likely that they all will be.

With seed propagation, each seed is genetically unique and carries all the information needed to grow a plant to maturity. When a plant is pollinated by another plant (not by itself) genetic material from male and female plants will be slightly different. The seeds that develop even in the same plant, will each vary slightly from the parent plant. They may contain some traits from previous generations, just like people!

F1 Hybrids are often really good for disease resistance, yields and uniformity, but sometimes other qualities like taste, or fragrance, can be lost and they tend to be expensive. This is because, the way they have been produced, you'll get a lot of wildly different plants by collecting and sowing their seeds. So you need to buy new seed each year.

Naturally occurring, or 'real', non-hybrid seeds from open-pollinated plants, on the other hand, allow the gardener to save seed from those plants that do best in their unique garden conditions, allowing those slight variations, that wouldn't be achieved by taking cuttings. These plants allow the average gardener to take control of the whole growing process from seed to harvest or display, as well as safeguarding natural genetic diversity. I think this is pretty empowering.

Why save your own seeds? Why not just buy them?
One can buy seed from varying sources, but the variety available of non-hybrid seed is dwindling. Because the EC Directive and the UK Seed Marketing Regulations prohibit the sale of seeds that are not on the National List in this country and because it costs a minimum of £1,390 a year to get an ornamental plant on the list, the small-scale seed producers and amateur gardeners that might have more of these old varieties available are at even more of a disadvantage to larger, more streamlined companies.

As fewer non-hybrid seeds are available, this will reduce the diversity of plants growing in our gardens, as old, open-pollinated varieties get dropped for not being as profitable. After all, why would a seed company under greater financial pressure choose to keep these seeds on, instead of the more expensive F1 Hybrids that the gardener has to buy every couple of years?

There are two ways to stop this happening.

Firstly, there is nothing to stop anyone swapping seeds from their own gardens. As long as they are not exchanging them for money. We can now use GreenPlantSwap to create, or find out about, local seed swapping events.

Secondly, we can join an amateur seed club, such as the Real Seed Company or Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library or even start our own, if we get the bug!

Collecting and storing seeds
Seeds have to be ripe before you sow them; most need to mature on the plant before you collect them (check by gently tapping the plant to see if seeds are being released naturally). Some can be removed with their stems and hung upside down in a paper bag in a dry place.

Once seeds are dry, remove as much of the seed pods/other material as possible and keep them in an airtight container in a cool dark place. If you have any silica bags you sometimes get in packaging, use them, or sprinkle some rice or lentils, or a charcoal disc to absorb any moisture in the air. Many people keep a plastic tub in the fridge. Different species also have different 'use by dates' before they lose their viability.

Before sowing, check whether you will need to break your seeds' dormancy before they will geminate; some need to be frozen, some need to be soaked or the seed coats nicked or scraped.

Direct sow, container-sow or seed tray?
If you are covering a large area, say a lawn or wild flower meadow area, or want plants that are difficult to transplant e.g.) carrots or poppies, then make sure your soil has been prepared well (adding extra grit or compost if needed) and with weeds removed twice. Then scatter your seeds as thinly as possible. Firm the soil, water it, then sow. Lightly rake the seeds in or sprinkle with a fine layer of compost. Only do this when the soil is warm enough by your observation; the old wives tale is that it's only warm enough to plant when you can comfortably sit on the bare earth with a bare bottom! Luckily those with imaginations need not actually do this (unless they want to!)

Sow seeds in containers that are a little larger and that you don't need as many of. These also include plants in the bean and pea family who don't like root disturbance; they will appreciate 'root trainer' pots you can easily open from the side. Everything else can be sown thinly in seed trays. Be aware of how many plants you need at a time versus how many you will thin out, how many seeds may not germinate and how many plants you may lose to slugs. This is a fine art that I think one can only really learn from experience, but of course it's always nice to have a few extra plants to swap...

Depth, compost, watering
Some seeds need light to germinate (e.g. foxgloves), and so don't need covering. Most need only covering to the depth of the width of the seed, so be sparing. The main thing is that the seeds have good contact with the soil, so it's good to firm down the soil before placing your seeds and then after they have been covered.

The compost that you use doesn't need to be rich, because the seed already has a store of energy to allow it to send up its first shoot and root before it can photosynthesise. In fact, too rich a compost can burn seedlings. So use seed compost, or your own mix of compost, sand and leaf mould. Make sure it it sieved finely, as Rachel suggests in her fab post about compost, not just because of the rubbish you don't want in there, but also because getting even, accurate planting depths will improve the germination rate.

Water the compost before you sow, and you won't displace your seeds. Or you can water them from below. If you're starting seeds off indoors, cover your trays or containers with clingfilm or a taped clear plastic bag to retain that moisture, but make sure you remove it once you see the shoots poking through the soil. Then when the soil is dry to the touch, you can water again with a mister or fine-rosed watering can. Direct-sown seeds only need to be watered if there is a dry period of no rain and hot sun for a couple of days. Once they emerge, water sparingly, early morning or evening, if they need it, to encourage them to develop strong roots.

Always label your seeds with the date of sowing and the full name so you don't get confused! Some plants take a long time to germinate, others might just not be germinating, for a multitude of reasons.

There is so much more to say on this subject, but this post has already got very long so I'll save it for another rainy day!

Comments (6)

  1. Grower

    Helene U Taylor

    Great post with so much useful info!
    I must admit I am not good at saving seeds, I have not a good experience with storing own seeds so I tend to sow straight away those that can be autumn sowed and the rest gets deadheaded as and when.
    But I do sow Lilium regale and cyclamens every year, and although they take up to 5 years to flower they are easy to sow and take care of.

  2. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    I agree, an excellent post Gerry. The dwindling availability of open-pollinated non-hybrid seeds is a real concern. Sadly it is more in the big seed companies' commercial interests to replace them than support them. Just as it is more in their interests to cater to volume growers than amateur gardeners. As a result we have F1 Hybrids grown (they may say) for their taste, but also for the need to buy new seed each year; for their conformity of colour or shape on the supermarket shelf; or for their reliability in ripening at the same time, which are then sold on through the garden centres. When you read 'suitable for home freezing' on a seed packet, beware the unmanageable glut you will likely get later in the season.

    With more than 9 our of 10 heirloom vegetable varieties said to have disappeared over the last 100 years, we should do all we can to raise awareness and share those that remain.

  3. Grower

    The GPS Team

    For those that are interested, GreenPlantSwap also has a series of step-by-step illustrated guides to growing from seed in the Grower Tips section:

    Seed sowing
    Outdoor seed sowing
    Indoor seed sowing
    Collecting and saving seeds Seedlings and growing on

  4. Grower

    Amanda CW

    Yes - good post Gerry. The thing that strikes me is how few plants the big seed companies sell seeds for - a few hundred at most in each case. If gardeners and nurseries who don't collect seeds become dependent on them, we'll all grow the same plants, which is tragic for biodiversity. When you think how many plants there are in just this site's Plant Finder (21,000) ... that's a very low number indeed. The more gardeners collect and swap open-pollinated seeds the better.

  5. Grower

    Good Earth Gardens

    Thanks Tony! There are as many ways to garden as there are gardeners, but some techniques have been tried and tested over the years, even before the scientific knowledge improved to the point of explaining what is happening when you do 'x'. Everything I know I have learnt from my RHS training and from my own work in different gardens over the years and I have to be honest and say I haven't noticed any great changes. However, I bet there are gardeners and especially nurserymen and women on this site who have been gardening for many more years and seen a lot more change in how things are done, as well as changes in people's tastes. When I moved to Wales and subsequently the South West, I was part of the resurgence of organic gardening and the people I was working with and learning from were interested in pre-WW2 gardening, and ways to get around the use of harmful chemicals and finite materials, that mimic and work with natural systems. This has become far more mainstream than it used to be. I just want to learn as much as I can, really! :-)

  6. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    HI Gerry, waves, very interesting post, and you are dead right that taking cuttings rather than collecting seed can lead to a distinct lack of diversity. We should all collect seed as much as we can!

    Just for your delight, I have a WWII gardening book, reprinted from the 1940 edition, called "Make your garden feed you" which regularly makes me shriek out loud: here's what they say about growing peas:

    "Sowing pointers: peas should always be damped with paraffin and then rolled in red lead before being sown, as this keeps birds and mice at bay."

    What was that about not using harmful chemicals??!!

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