Starting From Seed: The Natural Gardener’s Guide to Propagating Plants

Starting from seed gives you access to the world's vast storehouse of edible, ornamental, and wild plants. This fully illustrated, easy-to-use guide includes everything you need to know to collect, store, and grow seeds successfully.
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  • Introduction: Starting From Seed, by Karan Davis Cutler
  • Seed Specifics, by Peter Loewer
  • Seeds & Diversity: Edible Plants, by Kent Whealy
  • Seeds & Diversity: Native Plants, by Heather McCargo
  • Seeds & Diversity: Heirloom Flowers, by Marilyn Barlow
  • Seed Preservation in North America, by David J. Ellis
  • Getting Started With Seeds, by Jennifer Bennett
  • Caring for Seedlings, by Shepherd Ogden
  • Collecting and Storing Seeds, by Suzanne Ashworth
  • Seed Sources
  • For More Information
  • Contributors
  • Index

Starting From Seed

by Karan Davis Cutler

In 1989, I visited the late Father John Fiala, an amateur hybridizer best known for breeding lilacs and flowering crabapples (his definitive books on those two ornamentals, Lilacs: The Genus Syringa and Flowering Crabapples: The Genus Malus, were published by Timber Press). It was August, and as we walked through his Ohio garden, Father Fiala pulled seed pods off one lilac bush after another: "Try planting them," he said, "you may get something interesting."

What I got, nine years later, was better than interesting: three long rows of 10-foot lilac bushes, about 60 altogether, with flowers ranging from white to deep purple, each producing a new generation of seeds. Nothing was so wonderful that I considered buying a new grafting knife and becoming a commercial lilac grower, but my lilacs are handsome and fragrant enough to enhance any landscape. And they will enhance my landscape as soon as I make time to move them out of my vegetable garden.

sunflowers

Sunflower seeds can remain viable for up to seven years. (Photo: Karan Davis Cutler)

Nine years may be a longer timetable than you have in mind when you cover a seed with a bit of soil. But my lilac bushes certainly confirm that those brown parchment seeds—looking like tiny dried lanceolate leaves—were remarkable things! The 19th-century American author Henry David Thoreau, no stranger to the natural world, also was impressed: "I have great faith in a seed. . . . Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."

You, too, can expect wonders from seeds. They come in an army of sizes, from the dustlike specks of epiphytic orchids to the 40-pound monsters produced by the double coconut (Lodoicea seychellarum). And in all sorts of forms: the silky tailed seeds of milkweed; the striped or black elliptical seeds of sunflowers; the round, roofed seeds of oaks; the nearly square seeds of corn; the rock-hard round pits of cherries; the ridged oval seeds of carrots; and tens of thousands more.

However different in form, color, and girth, each seed contains a plant-in-waiting. It is more amazing than a genie in a bottle, as New Englander Celia Thaxter wrote in 1894: "In this tiny casket lie folded roots, stalks, leaves, buds, flowers, seed-vessels . . . all that goes to make up a plant which is as gigantic in proportion to the bounds that confine it as the oak is to the acorn."

There are acres of good reasons to begin with seeds, in addition to the fun of being able to point to mature lilacs or a row of heirloom 'Black Valentine' beans and say, "I grew those from seeds." For one thing, starting plants from seeds is a money-saver: You can pay $5 or more for a six-pack of 'Princess Victoria Louise' oriental poppy seedlings, or $5 for a quarter ounce of seeds, enough to produce 25,000 'Princess Victoria Louise' plants.

Seeds are the only way a home gardener has real access to the world's storehouse of available species and cultivars. Garden centers typically offer only one or two choices, but dozens, even hundreds more are available if you're willing to start with seeds—and to shop by mail. It's not only heirloom cultivars that you won't find at your local nursery, it's regional cultivars and even those plants introduced three or four years ago that have been superseded by something new. "Here today, gone tomorrow" is a phrase that could have been invented for seed-company inventories. Fortunately, there are specialized seed firms, small, independent seed companies, and seed-saving organizations—many are listed in Seed Sources—that give gardeners a chance to grow something other than mainstream cultivars.

By growing unique or heirloom cultivars or strains, by increasing stands of beleaguered species, you become a steward of our planet's botanical riches. Planting from seeds—and saving and sharing those seeds—is a crucial part of the preservation of Spaceship Earth, as the American futurist Buckminster Fuller called the planet.

Few gardeners take the commitment to protect and maintain our botanical heritage more seriously than do the members of the Seed Savers Exchange and the Flower & Herb Exchange, the largest seed-preservation organizations in the United States. As crucial as this work is, it isn't a grim undertaking, and among the benefits of being an SSE or F&HE member is the right to purchase or trade for seeds grown by other members.

Sharing seeds—becoming what an 18th-century Englishman called "Brothers of the Spade"—is a joyous and companionable, even intimate, experience, as these entries from the latest SSE and F&HE yearbooks make clear.

  • From an Indiana gardener willing to share bean and tomato seeds: "An extremely wet spring set planting back 5 weeks, so most of the limas and runners did not mature. I did get about 60 varieties of pole beans and tomatoes planted. All tomatoes have been fermented, washed, and air dried."
  • An Illinois gardener, who offers seeds of 271 tomato cultivars, adds: "'Eva Purple Ball' seed sent out last year may have been crossed or mixed. If you got some, let me know so I can send you a pure sample."
  • A California gardener explains: "I had a very bad year due to health problems. All requests not filled yet will be filled eventually. I apologize for the delay. Thank you."
  • From a Maryland gardener offering cowpeas, limas, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes: "To the gentleman who ordered 'Woods Prolific' bush lima—I am sorry I lost your letter, so if you will send me your address next spring, I will send you the seed."
  • A warning from a Mississippi gardener with bean, collard, corn, cowpea, cucumber, eggplant, gourd, millet, mustard, okra, pepper, and squash seeds—156 varieties in all: "Due to two hurricanes, okra plants were laid down and it was impossible to hand-pollinate. May have been some mixing of varieties."
  • A New Yorker writes: "Does anyone want some garlic escapees from the National Plant Germplasm Center naturalized in Geneva, NY? I gathered seed from flowering stalks. Can send half-sibs if someone has a Mendelian bent."
  • From an Oklahoma member with collard, melon, mustard, okra, onion, squash, and tomato seeds to share: "I am collecting pink and purple tomatoes. If you have a good one that you would like me to try here in Oklahoma, send a small sample. I will let you know how they did in a hot, dry climate."

The chapters that follow will give you a fuller picture of seeds—their biology and chemistry, their political, social, and environmental significance, as well as directions on how best to grow, harvest, and store them. Even with good directions, however, planting seeds isn't foolproof. Sometimes they don't come up. Sometimes they fall prey to disease, insects, or animal pests. Sometimes they aren't what you expect. According to humorists Henry Beard and Roy McKie's Gardening: A Gardener's Dictionary (1982), seeds are a "costly, but highly nutritious form of bird food sold in handsome packets printed with colorful pictures of flowers and vegetables."

All gardeners experience failures, so don't let one bad result discourage you. Nine times out of ten, your results will be stellar. As Ruth Page wrote in Gardening Journal (1989): "Remember, nature has designed [seeds] to want to grow. You and the garden seeds have exactly the same goal—what could be more reassuring."

And what could be more reassuring than this offering from an Indiana gardener and Seed Savers Exchange member: "I suffered two more mini strokes in mid-October, which kept me from harvesting seeds from tomatoes and peppers that I had just picked and boxed to save. I'm just listing one pimento and hoping for a better year."

That's the nice thing about sowing seeds: There's always a better year.



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