Off With Their Heads!

Off With Their Heads!

The heavy dew and a little rain, swell the warmth that is in the soil at this time of year and it is a good time to be a plant. Root growth is especially good and late summer bloomers are at their best. It is also a good time to spare a thought for those plants which have done their bit but which you might wish to bring back later. Saving seed in order to propagate plants is a practise which may be as old as humanity itself. It is only comparatively recently that the eye of the breeder has taken control of those wild or near wild plants which have been brought into our gardens.

Unripe Seed Heads

Unripe Seed Heads

Seed selection from cultivars can be a lottery. You might sow a hundred or a thousand seeds and 99% will be inferior to the parent but there is always the chance that one will stand out though it is unlikely to make you a fortune. Saving seed from wild plants can be very rewarding and can be the only way to keep rare, expensive or difficult to grow plants in your garden.

There are a number of dedicated societies and enthusiasts which, for the price of a small membership fee, usually publish an annual seed list donated by other members. This is a great way to get plants and learn from more experienced members every time. I usually buy some seed in this way every year but I always collect some from the garden as an extra insurance.

I am a great fan of meconopsis and grow several species and cultivars. I like to save the seed of as many species as possible especially of those that are monocarpic, i.e. they die after flowering. I also save seed of cultivars although I make no effort to make sure that different cultivars remain separate so I cannot claim that the progeny are true to the  parentage. The seed heads of poppies are wonderful, they are shaped like small furry bullets and when the seed is ripe the top of the capsule opens and the seed can be heard rattling inside.

Euphorbias are also worth saving if you have the speed to catch them. The seed capsules are shaped like a piece of medieval weaponry and explode when the seed is ripe. Try tying a small paper or muslin bag over the seed head to catch the seed. Geraniums can be equally quick to fire out ripe seed which can be problematic with seedlings popping up everywhere and pushing out other plants.

Stipa Tenuissima Seed Head

Stipa Tenuissima Seed Head

Grasses have become popular border plants in recent years precisely because they have such wonderful seed heads which dance in the slightest breeze. The seeds of a particular favourite can be collected a little later in the year by simply  combing your hands through the seed heads and on to a piece of paper. The resulting plants may vary somewhat from the parent. Some may be different in habit, height or vigour but usually they can be pretty close.

Grass Seed

Grass Seed

If you are saving seed for sowing then you have two choices. Either you can show them right away into pots or trays of seed compost and leave them outside to germinate naturally. Indeed for many seeds a period of winter chilling is essential. Or you can store them in containers in the salad compartment of the fridge or in a cool dark cupboard. The main thing is to prevent them getting wet and rotting. Small brown envelopes make excellent packages for storing seeds and keeping them viable.

Lots of other garden perennials can be harvested and sown. Clematis seed heads are like fluffy balls of cotton wool, each seed having a fluffy tail which helps it to be dispersed. These can be separated from the plant and sown on top of a gritty seed compost. The spiky balls of Echinops or Cynara can also be prised apart to reveal the seeds. A good sign to look for is when the spent flower head looks brown and dry and like it is splitting naturally.

Echinops

Echinops

Saving and sowing seed is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of gardening so as you go round with the secateurs try not to be too tidy minded unless you have a few brown paper envelops with you.

Ross Underwood