Sowing tiny seeds and seeing emerging seedlings develop marks one of the best times of the year for me. Seeds in themselves are miraculous products of nature, ranging in size from coconuts to seeds so tiny that a cluster looks like soot. Each seed, even the tiniest, contains an embryo and sufficient food to develop a root (radix), appearing as a greenish-white dash on potting soil, and tiny straplike primary leaves. Primary leaves then can manufacture sufficient food to develop a true leaf or two, and then they take over manufacturing food for the plant from sunshine, water and carbon dioxide.
Those embryos inside seeds are alive, with limited life spans depending on the genus and species of the plant. For instance, most allium (onions, chives, etc.) seeds are viable for only one year. The longevity record holder, I think, is a seed from a Judean date palm that germinated after a 2,000-year dormancy. That seed and five others were found in a jar in the ruins of the palace of Herod the Great at Masada fortress in Israel. Three of the seeds were planted with a hormone-rich solution and fertilizer. Only the one germinated, and now is called Methuselah. It is a male tree, busily pollinating far younger female date palm blossoms.
Government regulations require certain viability of seeds from seed vendors, depending on genus and species. Tomato seeds, for instance, have a life expectancy of four to five years, but I’ve found that home-saved seeds last much longer. I hadn’t grown red peach tomatoes for at least 10 years, but my saved seeds quickly germinated when I planted them last spring. The fruits were smaller than they were when I last grew them (they must have crossed with a cherry tomato), but the wonderful flavor was still there.
Some commercial seeds with good rates of germination are still selling cheaply, but new hybrids, especially those hybridized by employees of the vendor, are selling for $7 and up per pack. Johnny’s Selected Seeds are the most costly I’ve found. Dollar stores sell seeds very inexpensively, but the rates of germination are low, and they don’t carry the best varieties. There are some vendors of high-quality seeds who are still holding prices down: Pinetree Seeds include fewer seeds per packet than most vendors, but their prices are reasonable. Nichols Garden Nursery still has reasonably priced seeds, and several others do, too. We gardeners must pay heed to prices, and learn to save our own. Many good vegetable varieties have been lost over the past few decades, and although most seed vendors do carry open-pollinated “heirloom” seeds, they can cut off that distribution in a flash, forcing gardeners to buy their hybrid seeds year after year.
Heirloom seeds (those that have been on the market for at least 50 years) are mostly open pollinated seeds, but that’s not a guarantee. Some are hybrids. Saving hybrid seeds is not a good idea for most of us, unless we’re attentive enough to dehybridize them, ferreting out the identity of the ancestors and getting some good fruit out of that. Generally, though, we can save seeds of ripe fruits such as tomatoes, and vegetables such as peppers and many other plants. Select seeds from ripe fruit only. Seed cases should be tan or brown, seeds dark brown or black for brassicas and many herbs, white for peppers (although black for Rocoto or Manzano chiles).
Tomato seeds are best fermented for a few days to destroy anti-germination elements, then rinsed and stored to dry in a mouse-proof location. For information on saving seeds of even esoteric foodstuffs, consult Suzanne Ashworth’s “Seed to Seed.” That’s a valuable book to have, spelling out which squashes cross-pollinate, for instance. Saving chile or pepper seeds is a gamble, since most are Capsicum annuum and will cross with one another unless separated by 500 feet.
For planting seeds, use bottom-soaked planting mix then sow seeds on top. Most seeds do best with a thin cover (about twice the thickness of the seed) of vermiculite or planting mix. Press the top to firm the seed to the plant mix, then water with cooled chamomile tea to avoid damping off, a fungus that destroys roots and stems at soil line. I use three chamomile tea bags in about two quarts of water for watering seedlings. For bottom watering, I use a cement mixing tub (about $5 at building supply stores) that holds a web-bottomed flat of planting mix-filled pots.
Send garden questions to firstname.lastname@example.org (new email address) or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.