Saturday, March 17, 2007

Seed Buying - Method or Madness

Tools of the trade.
The tweezers are more often used for seed cleaning instead of sowing.

Meme (definition from Wikipedia):
a "unit of cultural information" which can propagate from one mind to another in a manner analogous to genes
Borrowed from biology, meme is a topic or idea that is presented for discussion and expansion. Similar to chain letters of old but without the evil predictions when the chain is broken, memes are often used by bloggers, especially gardening bloggers.

Way back on January first, May Dreams Gardens had an intriguing post regarding gardeners' relationships with their seeds. A series of questions were posted for answering and even though I'm months behind, I thought I would answer them.

What Kind of a seed buyer are you?

Do you carefully read all of the seed catalogs sent to you and then browse the Internet to compare and contrast all the options, then decide which seeds to buy?

Absolutely! I read everything sent to me, order more catalogs, and wish I had twice as many to peruse. And then I do it all over again on the Internet. Then it's on to making lists and endless revisions.

Do you buy seeds from 'bricks and mortar' stores and get whatever appeals to you as you are browsing?

Never from the racks at stores. The majority of seeds, as with bulbs, require specific storage conditions to retain optimal viability. Being stuck on display racks in high temperatures and/or humidity and wetness is not going to produce the best seeding result. Some seeds are resilient but many are fragile. I wonder if gardeners' lack of success from these rack purchases is discouraging them.

Do you buy vegetable seeds in bulk where they scoop them out of seed bins, weigh them and put them in hand-marked envelopes?

Not in bulk. A conscious decision was made to not make the vegetable garden too big (but this year's will probably be bigger). A lot of trialing is going on, trying to find the best kinds of vegetables and specific varieties that will thrive in our area. Once a variety is discovered that really likes to grow here and is a bountiful producer, the issue regarding bulk buying may change.

Do you buy seeds for just vegetables, or just annual flowers? Do you buy seeds for perennial flowers?

All of those plus trees, shrubs, bulbs, and grasses. There is too much variety out there to be that self-limiting.

Do you know what stratification and scarification are? Have you done either or both with seeds?

Yes to all of the above. Another type of seed treatment, it may be included under scarification, are seeds that require fire to germinate. In earlier days, dried grasses and other small flammables would be placed on top of the germination bed and lit, hoping to recreate the condition of a natural wildfire. Technology has improved on that, thanks to Kirstenbosch Botanical garden in South Africa where they've developed a product called Liquid Smoke. Small disks of paper have been impregnated with chemicals that simulate the conditions of a fire. Seeds and Liquid Smoke disks are soaked in water overnight and then sown. It works and has been a boon to germinating many impossible and difficult seeds.

Do you order seeds from more than one seed company to save on shipping or buy from whoever has the seeds you want, even if it means paying nearly the same for shipping as you do for the actual seeds?

My ranked priorities are:

  1. The type of plant and variety.
  2. A seed company with a reputation for excellent germination.
  3. Pricing and shipping costs.

My buying decision is always based on the first and especially the second. I won't buy from a few major sellers - Thompson and Morgan comes to mind - because of poor germination. Beautiful pictures, glossy pages, and non-sprouting seeds do not make a good combination. Other companies are dropped if seeds germinate that are not true-to-type or are completely different in color or variety than ordered.

Money is always a factor and varieties are ranked by importance from must-haves to I-wish-had-its. Having a wish list is a good thing. It keeps interest up and is another element to looking forward to future gardening seasons.

Do you buy more seeds than you could ever sow in one season?

Very guilty on that but I'm doing better. Take last year. I have one large bed in the front that is planted out in annuals every year. Last year I came up with a planting scheme using seeds bought in previous years and a few were seeds I collected. It was a wonderful and colorful bed, combining beauty and thriftiness for a showy display.

Do you only buy seeds to direct sow into the garden or do you end up with flats of seedlings in any window of the house with decent light?

Some vegetable seeds are direct sown: radish, beets, beans, and peas. But most of the vegetables and all the flowers are sown in trays or cells for transplanting into the garden. Vegetable seeds have the best spots in the windows, which is only fair because so many of them are started early.

Broadcast sowing has not been effective. Field weeds and wildflowers germinate and grow much quicker than the garden plants and would crowd out seedlings before they had the size to compete with them. I'm surrounded by large fields that contribute a vast quantity of seeds to every spot of soil, making life difficult for large plants, let alone seedlings.

My frost period runs through Memorial Day so flowers are usually sown during the first week in May for transplanting in early June. I won't have color until July but make up for it by having extended and abundant color throughout late summer and, if the goddess is willing, early fall.

Do you save your own seeds from year to year and exchange them with other seed savers?

I do save seeds from some plants, especially the early bloomers: Aquilegias, Alliums, Arisaemas (for the first time last year!), and other perennials if I notice ripening seeds. I haven't found mature seeds on the annuals but did save them when I had a longer growing season. My usual method is to not deadhead the plants and then dig up the seedlings when I find them. Their randomness gives the garden a casual look and, even though the garden is an artificial construct, makes for a more "natural" setting. I reap the rewards of additional plants without the fuss of tending to seedlings.

I do not exchange seeds because I have doubts about their quality and plants being true-to-type. I'm successful with what I am currently doing - growing scads of Aquilegia 'William Guinness', for instance - and don't want to sully it with unknown genotypes.

Do you even buy seeds?

Yes. Sometimes it is necessary because seed has been used up and other times because of old seed that has proven to have poor germination. And sometimes it's just because - it's always nice to dream.

Do you have a fear of seeds? Some gardeners don't try seeds, why not?

A resounding NO! I think fear of the unknown and not wanting to take a chance on a bad result are two of the primary reasons for gardeners not trying to grow from seed. I would give those folks packets of Marigolds, Corn, and Sunflowers to persuade them to try seeds.

My Mom and Grandmother were avid sowers and growers and I learned from watching them. I think some of the current generations have lost something when they don't have an example to learn from in their lives.

Do you understand seeds? I once bought seeds at a Walmart in January (Burpee Seeds) and the cashier asked me, "Do these really work? Yes, they do. "Isn't it too cold to plant them now?" Well, yes, if you are planning to plant them outside. I don't think this cashier grew up around anyone who gardened.

More than most people and yet my knowledge is pitiful when I think back to my old co-workers in Seed Physiology, Seed Health, Seed Pathology, and the Seed Lab, among other departments. All of them had extremely bright people in them, working on concepts and ideas that would startle most gardeners.

Do you list all your seeds on a spreadsheet, so you can sort the list by when you should sow them so you have a master seed plan of sorts?

I have to qualify this with a no and yes. No, I don't start out with a spreadsheet. I sort the seeds in order of sowing, basing the timing on when I want to plant them out, usually the first or second week in June. And then it's a matter of counting in weeks to figure out the sow dates. For instance, Onions and then the Tomato/Pepper/Eggplant group are sown 10 to 8 weeks out and the others are sown depending on how quickly they grow and available space for handling them.

I usually make a spreadsheet after the work is done to keep a yearly log, noting what is working or not working and refining the varieties that are sown. And, as always, to track poor germination.

Do you keep all the old seeds and seed packets from year to year, scattered about in various drawers, boxes, and baskets?

No. If they are scattered about I will never find them and won't remember to sow them. All seeds are kept in the basement (for the cooler temperatures) in a small Igloo cooler and, when that is full, in sealable jars. Mice have sometimes been a problem so tight lids are absolutely necessary.

seed containers or leftovers from a pill popping party, you decide

I have a huge stash of glassine and paper envelopes along with small plastic vials and have been known to re-pack seeds so I can fit more in the cooler

Seed storage and handling are very important if seeds are to remain in optimal health. 40 to 41F degrees are the ideal temperatures for storage and I used to keep all of mine in a refrigerator. There isn't a sense of urgency nowadays, so the basement has been satisfactory.

Do you determine germination percentage for old seed?

Yes but not by conducting tests with moist toweling. I do it by sowing and observing the results. I pretty much know at this point how long most seeds take to germinate and will resow or make a substitution if nothing or very few come up. I will also know how fresh the seed is and where it originated, factoring that in for future purchases and if I want to continue dealing with a particular company.

I'm always hoping for 90-100 percent germ on annuals and vegetables but am really happy with 80 percent or more. My expectations for perennials, trees, shrubs, etc is much lower as those plants may have a genetic predisposition for staggered germination as a survival mechanism. It can take 2 or more years for some bulb seeds to germinate.

I feel like I'm repeating myself but how seeds are handled and stored are very important to retaining good germination. But seeds do have a shelf-life, even under the most optimal conditions. Pansy and Impatiens seeds are very short-lived, a year at best, and then their germination rates go down rapidly, while others, such as Zinnias, can stay viable for years.


Carol said...

Wow, you are the "seed man". Your post reinforced some lessons I had learned in the past, but had nearly forgotten. I am particularly impressed with all those vials and containers to store seeds in and reminding us that some seeds need fire to germinate. I really wish I had learned more about seeds when I was in college studying horticulture or that they had challenged us with some difficult to germinate seeds.

Thanks for posting all this wonderful information.

Apple said...

I learned a lot reading this. I imagine as I go along I'll become more organized in the way that I chose, store and plant seeds but for this year it's pretty much trial and error again but so far so good.

ruralway said...

Boy are you a smarty pants!
I think one question pertaining to seed germination was left out-"Do you and your spouse fight over window sill space?".Joking aside, I'd like to encourage gardeners to grow onions and all things allium from seed. The variety you can get from seed grown onions is far superior to the average sets or seeds offered for sale. They are easy and forgiving and yield astounding results.

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