Seed Sowing: Strategies for the Winter-Weary Gardener, Part 1

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)
Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

by Cyndy Crist

Now that February has arrived and the hours of daylight are lengthening, many gardeners I know are becoming restless to dig in the dirt and nurture green and growing things.  I am definitely no exception, and a growing array of potted primroses, forced spring bulbs, and flowers emerging from begonias being overwintered inside can’t quite scratch my gardening itch. So I’ve decided to try my hand at several winter seed sowing and growing projects.

I’m going to start with three variations of fairly typical indoor seeding projects and will soon start a fourth, an outdoor approach to winter seed starting that I learned about at a Master Gardener meeting recently.  I’ll describe today how I’m getting started on the indoor projects and will report in later on the outdoor project and the outcomes of all four efforts.

Indoor Seed Sowing Projects:

Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)
Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 1:  I have undertaken three small, indoor projects, all very easy and straightforward but each just a little different from the others.  I’ll be interested to see how the results compare. One is a darling little organic oregano growing kit given to me by my sister-in-law for Christmas. It includes soil, seeds, and a bamboo pot.  It’s pretty ingenious, even including three little feet to stick on the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage and a lid that doubles as a plant tray.  The packaging was so great that it has been cute sitting on a shelf, but since the whole point is to grow some oregano, I resolved to do just that.  The pot has now been filled with soil, the seeds scattered on the surface and then topped with a little more soil, everything gently watered in, and a little plastic wrap settled across the top to create a mini-greenhouse. Now it’s safely ensconced on a shelf out of direct sun per package directions. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll remove the plastic, move the pot to a sunnier spot, continue watering, and wait to harvest my tasty herbs.

Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)
Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 2:  The second project comes courtesy of a recent find in the sale room at my neighborhood Anthropologie store.  The package includes organic parsley seeds embedded in a piece of paper accompanied by a plant stake made from an old teaspoon.  Part of the attraction for me, frankly, was the spoon stake that can be reused in my herb garden; I’ve also long been curious about this “seeds in paper” approach to growing, so this was my chance to check it out. Following directions on the card, I prepared a pot with soil, tore off pieces of the paper (looking for concentrations of seeds), laid them on the soil, covered them with a little more soil, and carefully watered them all in.  The stake is now in the pot, which is in a sunny space in my sunroom.  I only used a portion of the paper provided, so if I don’t give this first planting what it needs to grow, I can try again, either inside or outside.


Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)
Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 3:  The third project was inspired by an article in the January 2013 issue of Martha Stewart Living. This one required me to assemble my own potting soil, container, and seeds.  Following the idea in the article, I retrieved a plastic container and lid from my recycling bin (a decent-sized box that had contained romaine leaves) and made small drainage holes in the bottom with an X-acto knife.  Next, I filled the container with potting mix and sprinkled a mix of lettuce seeds on top of the soil.  Per directions on the seed packet, I added about another ¼ inch of soil on top of the seeds and gentled watered them in.  The lid is now serving as a plant tray and the container is in one of the sunniest spots in my sunroom.  If all goes well, I’ll be able to harvest my own microgreens in the weeks ahead, either by gently pulling out small clumps of greens or by cutting them carefully.

Tips to remember about Seed Sowing & Growing:

  1. I know that two of the most important things about indoor seed starting are ensuring that the seedlings get enough sunlight and providing enough, but not too much, moisture.  I think all three containers are small enough that I can keep them in places that get sufficient light in or very near a window in my south-facing sunroom, but I know I will need to pay close attention to them to be sure they’re getting enough light on a consistent basis to grow well.  Today was a beautifully sunny day, so things are off to a good start, but I know I can’t count on the same level of brightness every day.
  2. Perhaps even more importantly, I’m going to need to be careful about watering.  Drying out is deadly to tender little seedlings, but it’s also easy to overwater them and kill seedlings with kindness.  A deluge of water can dislodge tiny root systems before they’re strong enough to hold emerging plants in place.  Sitting water can cause dampening off and other forms of mold that are fatal to any plants, but especially to little baby ones.
  3. Humidity is also helpful to seedlings as they’re sprouting, so keeping a plant tray filled with water should be helpful.


Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)
Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)

I know what my little green babies will need, but I’ve learned the hard way that knowledge and good intentions don’t always carry the day.  If I manage to maintain enough focus to guide them along into stages of maturity that will enable me to harvest and enjoy them, I’ll be a happy gardener.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Late Fall Garden Pruning: Finishing Preparations for Winter

Good Pruning Tools
Good Pruning Tools (by Cyndy Crist)

By Cyndy Crist

To prune or not to prune – this is an important question to ask in late fall as we prepare our gardens for winter.  And it’s the kind of question I’ve been pondering as a strange fall has left me struggling to decide when to complete the final tasks in my garden.  Yes, the trees are nearly bare, Halloween is over, and our county compost sites are crawling with folks dumping leaves and sagging jack-o-lanterns.  But even though we’re nearly a week into November as I write this post, I still have a few annuals growing in pots and some perennials that I have yet to cut back because they still look fresh and green.

I have cut back perennials that will be a mushy mess if left until spring, and I have mounds of leaves and some marsh hay waiting to be settled onto garden beds to protect them from the damage of freezing and thawing cycles.  As a result, the woody structures in my garden are now more visible, challenging me to consider what, if anything, to do to them.  To refresh my memory, I re-visited a few reliable sources (primarily Extension Services here in Minnesota and across the country) to review guidance about late fall pruning.  Here are a few tips from that research.

Cutting Back Perennials

I don’t think of cutting back perennials as pruning, but whatever you call it, now is a good time to proceed with this task if you haven’t already done so.  I leave perennials that have sturdy stems and full seed heads to provide some winter interest, help hold snow in place, and feed birds whose food sources are rapidly diminishing.  By contrast, I cut back plants that are flattened by snow and get messy when they thaw (a good example is day lilies).

In contrast to woody plants, most of those we call perennials are herbaceous, putting out all new growth each spring.  Exceptions include some vines (for example, some varieties of clematis bloom on old vines) and plants like Russian sage, which is classified as a subshrub and puts out new growth on old branches. To know which is which, keep a list of the botanical names of your plants or save the tags that were in the pots and look them up if you’re uncertain about what to do.

Pruning Woody Plants

Pruning Illustration
Pruning Illustration (by Cyndy Crist)

If you’re considering pruning anything woody, proceed with great caution.  Some sources I consulted were blunt in advising no late fall pruning, while others offered more nuanced guidance.  Specific weather conditions, plant types, and plant health or conditions are elements to consider.

Specifically:  Don’t prune anything that blooms on old wood.  If you look at your lilacs or azaleas, for example, you’ll see that they have already set buds for next year’s flowers.  If you prune those branches now, you’ll get nothing but leaves next year.  However, flowering shrubs that bloom on new wood (like shrub roses and some hydrangeas) will still flower next year if pruned now.
Don’t prune anything that is still actively growing.  If you do, you risk stimulating new growth that will be more susceptible to damage from winter freezing.  Complete leaf drop is generally a measure of dormancy, but if in doubt, wait until mid-winter to prune trees and shrubs (February is often suggested as a good time to prune).

Like any good rule, there are exceptions to the guidance above.  If a shrub or tree has any damaged or broken branches, it can be a good idea to remove them before snow or ice can cause more damage. Damage can result, for example, if the weight of wet heavy snow tears a branch off, pulling down the bark and exposing the tender inner layers important to the health and growth of trees and shrubs.

Regardless of what or when you prune, be sure to use tools that are clean, sharp, and appropriate for the task at hand.  Keeping your pruners clean will help eliminate cross-contamination from diseased to healthy plants.  Sharp blades help ensure clean cuts and reduce the likelihood of torn bark.  And use of a proper tool will help ensure that you’ll get a good result that might not be possible if, for example, you try to use too small a tool for the task (which can also damage the tool).

Pruning Resources
Pruning Resources (by Cyndy Crist)

When you do prune, do a little research first so that you know how much to prune and where to make the cuts.  For example, the correct cut will generally be made at a 45 degree angle (a steeper angle leaves more exposed surface that can, for example, allow easier entry of disease).   Patterns of branch growth on a shrub or tree can help you determine where to prune in order to get the shape or size you desire or to “open up” a tree or shrub whose branches have become too dense. Lots of good photos and drawings are available on extension websites (my go-to site is University of Minnesota’s Extension Service website), other gardening websites, in free government brochures, and in books at the library.

A Few Last Words on Pruning in Late Fall

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, none of this is as complicated as it may sound.  There are a wealth of good resources available on the internet and at public libraries showing you where, when, and how to prune and what tools to use.  They’ll take you through it step by step, sometimes with great videos that “show and tell.”

If, after a bit of research, it seems wise to proceed, do so carefully and remember that there are worse things you can do than to prune something earlier than you should.  If you prune a lilac now, for example, you may miss those beautifully scented blooms next year, but you may end up with a nicely shaped shrub that will reward you handsomely another year out.

On the other hand, you don’t want to jeopardize a mature tree or special shrub that won’t be easily replaced.  So if you are in doubt, just wait. While we sometimes learn best from our mistakes, some outcomes are just too costly to justify the risk.  Here’s where the cliche is true: better safe than sorry.

Mulching for Winter Garden Protection

By Cyndy Crist

Marsh Hay as mulch for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)
Marsh Hay as mulch for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)
Mulching is a time-honored gardening practice, and this is a great time to consider mulching for winter garden protection.  Just a little work now will likely increase the odds that your plants will survive whatever Mother Nature decides to throw our way this winter.  Here’s a bit of information to help guide you.

What Is Mulching

Mulching is pretty simple and straight-forward – it’s the practice of putting a layer of an appropriate material over a garden bed or around the bases of trees and shrubs.  Options include natural and artificial materials. Before you make a choice, think carefully about what is likely to work best in your particular situation.
Raking up leaves for Winter Mulch (by Cyndy Crist)
Raking up leaves for Winter Mulch (by Cyndy Crist)

I prefer to use natural mulches, such as straw, marsh hay, shredded bark, grass clippings, or leaves, for several reasons. One is that they will break down over time and help enrich the soil. Another is that some (notably grass clippings and leaves) are available to me at no cost.  One word of caution, though – if you want to use leaves, be aware of their characteristics and shred them first if they’re not a kind that curls up and crumbles as they dry.  In my garden, I use the fallen leaves of our neighbor’s silver maple because they form a layer that remains relatively light and loose even after being covered by heavy snow. By contrast, I avoid using the leaves from our boulevard maple (I think it’s a Columnar Norway Maple) because they are large, thick, and remain flat after falling.  As a result, they form a dense cover that keeps the ground wet and frozen late into the spring.

Stones, plastic sheeting, newspaper, and landscape fabric can also be used as mulch, but each has potential drawbacks.  For example, plastic doesn’t allow anything under it to breathe and can provide a safe haven for slugs.  Stones may hold more heat than you’ll want in the height of summer and can be difficult to remove should you decide to change your beds. Newspapers will break down over time but will need a layer of something with more weight on top of them to keep them from blowing away, as will landscape fabric.

Purposes for Mulching

Winter protection isn’t the only reason to mulch.  Throughout the year, mulch helps maintain moisture in the soil, reduces weed growth, moderates soil temperatures, and decreases soil compaction. It may also reduce the spread of soil-borne diseases and, as noted earlier, natural mulches will break down over time and improve the soil.  In addition, mulch can enhance the appearance of a garden by keeping it looking tidy and providing a contrasting color and texture to the garden beds.

But as the growing season draws to an end, wise gardeners prepare to add a cover of mulch to help plants survive the cold months ahead. As our climate is changing and many of us are experiencing earlier springs and longer growing seasons, some of us are giving into “zone envy” and planting perennials not generally considered hardy where we live and garden.  Mulching these tender perennials can increase the likelihood that they will make it through the winter.  Mulch can also provide a critical layer of protection for things like newly planted garlic or recently planted perennials that, while hardy, may need a little help getting through their first winter.

When to Mulch

I think one of the things most misunderstood about winter mulching is when to put it down.  Many people think it is needed to protect the ground from freezing.  However, at least in a northern climate, no amount of mulch will prevent freezing.  What it will do is help the soil cool gradually in the winter and warm gradually in the spring and thus prevent the heaving up of plants that can result from temperature fluctuations that create alternating periods of freezing and thawing. Mulch can also help reduce how deeply frost extends into the soil, thus protecting the deepest roots of trees, shrubs, and perennials.  In practical terms, this means that it is best to mulch garden beds for winter after the soil has begun to freeze (in most of Minnesota, that’s likely sometime in November).

Another reason that I suspect gardeners are tempted to put down mulch earlier than necessary is out of a fear that snow will cover beds before they have been mulched.  According to the experts, however, it is perfectly fine to layer mulch on top of snow if necessary.  Yes, it may look a little odd, but it will still provide the protection your garden may eventually need if early snows melt or become compacted.  If we could rely on getting and keeping a thick, steady layer of snow through the winter, we wouldn’t even need to worry about mulching our gardens. In fact, I recall the owner of a Michigan nursery that I visited many years ago referring to snow as “poor man’s mulch.”  But since nature isn’t that reliable, we are wise to give our gardens a helping hand.

Laying Down Winter Mulch

While mulch used during the growing season is placed at the base of plants, trees, and shrubs, winter mulch should cover beds to a depth of 2-5 inches.  For this reason, straw, hay, and leaves are considered the best choices for winter mulching.  Per earlier comments, not all leaves are created equal here, so choose carefully if you decide to mulch with leaves.  Straw and hay are good choices because they “stick together” better than leaves and thus resist blowing around. I also find them a little easier to remove in the spring.  Some gardeners find marsh hay to be preferable to straw because it has far fewer, if any, seeds that can sprout in the spring, but either provides an effective winter cover.

Because your mulch will be covering the garden, there are several things you’ll want to do before applying it.  First, remove any diseased leaves or decayed fruits or vegetables that you may find; this will eliminate or reduce the chances of fungal or other problems next year.  Next, I like to cut some plants back nearly to the ground and leave others standing to help hold the mulch in place and add a little winter interest in the garden.  Those I cut back are usually ones that become slimy and messy by spring (like the leaves of day lilies) or that show signs of late-season disease (such as peonies and phlox with powdery mildew), while I leave standing plants with interesting seed heads  and sturdy stems that can resist snow and wind (examples in my garden are Autumn Joy sedum and Baptisia). Finally, once your beds are ready to be covered and if the ground isn’t yet completely frozen, it’s a good idea to give your garden a deep watering to help carry it through the winter.

A Final Word of Advice

Leaf and Wood Chip Mulches for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)
Leaf and Wood Chip Mulches for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)

In the spring, don’t forget to remove winter mulch once soil temperatures have begun to warm and plants are showing evidence of active growth (usually April in Minnesota). This will help prevent the growth of molds by allowing air to circulate freely around emerging plants.  In addition, I sometimes find a spot or two where especially thick mulch and deeper shade have kept the ground frozen, so uncovering that area will allow the soil to thaw, soften, and support plant growth.

Clearly, none of this is rocket science. Mulching is an easy step to take to protect your garden until it’s ready to come back to life next spring. If they could talk, I’m sure your plants would thank you.



How to Reap the Largest Garlic Bulbs in the Summer from a Fall Garlic Planting

Growing Garlic in the City:  Fall Planting for Summer Harvest

By Cyndy Crist

This year's garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
This year’s garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

I am determined to grow better garlic.  Given how much I use it in the kitchen, I want an ample supply of fat white or purple heads from my own little potager. However, although every clove I’ve planted has produced a new head, they have been much smaller than I’d like.  I’ve just planted a new garlic patch (the timing was just right, coming after the first killing frost and before the first hard freeze) and I thought I’d share the steps I took, based on University of Minnesota Extension research and the experiences of fellow Master Gardeners, that I hope will help me enjoy better results in 2013.

Choosing Garlic

There are essentially two types of garlic: softneck and hardneck.  For a climate like Minnesota’s, hardneck is generally the best choice, but some softneck varieties can also be successfully grown.  To date, I’ve planted Chesnok Red, Music, and Polish Hardneck, as well as the softneck Inchellium Red. With just a little research, you can easily identify varieties that suit both your growing conditions and palate.

The experts advise against planting garlic purchased in a grocery store for two primary reasons:

  1. One is that this garlic may have been treated to extend its storage life, so planting it may introduce unwanted substances to your soil and/or impede growth.
  2. The second is that commercially available varieties may not be suited to your particular growing conditions.  Using heads purchased at local garden centers or farmers’ markets avoids both problems.
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)

Getting Ready to Plant

The essential first step is to prepare the soil, working it well to a depth of at least five to six inches. Because my designated space had been well worked in recent years, I didn’t need to do much to loosen the soil.  The key is to ensure that the cloves can easily put down roots, starting in the fall and continuing in the spring.  Removing stones, old roots, and other debris also helps clear the way for growth.

Garlic is a heavy feeder, so once the soil was prepared, I worked in granulated organic manure fertilizer following the directions on the package and made sure it was nicely distributed to a depth of about 5 inches.  This is a step I’ve neglected the last few years, so I’m hopeful this will be a key to bigger bulbs in 2013.

Planting the Garlic

Once my soil was ready, I chose several healthy heads from this year’s crop and separated them into individual cloves.  According to the research, there is no single formula for spacing garlic.  In general, cloves planted close together will yield more, but smaller, heads, while those planted farther apart will yield fewer, but larger, heads.  Although I am seeking larger bulbs, my limited space led me to plant mine about four inches apart, positioning each clove with the base about three inches below the surface and the tip pointing up.  With my well-prepared soil, it was easy to push the cloves down to the desired depth without having to make holes.

Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)
Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)

I use two strategies for planting bulbs of all kinds that I find helpful.  One is to place them on the soil about where I intend to plant them, assessing the spacing after doing so in order to determine whether I have space for more or need to prepare a larger bed.  With garlic, since it’s best not to separate cloves until you are ready to plant them (and no more than two days in advance to prevent drying), this strategy helps me preserve the quality of my remaining garlic.

The other is to “refine” the soil as I plant each row or set of cloves/bulbs to help me remember where I have already settled some in.  I have noticed that no matter how much I think I’m paying attention, once the cloves or bulbs are planted and I’ve turned away to grab more, I lose the sense of where they are buried.  By stopping regularly to break up small clods of soil, remove any remaining debris, and smooth the surface, I can easily see where planting is already done.

Finishing the Job

Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

Once my garlic was planted, I thoroughly watered it in.  For a situation like this one, I used a watering can with a rose since it distributes the water evenly over a large surface.  By contrast, a harder stream from a hose or a watering can with a spout can displace newly planted cloves, pushing them too close together or toward the surface.  Finally, to discourage digging by squirrels, which seem magnetically drawn to freshly turned soil, I sprinkled some blood meal over the surface.  I have found this to work well to discourage animals from digging in newly planted spaces, and since garlic is a heavy nitrogen feeder, the blood meal will also support growth.

I still have one more step to take before I’m done for the winter, and that’s to put down a three-to-four inch layer of mulch, preferably straw (though I often use leaves from my neighbors’ silver maple, which dry and curl nicely and thus make a cover that maintains a thick layer of insulation without becoming matted down). This will protect the garlic from the harshest winter low temperatures as well as the heaving that can result from freezing and thawing cycles typical of northern winters. I’ll put it on in four to six weeks, depending on the weather.

When warm temperatures return next year, I’ll remove the mulch (though I could leave it on), apply fish emulsion, and keep the bed well watered.  I’ll cut the scapes once they’ve formed loops and begun to straighten (using them in cooking much as I would green garlic, another benefit of growing one’s own), and I’ll dig the cloves once one or two leaves have begun to turn yellow, using a large garden fork with care so that I don’t cut into the cloves or disturb any that are not ready to be lifted.

Given the vagaries of weather from one year to the next, how well this crop of garlic will grow remains to be seen. I’m hoping for bigger, fatter heads than I’ve grown to date; whether I’ll achieve my goal remains to be seen. At least I’ll know I took the right steps.  And if my bulbs are still small, I’ll blame it on Mother Nature.

Addendum from Dorothy

Tips for Growing Garlic on the Small Farm:

(based only on my own experiences)

For Larger Bulbs:

  • Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)
    Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)

    The most reliable way to get larger bulbs is to plant large cloves.  They increase in size every year and if you save them over time, you will continue to increase the size of your bulb.  If I am starting new plants, I order bulbs from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, a company that has provided me with the largest bulbs for the best price in the past.  They also have a wide selection of varieties.

  • Cut off the scapes (the green part of the plant that makes a curl-le-que in the early summer).  You can cook that part of the plant for a mild garlic flavoring to dishes, and it allows the bulb in the ground to receive all of the growing energy at an opportune time (when the bulb is sizing up)
  • The distance apart that I plant the cloves is based on the size of the bulb that I am starting with.  You can assume that you should get a bulb next summer that is slightly larger than the bulb you are starting with, so I try to plant the cloves about the distance that would allow the bulbs to grow freely without growing into each other.  I do try to get them as close together as possible however to avoid weeding as much.
  • Keeping the garlic bed weed free is critical to bulb size.  The weeds compete heavily with the bulbs and decrease the size.

Mulching and Timing:

  • Spacing of large garlic cloves - Spring (Stainbrook)
    Spacing of large garlic cloves – Spring (Stainbrook)

    Mulching is really, really important.  I have grown garlic over the years in bare soil (as pictured in the photo to the right), and I have grown garlic mulched heavily with straw.  Based on my observations, hardneck garlic will grow fine in our MN winters without mulch, but the weeds get started much earlier in a bare bed and are much more difficult to control

  • Planting Timing:  I have planted garlic as late as Thanksgiving and as early as late-September.  Each of the past 14 years has yielded a successful crop.  Planting early can be problematic if the garlic starts to sprout before winter sets in.  If it does, just make sure and cover it well with straw and you should be fine.  Planting late can be problematic if it gets really cold early and the garlic has not had time to start roots.  It all pretty much depends on what the weather decides to do in late fall and winter.  The main thing is…don’t worry too much.  Garlic, like most plants, wants to grow and it will adapt to a wide range of farmer mistakes.  Just take care of those weeds and water!
  • Harvesting Timing:  In Forest Lake, MN my harneck garlic is usually ready for harvest in early July.  A harvesting cue is to harvest when half to three-quarters of the leaves turn yellow-brown.

Harvesting & Curing:

  • Harvesting:  On the farm in Forest Lake, MN, I harvest garlic with a straight-tined fork implement (like the one in Cyndys photo above).  I place the fork on the side of a garlic row, push it into the ground about six inches with my foot and angle it underneath the garlic to loosen the dirt.  The bulbs can then be pulled up and out easily by the green stems.  Shake them off or brush off the caked dirt and leave the stems and roots attached.
  • Curing:  I then take the garlic to my shop, which is unheated and well-venilated (i.e., drafty).  I lay the garlic out in rows on the open-wire shelves that I start my plants on.  Some people hang the garlic from rafters, which is great also.  The key is to get cool-air circulation around the individual bulbs for about 4 weeks.
  • Storing:  When your garlic is thoroughly cured (4-6 weeks), trim the roots, taking care not to knock off the outer skin. Cut off the stalks about 1½ inches above the bulb if you plan to keep the garlic in bags. Recycled mesh onion bags are perfect for storage.


Saving Seeds: A Fun and Frugal Way to Garden

By Cyndy Crist

Saving out tomato seeds (by Cyndy Crist)
Saving out tomato seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

Many of us take the easy way out and purchase plants and seeds from markets and garden centers, but you can save money and have a little fun at the same time if you save seeds from your own garden (or, with permission, from the garden of a friend, neighbor, or family member).  If you keep a few tips in mind, it’s easy to do.

Before You Start

First, there are some rules of etiquette to consider.  While it doesn’t hurt a plant to pluck seeds or a seed head from it, courtesy dictates that if they aren’t in your garden, you should ask first.  Since deadheading plants generally is beneficial to plant growth, it’s unlikely that a request will be turned down (and it may even be welcomed). But unless you ask, you won’t know if the owner likes to let plants self-seed or to leave the seeds on to feed birds through the winter.  Similarly, seeds found on public land aren’t automatically fair game. Being public doesn’t mean that anyone is welcome to take whatever he or she desires, but in some settings, taking a few seeds is considered acceptable. Just ask first.

Check seed packets for patents
Check seed packets for patents

Second, some plants are patented, making it a crime to propagate them by seeds or cuttings.  If you’re saving seeds from something you’ve purchased, checking the plant tag or seed packet should tell you whether propagation is legal. While it may be easy to dismiss this issue, given the likelihood that the holder of the patent will never know if you violate legal restrictions, these protections are given for a reason and fairness matters.

Third, be aware that not all plants grow “true” from seed.  Many plants cross-pollinate or set seeds more typical of just one of the parent plants.  As a result, saving seeds from a particularly beautiful columbine, for example, may not produce a plant next year with the same flowers you prized this year.  In general, open-pollinated plants are better for seed saving than hybrids (think heirloom vs Big Boy or Early Girl tomatoes), which will be unpredictable in their characteristics when grown from saved seeds. In any case, results, as they say, may vary.

Overall, some plants grow seeds that are more easily saved than others and some plants are easier to start from seed than others.  A little homework will help you increase, though not ensure, the likelihood that you’ll be happy with the results of your efforts.  One good source to consult is the Seed Germination Database found at


Tips for Successful Seed Saving

Hollyhock Seeds (by Cyndy Crist)
Hollyhock Seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

There’s no real mystery to how to save seeds, but there are a few things to keep in mind.  One is that your seeds must be dry in order to remain viable.  Some plants make this really easy.  Marigolds, for example, form seed heads from which you can readily pluck and save individual seeds, and it’s easy to see the seed heads on sunflowers and hollyhocks.  Columbines also form a clearly visible seed head which you can remove and from which you can then shake the small, round seeds.

Obviously, you will have to let some plants “go to seed” in order to have anything to save.  In other words, you’ll need to resist the urge to eat all the tomatoes or deadhead all the flowers before they have a chance to set seed.  If you have a large bed, simply leave a few flowers on until seeds have been set, but do be certain you remove them before the plants drop their seeds or temperatures dip below freezing.

In deciding which seeds to save, choose plants that have performed best in your garden.  For example, pick the tomato that produced fruit with the best flavor, the bean that produced most prolifically, or the zinnia that showed the most disease resistance.

If you want to save seeds from plants that cross-pollinate but increase your chances of getting the results you desire, Emily Dydo, writing on-line for Horticulture magazine, offers three suggestions:

  1. physically separate plants known to cross pollinate (for urban gardeners, this may require more space than you have);
  2. stagger planting times so that different varieties of the same plant aren’t blooming at the same time; and/or
  3. create barriers to pollination (e.g., bag flowers or use row covers) and don’t forget that both wind and insects carry pollen.

One of the most important steps is to properly dry seeds before storing them.  As noted earlier, the seeds of many flowers dry thoroughly on the plant and are easy to remove.  Among edibles, the seeds of some plants, like peas and beans, dry right in the pod and are easy to save, and it takes little effort to remove and dry seeds from peppers.

Tomatoes require a little more work.  One recommended approach to saving tomato seeds is to scoop them into a jar with the gel that surrounds them, add water, and swirl the mixture daily.  After about 5 days, the seeds will have settled to the bottom so that you can pour off the liquid, rinse the seeds, and spread them on paper towels to dry.

Finally, don’t forget that seeds need to be stored in a cool, dry environment to maintain viability.  The best container is a glass jar that can be sealed tightly.  Multiple seed packets can be put in the same jar, and a desiccant (silica gel or a small amount of powdered milk wrapped in cheesecloth or a tissue) can be added to remove any moisture that may be remaining. The optimum temperature for seed storing is between 32 and 41 degrees, which makes the refrigerator an ideal choice.

Some Good Choices

Among fruits and vegetables, and as noted earlier, the seeds of tomatoes, peas, beans, and peppers are easily saved.  Because cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, and corn are cross-pollinators, they are riskier to grow from saved seeds.  Biennial crops like carrots and beets are challenging, since they require two seasons to set seeds.

Many annual flowers also make seed saving easy.  Again, sunflowers, hollyhocks, and marigolds are especially easy because the seeds are so visible and easily handled.  Others that work well are coreopsis, bachelor’s buttons, verbena, zinnias, and cleome, many of which will readily self-seed in your garden if left to their own devices.

As for perennials, it will take several years for a seed-started plant to reach a mature enough stage to flower.  This is why many people prefer to grow perennials from divisions or cuttings.  However, nearly any plant can be grown from seed, so with a bit of patience, you can give just about anything a try, and success can be especially gratifying.

A Final Piece of Advice

Although many seeds are easily distinguished from each other, it can be hard to remember what specific plant produced the seeds you’ve saved without some labeling.  At the very least, write the name of the tomato or pepper variety on a packet of folded paper.  Better yet, write a few notes about time to maturity, spacing needs, height, etc.  Come spring, unless your memory is a whole lot better than mine, you’ll be glad you did!