Few things in nature hold as much magic as seeds. With a small fistful of seeds, children can observe the full life cycle of plants. They can observe how plants reproduce from watching plants flower, go to seed and germinate.
To save seeds from your garden or wildflowers, collect them at maturity during the late morning on a dry day. Clean them to store in a cool, dark, dry place for re-sowing. If you have enough seeds sprinkle them around the garden to see when they come up again. Collecting your own seeds will save on seed costs, create a connection with nature through the seasons, and improve your gardening success rate as the seeds adapt to your locale. For more detailed instructions on cleaning seeds to store and save, look to resources such as The Seed Savers Handbook.
Various types of plants have different methods for sowing and saving seed:
Annuals usually grow from seed through part of a year, then seeds are saved and stored or lay dormant in the ground until the following year. Examples of annuals are lettuce, peas, spinach, corn, beans and marigolds. Most seeds you will save will be from annual plants.
Biennial plants grow through the first warm period, then slow down through the cold weather, and flower in the next warm period, typically spring. Examples of biennials are cabbage, kale, carrot, parsnip and turnips. To collect seeds from these, you will need to wait about eighteen months.
Perennial plants survive for more than two years. They are a very important part of a long-term garden. Some annuals and biennials such as capsicums, chillies, eggplants and kale can behave as perennials in warm climates.
Another way to save seeds is from the kitchen. Ripe pumpkins, tomatoes, capsicums, melons, papaya, and most other fruit provide fresh, free seeds. Usually one dries and stores the seeds to plant in the appropriate season, but our children have had many successful pumpkin vines and papaya trees grow with seed fresh from the cutting board. If the fruit or vegetable comes from a hybrid plant, which many commercial crops are, the fruit that grows from it will not grow true to type. But it will probably be edible and if space in the garden isn’t an issue, you’ve nothing to lose!
More ‘free’ seeds can often be found in the pantry – many dried beans will germinate, for example. We’ve tried borlotti, lima and cannellini beans, and black-eyed peas. Beans can be eaten as a young pod, shelled when mature, or left on the vine to dry. Bird feed is another cheap source of seeds to experiment with. A large bag of sunflower seeds is only a few dollars and contains enough to fill even the largest garden with giant sunflowers. Or you can share them among young friends so that other children might delight in the magic of seeds.
When buying seeds, heirloom or heritage varieties are preferable for many reasons. Old varieties are more interesting and better suited to the organic vegetable garden. Did you know that carrots come in colours other than orange? You can grow your own red, white, yellow or purple carrots at home! There are also purple peas and beans, multi-coloured corn, capsicums of various colours and shapes, and pumpkins and tomatoes that will amaze! These non-hybrid seeds are most often available by mail order rather than in your local store.
Sprouting is another way to witness the wonder of seed germination. It’s something you can do in any season and any location. All you need is a jar, some cheesecloth, a rubber band and some seeds to sprout - like alfalfa, mung beans or radish. You can buy these in health shops or with the vegetable seeds in stores. Rinse the seeds, and then soak overnight in water. Strain and rinse again in the morning, placing the jar upside-down or inverted on a saucer so it can drain well. Continue to rinse twice a day, always keeping the jar inverted so that there is no excess water on your sprouts. After around four days, your sprouts should be ready for eating and can be stored in the fridge. Here are some great instructions with a video.
A bean vine can also be started in a glass jar. Take a wide glass jar, some cotton wool and a few bean seeds. Soak the beans for a few hours. Place the cotton inside the jar and poke the beans at regular intervals between the glass and cotton around the jar. Add enough water so that the cotton is moist. Put the lid on the jar and you will not have to water your beans for them to grow. Place in a sunny position and your beans will grow roots and sprout leaves. If you turn the jar upside-down, within a day the seedlings will change the direction they grow in so that the roots are facing down. After a couple of days, you can turn it up the right way again and your bean vines will adapt so that the roots are growing down once more. Children will see that gravity, water and light affect plants.
Because seeds hold so much magic and wonder, many tales have been told about them. Jack and the Beanstalk first springs to mind. There are stories from all around the world with seeds as a symbol for life, regeneration and new beginnings. I hope that through exploring the wonder of seeds with your children, your journey as a gardening family continues.