HANDS-ON GARDENER: Saving Seeds and Cutting Back

Hosta with heathers in foreground.

Hosta with heathers in foreground.

by Miriam Hansen

October is the month for collecting and saving flower seeds. This long, warm fall, despite being slightly nipped by frost, the zinnias, snapdragons, marigolds, cosmos and marigolds are still going strong. Since I don’t want to uproot them yet, I’ve been searching for spent seed heads that I missed when deadheading. So far I’ve saved seed from the Profusion and Cut and Come Again Zinnias, Marigolds, Cosmos, Gazania and yellow Marguerites. The latter is a perennial. All the rest are open-pollinated annuals that will come true from seed, a technical way of saying that the plant that grows from the saved seed will be the same as the parent.

Open-pollinated is key. If the plant is a hybrid (or cross between two different species), instead of being exactly like their hybrid parents, the saved seed will be a new combination of the good and bad traits of the plants initially crossed. You don’t know what characteristics they’ll have.

Find a dried up, brown seed pod. Chances are the seeds will be mature. Gently pry open the pod, separate the seeds from the chaff and leave them in a bowl (out of the sun) to dry out for a couple of days. Mark an envelope with the species, cultivar and date, fill it with the seed and set it with your other seeds in a cool dark place. That’s it.

When I’m ready to plant in late winter, I’ll do a germination test on a moistened paper towel. Once I have an idea of germination rate, I can use the seed as I would any I’d otherwise buy. Money saved.

If you have small children, showing them how different seeds grow is a wonderful activity. Gazania seed has little bits of fluff attached. Zinnia seeds are half encased in a transparent envelope that readily separates. Marigolds are stacked like matchsticks inside a protective coating. Each individual flower makes hundreds and hundreds of seeds.

Self-seeding annuals in my garden include Nicotiana, nasturtiums, opium poppies, cleome, Shirley poppies and calendula. These perennials also plant themselves: columbine, hardy geranium, dianthus, candytuft, lupines, Delphinium, lady’s mantle, hellebore, Aubrieta and Gold Mound Spirea.

And then there are the plants that spread by runners in my garden — Japanese anemone, bee balm, gooseneck, spiderwort, campanula and Canadian anemone. I have inadvertently introduced some of these into prized perennial beds. Every fall I muck them out. Be very wary when you beg a plant from someone – in my case, often something a startling blue — that you are not introducing a runner! Don’t be too shy to ask if they’re invasive. It will save you a good deal of weeding.

In addition to saving seed and mucking out the runners, I’m cutting back daylilies, irises, Echinacea, early Hostas, peonies and phlox. Basically, when the foliage is browning and looking dreary, I cut back. Those Hosta that still retain a golden glow, or late phlox with a last burst of bloom, I’ll wait. My aim is to spread the work out across a few weeks. I’ll fertilize the heathers with some Holly-Tone for acid loving plants and spread compost around everything else. You may wonder why you should add compost in the fall when the plant is done growing and blooming. For one thing, in early spring compost piles are usually frozen. For another, although compost does add some nutrients, it has so many other benefits on soil organic matter and microorganisms that fall application is improving the growing environment for the plant. This will give them a great head start in the spring.

Do NOT cut back dianthus or heathers. Dianthus or pinks only need to be deadheaded. Cutting them back will severely damage or even kill them. And heathers should be left alone until the spring when you want to shear them back to encourage spring growth.

Most of the vegetables we grew are in the freezer; blanched and stored in plastic freezer bags or incorporated into soups, lasagna, empanadas and stews, or canned as sauces, jams, salsas and pickles. We grew a small but tasty harvest of sweet potatoes and cured them on the west porch in a box with a light to keep them at the requisite 85 °F.

We have harvested and are curing the onions in the shade, winter squash and pumpkins in the sun. This past week-end, we planted the garlic and winter rye which will come up, overwinter and come back in the spring. Winter rye has a substance in its roots that prevents witchgrass from coming up. As to the crabgrass, time will tell. I plan to buy some garden mats in the spring, at least for the onion crop. That will save hours and hours of weeding.

We’ve been making vats of potato and roasted leek soup. It calls for 7 pounds of leeks, 8 tbs. butter, 4 cloves garlic, 8 Yukon Gold potatoes, 8 cups chicken stock, 1 tsp. ground bay leaves, 1 tsp. celery salt, 1 tsp. hot red pepper flakes, 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce and 1 ½ cup milk or cream. The key is to roast 2 pounds of the leeks in 2 tbs. of the butter. Sauté the remaining 5 lbs. of leeks, butter, garlic and potatoes for 15 minutes, add the peeled and diced potatoes for another 5 minutes, then add stock and simmer for a half hour. Then add herbs, blend, add cream and roasted leeks.

Happy cooking and putting the gardens to bed!

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