SAVING YOUR OWN SEEDS To get a better understanding of why we save seeds we need to research how plants propagate themselves METHODS A PLANT USES TO PROPAGATE ITS SELF SEEDS eg dandelion “clocks” Acorns (spreading methods – wind, animal, etc) ROOT SUCKERS FROM OFF THE ROOTS eg plum suckers / mints STEMS / BRACHES HITTING GROUND eg brambles TUBERS – eg Jerusalem artichokes, BULBS – eg tree onions, garlic ANNUALS – plants which need to set seed each year in order to survive – the roots will die back into the soil once the plant has set seed. In a wild system annuals are the least common plants due to their need for open ground to set seed and germinate. Annuals will be found on the edges of wild plant guilds where there is disturbance in the soil from the habits of other species (humans/animals). Many of our staple food crops are “annuals” - however many are overwintering – that is that they are sown in the autumn to crop through in the spring/ summer. Example – wheat, beans, peas, cabbage. BIENNIALS – Plants that set seed in the second year from germination. Some plants need a whole year in order to establish a strong root system before going into there seed cycle. In wild systems, biennials are also not common, again due to their need to rebuild root systems every other year. Hence you will find them close to annuals, where the disturbed ground is. Again, many of our staples are biennials. Carrots, beetroot, parsnips, and many other root crops go to seed the in the second year after sowing. However, plants that are considered biennial can become annual if the plant is stressed in the first year causing the plant to go to seed. Stressing is caused by lack of water, sudden heat or light changes, limited root space to expand. PERENNIALS – Plants that have a life beyond 2 yrs. Potentially a perennial could be three years life (sometimes called a triennial) or over 2000 yrs old! Perennials form the bulk of all the plants on the planet. They are the base plant of wild systems (woodlands), since they do not depend on reseeding each year, hence can go straight into flower each spring without having to go through germination from seed. Most of what we see everyday are perennials. Eg oak tree, nettles, wild grasses. However, there is some room for potential confusion in that what are considered annuals can behave like perennials by stem/root propagation. For example, trailing plants like Squash, if not killed off by the cold will simply keep growing, and rooting through the stems hitting the ground and rooting; in a sense, it is making a new plant, but it has also come from the same plant that rooted it and is still connected to it. Potentially the “plant” could continue forever, provided that the conditions for growth were there (warmth, light, water). And on the other end of the spectrum perennials can behave like annuals, reseeding each year and growing new plants in the spring, the difference being that the roots survive in the ground. Some perennial plants develop biennialized seeding patterns (biennializing)– where they set seed once every two years, for example bramley apples, putting on a big crop once every two years. Some perennial plants only fruit once every few years (3yrs – 7 yrs) depending on weather conditions, eg beech or oak tree. This does not affect its status as a perennial plant. For more info about edible and medicinal plants see the Plants For A Future website www.pfaf.org. Summary; Annuals require yearly propagation which is most common through the practice of saving seed. Biennials behave similar to annuals, yet because they set seed every two years so, if you want to grow them year on year with your own seed, you will need to have plants on both cycles. Perennials, being significantly easier to grow but much slower to produce in the first few years from seed, are more commonly propagated through taking cuttings of stem, bud or root. WHY SAVE YOUR OWN SEEDS WHEN PLANTS CAN SPREAD THEM SELVES NATURALLY? - Most of our staple foods come from annuals, which would otherwise not survive without the practice of cultivation, and seed saving. Some of these staples are food plants that have been chosen and created through many generations of plant breeding, for there particular edible characteristics; yield, taste, ease of harvesting. Without us they would probably not exist. Saving the seeds from these plants keeps them surviving. -Seeds have huge value. Saving your own seeds can save you loads of money having to buy seeds in. -Plants have massive potential to spread themselves. One plant can produce thousands of seeds. When you save your own seeds you have many to re-sow and give away. - By going through the process of saving seeds - the full cycle of the plant, participating in each stage and completing the cycle by re-sowing the seeds you’ve saved -, you develop a deeper understanding of the plant. Saving seeds is a step in completing the loop of “food to mouth to earth”, and is another method of increasing your independence from current economical systems. - By saving the seeds from your homegrown plants you are allowing them to subtly adapt to the growing environment and your own growing methods and cycles. - Seeds are very transportable. It’s far easier to travel with seeds than it is with plants. SOME PLANT SPECIFICS - information about seeding cycles Root crops – most of our common root crops are biennial and will seed in the second year. Root crops that are prone to damage outdoors in the winter can be transplanted to the polytunnel in Nov. Leaf crops – Nearly all common salad plants that are sown in the spring will go to seed by the summer. (Annual). Hardy salads are commonly sown in the autumn so as to overwinter and give picking throughout the cold months. These sowings will go to seed in the spring. Brassicas (cabbage, kale..) usually behave like biennials unless stressed. This means that they will tend to over winter and go to seed in the spring, setting seed by about midsummer. Flower crops – Many flowers are a mix of perennials and annuals. Since one wants the flowers of the plant, annual flowering plants will all be sown in the spring so as let them go to seed in the autumn. Seed crops – Annual patterns of seed crops fall into two main categories – those from spring sowings and those from overwintering. Grains are sown both in March – may (spring sowing) and august – oct (overwintering). The overwintering grains will crop around mid July and the spring sowings will crop around autumn equinox (mid sep) Legumes ( beans and peas ) follow the grain cycles but usually have a slightly shorter seeding cycle, depending on what variety of legume it is. Broad beans and the hardy peas ( particularly the round seeded varieties) are sown overwintering in Oct – Nov, or even December and continuously throughout the winter in sheltered warm areas ( down south) as well as throughout spring. In the north there will be overwintering sowings and spring sowings. Less hardy beans will be sown late spring. Over wintering sowings will be cropping by May and the spring sowings will crop throughout the summer. Continual sowings give continuity. Many sowings between July and Sep will not have the time to produce seed, so would be used as green manure. BASIC STAGES OF PLANT GROWTH - ANNUALS AND BIENNIALS 1 – GERMINATION – the root comes out of the seed 2 – COTYLEDONS - the embryonic first leaves of a seedling. 3 – MAIN LEAVES – these are the character leaves that one can identify the plant with. 4 – SEED STEM – out of the center of the main leaves the Flower stem develops, at this stage the root develops a tough structure to gain strength to hold up the seeds. It is this stage, which is the signal that the plant is now progressing towards flowering. 5 – BUDDING – out of the main stem the plant develops buds. Often the stem and budding phase are occurring at the same time. 6 – FLOWERING – the bud emerge into flowers. 7 – POLLINATION AND DEVELOPMENT OF SEED/FRUIT– this is the main point in the plants growth cycle in which other terrestrial beings (mostly insects) play a part in the plants growth cycle. Many plants would not exist without the necessary pollinators around. As soon as the flower is pollinated the seed starts to develop, often encased within a fruit or hard shell / skin to protect the seed from the damaging influences of the elements. It is at this stage that many nutrients are drawn up from out of the soil to form the seed, it is at this stage that liquid feeding plants will help produce more seed/fruit. 8 – SEED – the finished seed awaits the touch of water or animals to ingest it in order to begin its growth cycle. The seed is the beginning and end of the plants growth cycle. NOTE about POLLINATION Most plants have flowers and need insects or wind to become pollinated - taking the male flower pollen to the female flower. Pollination happens quite naturally when plants are out of doors. When plants are indoors, pollination can be disrupted due to lack of insects, bees or wind. Understanding the families of plants, ( plants grouped by similar characteristics and genetic line) can help you to understand the method of pollination used to save that particular plant, hence understanding how to intervene to ensure pollination. Cross pollination – some plants are self pollinating. Neally all legume plants will remain genentically the same since they have both male and female flower parts together in the flower. Some plants however can cross pollinate. This is when genetics from two different varieties of plants within the same family of plants – a bee visits a male flower from one type of squash and pollinates a female flower from a different type of squash. Here the female flower will produce fruit that is true to the variety of seed that it came from, but the seeds saved from this squash may become hybrid – a cross of genetics that come from two different strains. This is one way to breed your own vegetable varieties! But if you want to get true types ( heritage or heirloom ) then you will need to isolate the plants or self pollinate, which involves taking the male flowers from the same variety of plant and rubbing pollen on the female flowers. See A Seed Savers Handbook for more info . NOTES about PERENNIAL SEEDING CYCLES TREES and SHRUBS – since trees have already developed the STEM (trunk to support fruit/seed) stage 4 – then they go straight into budding phase in the spring, often before putting out any leaves. CLIMBERS – Most trailing plants behave the same as trees. Some trailing plants like blackberries, die back after the 3-year growth. Blackberries often fruit on second year growth, and will fruit late on first year growth and will only stop putting out flowers when the weather turns too cold. Vines develop strong tree like branches, and can grow very old. GROUNDCOVERS – ground covers, nettles docks grass etc, have a seeding pattern that is similar to the annual stages of plant growth above, and yet despite the stems of last years growth dieing back, the roots of these plants survive in the ground over winter and hence can skip the first two stages of growth that annuals have to go through.