Submitted by Alan D.
The concept of gathering seeds in the fall and using them to grow plants in the spring is an ancient one. Seeds are unique in their ability to survive over long periods without losing their viability. In one extraordinary case, a Siberian seed that was still viable and was grown into a plant was dated to be over 31,000 years old!
So how do we do it? First, a clarification of terms is in order:
Here is the formal definition of vernalization: to shorten the growth period of (a plant) by chilling or other special treatment of it, its seeds, or its bulbs.*
The gardeners’ version of vernalization: a process in which you trick seeds into thinking (if seeds do think) they have gone through winter by placing them in the refrigerator. Place them in an air-tight bag or container in some lightly moistened peat moss for two weeks. After two weeks start them as you normally would, in Jiffy Pot trays under grow lights on a heat mat. When it comes time to take them outside (usually when the evening temperature isn’t going below 50 degrees), harden them off in the trays in a cold frame for two weeks, and then plant them.
Here is the formal definition of stratify: to preserve or germinate (seeds) by placing them between layers of earth.*
The gardeners’ version of stratification: again you are tricking seeds into thinking they have gone through winter, but this time you put the seeds on a coffee filter that is slightly moist and seal them in an air-tight bag. The bag goes in the fridge for a month. They then can be started in Jiffy Pots under grow lights on a heat mat. The extra two weeks of cold helps in the germination rate.
Here is another way of starting seeds: rather than using my fridge, I usually bag up my collected seeds and leave them outside for most of the winter, starting them indoors around late April or early May. I usually get a good germination rate because the seeds have gotten very cold over a long period of time. In addition to leaving them outside in bags, you can either sprinkle the seeds over the ground or put them in a pot with a little dirt outdoors, before we get a snow cover, in December. You can also put them out in early March before it starts to warm up.
In general, different types of seeds respond to different methods of sowing. Store-bought seeds need to be planted according to package directions. Gathered seeds probably need to be stratified in your fridge. Some seeds are sown on the surface and need soil contact, and some need to be in the soil, so there needs to be a thaw.
If you start seeds indoors you will assure that they have germinated and also control where they get planted. For me, the trick to starting seeds is to make sure I don’t start them too early; they tend to get leggy if they are under lights too long. I usually get them going under grow lights in Jiffy Pots and then switch them, when they are an inch or so tall, into a cold frame outside. Ideally, you can then plant the Jiffy Pots in your garden, when there is no threat of frost and the seedlings are a couple of inches tall.
Starting plants indoors is rewarding. It gives me a head start on summer and rewards me for the seed gathering I do in the fall. It is a way I connect more closely with the plants I am growing, and is my way of being part of the entire growing cycle.
Growing plants from seeds is one of the fascinations of being a gardener.
*definitions are from Dictionary.com