“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
— Cynthia Occelli, “The Resurrection of Venus,” 2014
I love the imagery Occelli creates in this passage about the germination of seeds (and women’s self-determination). One of the joys of gardening for me is to experience the complete cycle of harvesting seeds, planting the seeds, and watching them accomplish their “greatest expression” by growing into mature extensions of their botanical species and producing seeds of their own.
This might seem like a romantic notion; however, saving seeds from harvests has become yet another politicized facet of our 21st century world. Today, there are more than 2,000 seed patents that make it unlawful to save and/or sow seeds produced by the parent plant. Most of these patents protect the ownership rights of four agricultural corporations that produce genetically modified seeds: Bayer (formerly Monsanto), Corteva (from the Dow/DuPont merger), ChemChina and BASF.
But GM seeds are not the only patented seeds. Since 1985, the USPTO has granted utility patents for non-GM seeds that are coated or otherwise treated by human invention. (Such seed patents are in addition to approximately 25,000 patents for hybridized plants that prohibit gardeners from propagating them through asexual methods such as stem cuttings).
Who knew such natural gardening tasks would become so complicated? Nowadays when I harvest seeds from my garden and then sow those seeds back into my garden, I do so in celebration of age-old gardening traditions and nonpatented seeds that allow me to sow what I reap.
Thankfully, the actual work of saving seeds is not complicated. Heirloom and other open-pollinated plant varieties can be grown from seed with confidence that offspring will have the same characteristics of the parent plant. Seeds from hybrids may not grow into plants that have the same characteristics of the parent, but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up with tasty produce or beautiful flowers, so why not experiment?
For most vegetables and melons, select plants that are thriving in your garden and save seeds from ripe produce that have the look and taste you want. Wash the seeds thoroughly in a fine-mesh sieve and then lay them on a paper towel out of direct sunlight to dry thoroughly.
Legumes (beans and peas) should be left on the vine until the pods are brown and the seeds rattle within them. I remove the seeds from the pod after harvesting, but other gardeners like to leave the pods intact until planting.
Place the dry seeds in an airtight container (old pill bottles work well), label the container with the plant name and the date of harvest, and then store in a cool, dry place until the seeds are sown. You’ll have your best germination success if the seeds are used within one year of harvesting.
Saving seeds from herbs and flowers involves removing seed heads or pods from selected parent plants (but be sure to keep some in your garden for foraging birds). Keep in mind that many herbs and flowers are prolific self-sowers, so save seeds only if you want more control over where they will germinate. Some herbs and flowers will quickly take over your garden, so you may want to remove the flowers before they set seed.
Now that many of my perennial herbs and flowers have finished blooming, I’m keeping my eye on them until the seed heads and pods turn brown but the seeds haven’t yet dropped. Other gardeners harvest sooner and allow the seed heads and pods to dry after picking. Either way, shake the dried seed heads or cut open dried pods over newspaper to collect the seeds and remove debris.
Many perennial herb and flower seeds need a period of cold stratification in order to germinate. There are three ways to accomplish this: plant the seeds in the garden in the fall to overwinter; plant the seeds in labeled containers, place outdoors over winter, and transplant starts in the garden in spring; or store harvested seeds in a labeled, airtight container in the refrigerator, and then either sow them indoors 8-10 weeks before the last frost date (April 28-May 15 in our area) or direct sow in the garden after the last frost date.
Annual herbs and flowers are usually easier to grow from seed than perennials; however, I’ve had a good rate of success with shorter-lived perennials such as dianthus, columbine, lupine, alliums, Jupiter’s beard, coreopsis, English daisies and balloon flower. Native wildflowers have been more difficult for me to grow from seed, primarily because they often take longer to germinate.
Cynthia Occelli’s book “Resurrecting Venus” shows women how to be empowered by their femininity; however, her message is also relevant to gardeners of any gender. She writes, “Your soul is drawn to the things that will help you unfold your most glorious expression. Give in.”
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer.