Rules of Germinating Saved Seeds

Seed catalogs arrived by mail in January, teasing the tempted gardener to dream of sun, hand tools, tilled soil, and a variety of seed packets.  Planning the garden season begins long before beautiful, colorful pictures arrive in 20- to 100-page magazines.  Hand-collected seeds or bags retained from last year have occupied the cold seasons in a basement or freezer.  The last frost date was mid-April; therefore, let’s begin preparing seeds for germination!

What is a Seed?

The question sounds elementary; however, it’s essential to understand that seeds are living organisms that are capable of absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.  What lies inside is an embryo protected by the “seed coat” or shell.  As the embryo receives moisture and the warmth of the soil and light, it begins to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen—nature’s way of preventing extinction.  As long as the embryo remained sealed, it is likely a viable seed, ready to germinate!

Heirloom Versus GMO Seeds

Across 50 years, open-pollination seeds, termed “Heirloom” seeds, resulted from only the best-performing plants in gardens.  Gardeners quickly claimed the Heirloom seeds outperformed store-bought produce and were saved, shared, sold, and remain the ideal and most sought-after seed.

Genetically modified organisms, termed “GMOs,” are derived from heirloom and hybrids, a cross-breed of two plants, to alter their traits using specialized equipment in a laboratory.  The seeds may contain animal or bacterial genes, herbicides, and DNA to create a hardy shell, when heirloom or hybrids would not survive.  While GMO crops are immune to pesticides, how safe is the harvest?

Start asking nearby homeowners if they use GMO seeds. Their plants’ pollen can travel for miles, infiltrating non-GMO plants.  Once it adheres to an heirloom, its generational history ends.

Dated Seeds

A seed’s goal is to perform a job, bloom, and prosper, possibly developing fruit.  Regardless of the seed’s age, the outcome is to produce a nutritious vegetable, fruit, herb, or flower.  Even within the perfect storage conditions, airtight with less than 10 percent humidity, within a room below 40 degrees, age impacts germination rates.  Some seeds may produce less than 40% germination, while others may endure beyond six years.  Labels help growers understand the vitality of individual packets.

Fruit and Vegetable Seed Averages:

  • Two Years: chives, corn, lavender, okra, onion, oregano, parsley, parsnips, pepper, rue, and sage;
  • Three Years: chamomile, leeks, lemon balm, mints, thyme, and tomatillo
  • Four Years: asparagus, borage, common beans, carrots, chicory, fennel, spinach, and peas;
  • Five Years: broccoli, broad beans, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cilantro, coriander, dill, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, melons, radishes, tomatoes, turnips, and watermelon;
  • Six Years Plus: basil, eggplant, lettuce, celery, cucumbers, ground cherry, pumpkins, strawberry, squash, Swiss chard, and zucchini.

Try the Baggie Method

An extra step often bypassed is to soak seeds in water overnight, the day prior to planting.  A good way to test your seeds is to create a greenhouse environment.  Plastic bags act as a vessel to transfer moisture into droplets; therefore, place a half-sheet paper towel inside a sealable baggie. With a spoon, drip water into the center and allow to spread to all corners, without pooling any excess at the bottom.  A spoon works great to equally space your seeds between the two sheets.  Seal!  Place the baggie in a warm spot, such as a window.  After a few days, check the moisture levels and germination.  You should see growth.  The number of seedlings will determine the viability of your remaining seeds.  (Allow the bags to be a vessel until you can transplant them to a pot or directly into the soil.)

Removing Seeds from the Freezer

Refrigeration requires seeds to maintain a temperature for the life of its containment.  One power outage and a humidity change by one-percent can lower the seeds’ germination rate by 50%. Freezing, on the other hand, is a practice used by seed banks around the world.  Containing the glass jar with a silica gel pack to remove moisture levels and vacuum sealing increases future planting success.  Seeds need approximately 24 hours to reach room temperature before removing the seed packets.

Not every seed has the exact same requirements.  Foxglove, for instance, needs darkness to germinate well.  Most vegetables have a relatively easy time transforming into a sprout; however, don’t give up too quickly on your plants.  Beans require up to 14 days to germinate, while eggplant, celery, and cucumber range between 14 to 24 days.  Most importantly, don’t forget to water when the surface is dry!



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