Posts Tagged ‘propagation’

How to Save Seeds, Part 1

Saving seeds from your garden is easy. With very little time and effort you can save yourself much time and money. I’ve been collecting seeds in my gardens for years and consider it one of the most important aspects of gardening.

Rhubarb going to seed

Saving plant seeds can reduce some gardening costs dramatically. Last year I spent over $100 on seeds for my vegetable garden. This year I spent nothing. Granted, last year was the first major planting of my new, big, vegetable garden. And this year I sowed many of the seeds left over from last year’s big purchase.  But sowing seeds that I collected enabled me to continue growing plants that do well in my garden, at no additional cost.

I’ve grown green pole beans in my garden for about 12 years. The only time I bought green pole bean seeds was about 12 years ago. At the end of each summer I save some of the bean seeds and the next year I plant them. I foresee repeating this process until I’m no longer able to stick my finger in the soil. One purchase of green pole bean seeds over a decade ago has produced a legacy of innumerable plants and dozens of jars of pickled green beans.

My green beans

Vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers all produce seeds that can be saved and sown. If you discover a plant that you like, that performs well in your garden, or that has expensive seeds, you may be able to continue growing it at no additional cost.

At this point it’s important to discuss important concerns about saving and sowing garden seeds. First, some plants are patented. A plant patent protects the rights of its inventor and prohibits reproducing the plant asexually. That means you aren’t legally authorized to propagate such a plant from cuttings, divisions, grafts, buds, and all other asexual propagation methods. However, seeds are a sexual form of propagation and aren’t covered under patent protection. Therefore, some gardeners hope to reproduce patented plants from seeds.

This raises an important second concern of collecting seeds. Seeds from hybrid plants will not grow true to the parent plant. A hybrid plant is almost every one with a fancy, copyrighted name. Virtually every patented plant is a hybrid. Plants with extraordinary color, shape, size, and growth characteristics are often hybrids.

Hybrid plants are created by cross pollinating two parent plants. The resulting hybrid offspring may have characteristics of the parents or may have completely different attributes. Because of genetic variation, the seeds of these hybrids will produce a mix of offspring that may not resemble the hybrid parent at all. To produce an exact reproduction of a hybrid plant, asexual reproduction is necessary; hence, the legal limitations of patent protection.

The only way to be ensure the seed you collect will grow into the plant you’re trying to reproduce is to collect seeds from “open-pollinated” or “heirloom” plants.

Open-pollinated plants are the ones you see all around you in nature. The flowers bloom, insects and wind transfer the pollen to other flowers, seeds develop, and those seeds grow into the same kind of plants to start the process all over again. Collecting and sowing open-pollinated seeds will usually produce replicas of the parent plant.

“Heirloom” is the name that the gardening industry has given to these kind of plants. Many plant growers and nurseries recognized long ago the value in producing seeds and plants with consistent characteristics. Seeds from heirloom plants can be saved and when sown will grow into the same plant. Thankfully, heirloom plants aren’t patented.

It’s also important to recognize the biggest limitation with collecting seeds from open-pollinated plants: they open pollinate.  That means that if you’re growing one heirloom tomato next to another heirloom tomato, they will cross pollinate. The seeds will produce hybrid plants and may not resemble either of the parent heirloom plants. If you want to collect true seeds from open-pollinated plants you need to be sure they haven’t been compromised or contaminated by another, similar plant.

With a focus on collecting open-pollinated plant seeds, the next thing to know is how the plant produces seeds. Annual, biennial, and perennial plants will all provide seeds, but not all in the same way.

Annual plants complete their life cycles in one year. They grow from seed, mature, flower, set seed, and die. Many of our garden plants fall into this category: tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, dill, cilantro. You’ll be able to collect these seeds the same year you plant.

Biennial plants have a two-year life cycle. They grow from seed, mature, lie dormant in winter, grow, flower, set seed, and die. Many of the biennial plants we grow in the vegetable garden are harvested before they produce seeds:  parsley, carrots, beets, onions, and parsnips will only seed when left in the ground for a full year. Flowering plants like Black-eyed Susan, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Nots, Sweet William, and some Hollyhocks are biennials. You have to wait a year to harvest seeds from these plants

Parsnips setting seed in the 2nd year

Perennial plants live longer than two years. They grow from seed and mature, but may take a few years before they flower and set seeds. Once they do, they can be expected to flower virtually every year. In the vegetable garden, asparagus, artichoke, and rhubarb are the ones most gardeners know (I treat horseradish as a perennial too, leaving it to return each year and harvesting as needed). The number of perennial flowering plants is too numerous to list.

Plants flower and produce fruit after pollination. The fruit may be large and edible or small and almost imperceptible. In many perennial flowers the fruit isn’t much more than an enlargement at the base of the flower where the ovary is. Some fruit may be pods with the seeds inside. Some may be husks. Some may connect to feathers or parachutes. Most of the fruit we eat has seeds inside (with the exception of strawberries); in some the seeds are edible (pomegranate) and in others they may be toxic (peaches).

Regardless of how big the fruit or how big the seed, the process of saving seeds is basic. You remove the seeds from the fruit, allow them to dry, place them in a clean container, label them, and store them in a cool, dry location. Some seeds will only remain viable for one year while others remain viable for centuries; it all depends on the plant.

Many seeds need exposure to cold temperatures before germination, also known as vernalization. If the seed you’re saving is from a perennial that can handle cold, hard winters, it probably needs to be stored in temperatures below 50F degrees (10C) for a period of time. Usually, four to six weeks in a refrigerator is enough. I store my seeds in an unheated garage or shed through the winter.

I’ll cover the procedures of how to collect and save specific seeds from a variety of plants in my next article.

While I save many seeds and grow much of my garden from them, I’m not advocating that you take business away from nurseries and seed companies.

In exchange for the opportunity to begin growing a new heirloom plant from a seed that a seed company provides, I’m more than willing to let them sell me hybrid seeds that I can’t reproduce. There are also many heirloom plants that don’t do well in my garden, but I don’t know that until I’ve tried. The price of that seed is written off as a failed experiment.

If I can save seeds from a plant I’ve grown successfully and reproduce it in the future at no additional cost, I will. But this represents just one aspect of gardening costs. I’m continually on the lookout for new plants to try in my garden. Some are heirlooms and some are hybrids. Some are seeds and some are plants. Each year I try new things. While I didn’t buy any seeds this year, I did buy a number of plants.

Saving seeds spotlights the ability of the gardener to find a specific plant that can be grown year after year with continued success in an individual garden. In my garden, only dill, cilantro, beans, and pumpkins are plants that I grow every year from saved seeds. This year I’ve also collected seeds from cucumbers, radishes, leeks, parsnips, shallots, beets, peas, vetch, and spinach. Some of those may return for years to come and some may fade away.

I’ll continue saving seeds and sowing them in an effort to find plants that provide me what I want, whether it be fruit, flowers, or some other result. It would be great to find another plant like the green beans that I’ve come to love so much for the many years of pickled green beans they produced.

Saving plant seeds doesn’t take much effort, but can pay huge dividends. Join me in my next article to find out more about it.


How to Propagate Lilies

Propagating lilies is easy. Though the image of an eccentric English lord patiently growing rare jungle lilies in a Victorian greenhouse may be intimidating, the reality is that garden lilies can be propagated with very little fuss. Asian lilies, Oriental Lilies, Tiger Lilies, and American hybrids all can be propagated in the garden.

Beautiful lilies and I want more

When cared for and left to themselves, lilies will quickly spread out and can fill a garden bed over the period of a few seasons. When a gardener intervenes to propagate them, the process is accelerated and new plants can be strategically and deliberately placed. Early fall is a good time to propagate lilies.

By their basic nature, lilies want to multiply and have evolved to do so in a number of different ways. Many plants will multiply through just a couple processes, but lilies offer no less than six methods of propagation. All are easy enough for any amateur gardener to undertake.

Propagating lilies by seed is an obvious method, but takes longer than the others. Letting the flowers go to seed and then collecting it is simple, but the plants require more time to fully develop from seed. It may be a few years before you see flowers. Professional growers and dedicated amateurs will cross pollinate different species to collect seed and develop new hybrids. While this may be a fun way to propagate lilies, it isn’t something most gardeners need to do, especially since their are better and faster methods.

Division is a propagation method most gardeners are familiar with and perfectly suited for lilies. Lilies grow from bulbs. As the plant matures, the bulb grows to a certain size and naturally splits to create a clone. It divides into two bulbs with the divisions called offsets. Each offset will grow into a separate lily plant. If left alone in the garden, each of the offsets will eventually split into new bulbs. This process eventually results in a clump of lily plants.

Propagating from the first division is easy. You can see this in your garden by looking for two plants emerging from the soil very close to each other. Carefully digging up the plant reveals the two bulbs. They’re still connected but are easily separated by hand or with a sharp knife. Each of the individual plants with bulb attached can be planted and will continue to grow. It’s best to do this after the plant has flowered so all of the plant’s energy will be focused on root development.

Lilly offsets

Separating just two offsets works well, but you can also dig up a clump of lilies and carefully separate each bulb for planting. Clumps may not come apart as easily as just two bulbs and often requires cutting apart the thickest sections. To keep your lily bed balanced and healthy, you should divide clumps periodically.

Some species of lilies, particularly Tiger Lilies, offer propagation with bulbils. Bulbils are small, round, dark-colored, mini bulbs that grow on the plant at the junction of leaves and stems. Each bulbil can be pulled from the plant and planted in the ground. If left in place long enough they may even begin to grow roots and sprout right on the plant. In a natural setting, they fall to the ground and grow where they land. Bulbils will grow faster than seeds. I don’t grow Tiger Lilies and haven’t tried planting bulbils, but it’s about as easy as it gets.

You can also lay a lily stalk with bulbils horizontally on the ground and cover it with soil. A new plant will grow from each bulbil. Remember that not all lily species develop bulbils so if you don’t see them don’t be upset.

A method I like is propagating with bulblets. Bulblets are young bulbs that develop underground along the stem root between the primary bulb and the soil surface. Though smaller than mature bulbs, they’ll grow into full plants. Dig up the lily, snap off each of the small bulblets growing along the roots, and place the main plant back in the ground. Or you can leave the plant in place and carefully remove the soil below it, digging down to the bulb. Along the way you’ll see the little, light bulblets.

Bulblets below the surface level

The bulblets can be planted pointy end up anywhere you want another plant. Wait until a few weeks after flowering before collecting them; this allows the bulblets to develop and increase in size. Ideally you should have at least two months of temperatures above freezing for the bulblets to begin growing in the soil. You probably won’t see any growth above the surface in the fall, but in the spring a new plant should emerge where each bulblet is planted.

Bulblets along the stem root

In cold regions you can harvest the bulblets and grow them over the winter for transplanting in spring. Most lily bulbs require between three and six weeks of cold temperatures before they’ll grow leaves. They’ll get that naturally outside, but for bulblets that you want to grow inside, place them in a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator for at least a month before potting them up. Then you can grow them like any household plant before transplanting later.

The fifth method of propagation is with scales. This method requires a little more effort but is the one that can produce the most new plants from a single parent. Lily bulbs consist of overlapping scales and each scale has the potential of developing into a new plant. Wait until after the plant has flowered to collect scales. Like with bulblets, you can either dig up the plant or carefully remove soil down to the primary bulb. Carefully remove the scales from the outer layer of the main bulb. Removing eight or ten scales from the bulb shouldn’t harm a mature lily. When you break off the scale try to ensure you have a section of the bulb base, the basal plate, attached to each scale. This is where the roots form.

Lily scales

Bulblets also consist of scales. You can collect the bulblets and then separate them into the individual scales but they may not be as developed as scales from the main bulb.

After collecting the scales, wash them and place them in a plastic bag filled with moist vermiculite, peat, or potting soil. Place them in a warm, lighted area and in a month or two little bulblets will begin forming along the basal plate. Like with bulblets from along the stem root, cold soaking is needed before leaves and a plant will grow, so after this period of development put the bag in the refrigerator.

Scales bagged up and ready to go

You can also put the scales directly into a moist growing medium with about a third of the pointy end above the surface. Over the course of the same period, bulblets will begin to form. After another month in the cold they’ll be ready for potting.

After either of these preparation methods, these new bulblets can be separated from the scale and planted in individual pots. Over the winter the plants will begin growing and should be ready to place in the ground in the spring. Don’t expect flowers from these plants in the first year but after a few seasons you won’t know which lilies came from scales or bulblets, or full-size bulbs.

The final propagation method is common to many other garden plants. You can propagate using the stems or leaves too. Pull off a leaf with a little stem tissue attached, dip it in rooting hormone, and put in in wet sand or a moist potting soil. Or take a stem piece and do the same. After about a month a little bulb and roots will form. The little bulb can be transplanted and treated as a new plant.

With any propagation method you should start with healthy, disease-free plants. If your lily is infected with a virus, each of the offsets, bulbils, bulblets, or scales will be infected too; viruses are not spread in seed. If you have a diseased plant it’s best that you discard it rather than try to propagate it. You can also coat the bulbils, bulblets, and scales with a fungicide before planting if you have a problem with fungus.

For an orderly planting it helps to label the result of the propagation so you know which plant is where. Or you can do as I often do and randomly pick spots for random bulbs, letting chance select the best location. That results in different colors spattered throughout the bed. Either way you’ll have ample new plants to fill in bare spots by using any of the easy lily propagation methods.