The process of propagating plants from seed you have collected, sown and nurtured is just magical. This year my aim was to learn more about horticulture and become a `plantswoman’. Rather a lofty ambition! I have had some success with the seeds I gathered last year. Our garden has been brimming full of poppies, honesty, love-in-a mist, sunflower and cosmos. I passed some Cosmos seeds to a friend who then gave a few plants she had grown from my simple gift to another friend. Not only has that 1 packet of seeds kept me in Cosmos flowers for 2 years, but my friends are enjoying the offspring too! That makes me very proud! I gave some sunflower seed to a young customer and he was fascinated by this method of propagation and wanted to know if `I thought big seeds produced bigger sunflowers?’ Unfortunately my agapanthus seeds which I so lovingly collected last Autumn did not produce a single seedling. This has been a disappointment as my Agapanthus plants are my pride and joy and I wanted to make new plants. I would highly recommend Carol Klein’s book `Grow your Own Garden. How to propagate all your own plants.’ I have learnt such a lot from the advice given in this book. However Carol seems to think that Agapanthus is easily grown from seed. Where did I go wrong?!
My friends who enjoyed sowing my cosmos seed have been asking what seeds are and how you collect them. Questions they asked were ` What part of the plant do you collect? Do you need the leaves and the petals?’ To me collecting seed is second nature. My mum loved botany in addition to gardening and passed this knowledge on to me. I would also highly recommend Sarah Simblet’s book `Botany for the artist. An inspirational guide for drawing plants’. I really did find this book an inspiration and acknowledge that a lot of the technical information I am including in this Blog Post has come from soaking up the information in Sarah’s book.
`An intimate understanding of botany will help any artist create vibrant and realistic art. Sarah Simblet’s masterclass provides you with an awareness and appreciation of plants and flowers and shows how to apply that knowledge to your art. Covering every type of plant, from the tiniest mosses and lichens to sumptuous flowers and trees, Sarah shows how to evoke their beauty on your canvas or page. Drawing on the rich history of botanic art and combined with Sarah’s practical drawing classes, over 350 beautiful illustrations and vivid photographs, provide an in-depth look at roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits and explain how to create life-like drawings.’
Anatomy of a flower
A basic flower has four parts, which are all arranged around the receptacle, the swollen end of the flower stalk. At the center of the flower are the carpels, the female parts of the flower. The female carpel consists of an ovary filled with ovules, a stalk called a style, and a stigma on top of the style, which receives pollen during pollination. In some flowers the carpels are all free and separate from each other. In most flowers the carpels are fused together and form one large, segmented ovary, fused styles and one stigma. It is the ovules which become seeds once they are fertilized.
The carpels are surrounded by stamens, the male parts of the flower, which produce pollen. Stamens are composed of an anther, which produces the pollen, held on a stalk called a filament. Sometimes the stamens are fused together into tubes.
Petals (collectively known as a corolla) surround the male and female parts of the flower and these are encircled by sepals (collectively known as a calyx). Petals are often highly coloured. Sepals are usually green. The petals and sepals vary in number and may be completely separate from each other, partly fused or completely fused.
To produce seed which will germinate into new plants most flowers need to be pollinated. Tiny grains of pollen from male anthers need to be carried to a female stigma. After landing on the stigma pollen grains germinate and grow a long tube through the style and into the ovary where the ovules are fertilized and mature into seeds. Most flowers receive pollen from other flowers of the same species (cross-pollinate), but some flowers pollinate themselves (self-pollinate).
Flowers need a means to transport pollen. Some use wind, so their male and female parts protrude in the breeze. Most flowers use insects, birds or mammals to transport pollen. Plants produce nectar, a sweet liquid food, which entices insects including bees. Often a flower has deep veins, called nectar guides to lead the bee towards the nectar deep inside the flower. As the bee searches for the nectar it brushes against the pollen on the anther, which the bee picks up and carries away to the next flower.
The RHS has compiled downloadable plant lists to help gardeners identify plants that will provide nectar and pollen for bees and many other types of pollinating insects. I try to grow plants that are attractive to pollinating insects and flower from early spring to late autumn. If I see plants at garden centres and nurseries with the RHS symbol I know they are a good buy. I was amazed at the number of bees and butterflies we had in our garden last Summer as a result of my careful planting. I had also bought a Nest box containing hollow plant stems to provide a nest site for solitary bees. It was a popular home for leaf cutter bees as evidenced by the way they chomped on the leaves of my roses! Never mind they made a good job of pollinating my plants! Solitary bees are vital for pollinating fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. They are non swarming and non aggressive so well worth attracting to your garden.
Fruits are the mature ovaries of flowers and contain seeds, which are mature ovules. Fruits are classified as fleshy or dry, then by the way in which they disperse their seed as dehiscent (opens) or indehiscent (remains closed). Mature, dry fruits are dry to the touch, while fleshy fruits, such as berries, have juicy pulp. Observing how and when seed is spread naturally is the first step in understanding how seeds germinate. Some dehiscent fruits burst quite violently to disperse their seed by propulsion and others use parachutes to disperse in the breeeze. Other fruits split and are then shaken by the wind. The papery fruits of honesty peel into transclucent disks, enabling the seed to drop out. A poppy capsule has a circle of tiny holes beneath its flat lid, out of which seeds scatter. Indehiscent fruits do not open, so they are dispersed in different ways. They may have hooks to catch in fur and feathers, juicy pulp in the form of berries to be eaten, wings to carry them through the air or they may use water to travel downstream. Seeds which are propelled are often spherical so they can roll across the ground away from the parent plant and lodge themselves in a new part of the garden.
Most seeds can be collected in Autumn. However seed collection can be carried out over several months. Spring flowering plants will set seed earlier than Summer flowering ones. Timing is important. You need to gather seed as soon as it is fully ripe and about to disperse, but before it does! Seeds are designed to disperse naturally when the conditions are best for survival and this is therefore the best time to collect seed. Seed must be collected on a dry day when the seedheads have no moisture on them. All you need is a pair of secateurs and a supply of old envelopes or paper bags. Never use plastic bags as the plant matter can sweat and go mouldy. Write the name of the plant on the paperbag if you know it. (alternatively I snip a variety of seedheads from friends gardens and call this bag Pot Luck Seeds!) Place a paper bag over the flower stems and seed heads and cut them, swiftly turning the bag right way up again. The whole seedhead can be cut with a length of stem attached.
Store any seed you gather with the stems still attached in the paperbag and hang it upside down in a dry and airy place so the ripening process continues.
Cleaning and Storing Seed
Seedpods and cases can retain moisture so it is important to clean and store the seed promptly. A lot of seed will fall out of seedpods as they dry out and fall to the bottom of the bag.
Spread the contents of the collection bag on a large piece of plain paper. (Better than newspaper as you can see the seeds more easily) Fold the paper down the centre before you start as it makes it easier to decant into packets when the seed is clean. Pick detritus away by hand. Blow lightly to winnow, separating seed from dust and debris. It can be difficult to remove the last bit of powdery dust. As long as everything is dry, it should store well even with a bit of chaff left in. Some seed heads are spiky like European sea-hollies. The spiky spines protect flowers and seeds from grazing animals, so are a bit prickly to collect and clean the seeds. I found the easiest way to persuade the seeds to fall out is to use a pair of tweezers. Separating the chaff from the seed is an immensely rewarding activity. The process is quite time-consuming. However the anticipation of all those beautiful plants that will eventually emerge is so exciting!
You can start sowing cleaned seed immediately or store the seeds in envelopes, writing clearly the name of the variety and the date of collection. Store packets in an airtight tin out of direct sunlight. Uneven temperatures during storage are one of the main reasons seeds fail to germinate. Last year I kept my seed in a cupboard and I think this was a mistake as it was too warm. The other place to avoid is a green house as temperatures can vary hugely. This year I think I will store them in the garage which is out of direct sunlight and cooler than the house, but not as cold as the shed.
I love these Burgon and Ball Seed Storage Envelopes. They are invaluable to save, label and store your precious seeds and they look quite `posh’ if you give seeds away to friends!
As evidenced by all my lovely Seed Packets my harvest seems to have been quite successful this year. I want to share with you what the individual seeds look like I have collected.
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I would love to hear about any successes you have with growing plants from collected seed.