MAYBE LIKE I DO, you always mean to be better at seed saving, and it gets away from you. Right now is the perfect time, with pen and paper or your cellphone in hand for making a list, to look around the garden for what potential yields are coming up that you might want to grab at just the right stage to make more plants. Ken Druse is here to tell us how.
You all know Ken, author of 20 garden books, old friend, and my cohost of the online Virtual Garden Club that resumes again mid-September. Twenty-ish years ago, he wrote a book called “Making More Plants” about all forms of propagation, including from seed. From tomatoes to Nicotiana, jack-in-the-pulpit and more, we highlighted a lot of seed to try your hand at saving.
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 5, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
saving seed, with ken druse
Margaret Roach: How are you, Ken?
Ken Druse: I’m good Margaret, surprising. We’ve had a couple of days that are below 90, so that’s welcome.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. So we have to gripe a little because we’re gardeners. We have to gripe a little. Yeah, hot and dry has kind of been the thing. And obviously we’re in the northeast and we’re blessed compared to so many other regions of the country with havoc beyond imagination. But for us, it’s been very dry and we’ve had some serious bouts of heat, too.
Ken: Very dry. We had an inch and a half of rain this week, which is the first rain in about three weeks. So I feel hydrated [laughter], slightly hydrated. And it started with a very gentle rain, so the rain just didn’t roll off the dry ground. It started to soak in. I’m thankful even for a little bit.
Margaret: Hope spring’s eternal.
Ken: Even in the summer.
Margaret: It’s been interesting as a long time gardener in one place, as you are, too, to watch the reaction of familiar plants that we’ve had for a long time in the same spot. Like we are in shock, they are in shock, too, at the, “What’s this? This isn’t my weather. Where’s my weather?”
And how some adapt and some don’t. So for instance, speaking of things making seed or fruit with seed in it: The apples are going to be a complete zero this year. They’ve all aborted. And you know the crabapples are half mast, those are able to hold on a little better, because I think the fruits are so much smaller. But all my winterberry hollies, which I have 40 big mature shrubs, I mean, they’re almost all aborted. They all dropped; in self-defense the plant will do that, right?
Ken: Yeah, and I’ve noticed that some trees not in my garden, but in the surrounding areas, they have yellow leaves and they’re dropping them already, which is kind of early. But as you’re saying that, I can’t grow the hollies very well because it’s too shady here. But I guess here’s another advantage of shade because I don’t have desperation. I mean, there’s a lot of things that are flagged and they’re not really wilted. They just have down-facing leaves and they’ll stay that way. But nobody’s dead yet.
Margaret: Yeah. Well I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see [laughter]. Haven’t done the head count yet, but it might. So again, speaking of saving seed, and seed with each generation of seed comes the potential for resilience of different kinds of abilities in the genes to withstand what the previous generation’s been going through and so on and so forth. This is not an overnight thing, but maybe this is a good year everywhere for people to start saving seed for adaptation to some of the strains that we’re going through locally.
Ken: You’ve lost your holly berries, but if even one plant had berries, that might be a plant that’s drought tolerant, for example.
Margaret: Exactly. And we’re oversimplifying obviously the miracle of genetics, but that’s the basic idea. So just before we get started in the how-to, and what we can do in our gardens right now, which things we should go look for that are doable. For those of us who are more beginners than a geek like you [laughter]: What’s the craziest things that… The biggest plant you ever grew from seed and the slowest thing you ever grew? You’ve grown trees and stuff, is that…
Ken: Yeah trees, sure [laughter]. I have a maple tree that I started in Brooklyn. So that’s probably, oh it could be 35 years old. But it’s not a giant maple. Well, I can’t say that it’s a cultivated variety, because I started the seeds from a cultivated variety. So it’s a son or daughter…
Margaret: A selection.
Ken: A selection; it has great fall color.
Margaret: O.K., so you’ve even grown trees. And so when anyone wants to dip into this subject, and if they read whether it’s at Seed Savers Exchange where they have information on the website about seed saving, obviously, or in your book, “Making More Plants.” It talks about wet and dry seeds, whether we’re in the vegetable garden or elsewhere, it talks about wet and dry seeds. So is that kind of the overarching… If you can give us the quick version of that?
Ken: Well, when I used to… Well, I still lecture sometimes on “Making More Plants,” but whenever I would say fruit people think that fruits are like peaches, they’re wet. But many, many fruits are dry. And I tell people that, and they’re just aghast, they’re surprised that nuts are fruits and pods are fruits. Anything that has a seed inside is a fruit, which is the old “tomato is a fruit” thing, because there’s seeds inside.
Margaret: Right. O.K., so sometimes with vegetables, we break down the how to save the seed. Like lettuce, we call a dry-seeded crop and tomatoes or peppers, we call a wet-seeded crop because they have pulpy stuff inside, in the latter case, or not in the lettuce case. Do you know what I mean? And so the tactic is guided by that, because there’s an extra step sometimes with the wet ones.
Ken: Well, there’s an extra step sometimes with the dry ones, too, because a lot of plants that I grow that have dry fruits… If you don’t catch them at the right time, you’ve lost them. You miss them.
Ken: So a lot of things like columbine and poppies and stuff, when those fruits start to turn brown, I take small paper bags and put them over the fruit ,and tie them around the stems, and just leave them until the stem of that has the fruit on it, turns brown, cut them off and bring them in the house to finish drying. And then the seeds all fall out and they’re in the bottom of the bag.
Margaret: Right, so it’s proactive, anticipating what’s going on. And that’s why in the beginning I was saying, right now, I mean a lot of things have already set seed and that may be too late in some cases. I noticed when the columbines were kind of getting ready, the local chipmunks [laughter] were standing up like it was a tapas bar or something. Standing up at each columbine and eating the little fruits, the pods, do you know what I mean? It was like they were almost ready and they were yummy.
Ken: Well you got to beat them to it. That’s the thing, if you put a paper bag over before they’re even ready, then that’s another way to protect them and you can even cut them off and let them finish ripening upside down in the house, in a nice, cool, dry, breezy place.
Margaret: Yeah, so obviously we have to go look around. So what kinds of things, I mean, I’m looking at Nicotiana [below, at Ken’s], the flowering tobaccos right now and half the stems have seed pods that have already gone brown and burst open and half are still flowering and it’s all kind of confusing. So should we start with flowers and then we’ll go on to vegetables, or what do you think? Or should we start with what? What are some that you’d like us to scout for, that you think are doable to get us going?
Ken: O.K., Nicotiana is a good example, and it’s a nice because it keeps having those pods.
Ken: So it’s not like one minute and it’s over.
Margaret: Or else.
Ken: You look at those dried fruits, they have seams, and then they split open and they just pour out their seed. So I go around and before they split open, right before actually, I go around with a coffee filter and I split them open and just pour the seed into the coffee filter and collect them that way. And I collect—you know me—so I collect seed from the most fragrant one, or the purple one or something. And I sow them next year and see what happens, because as you know they don’t really come true from seed when they’re hybrids, unless they’re heirlooms grown in isolation and we don’t really have that. Didn’t you have problems saving your Nicotiana?
Margaret: Yeah, I used to think I could, and probably been growing a lot of different ones for maybe 25 or more years. And I let them self-sow, sow not so [laughter], and so I didn’t have as distinctive a group as I had a decade or two ago, I had a lot more kind of sameness. I didn’t have the very, very, very tall Nicotiana mutabilis with the pink and white (mutable) flowers. And I didn’t have any… What’s the one with the long white trumpets?
Margaret: Yeah, sylvestris. I didn’t have any sylvestris showing up. The trumpets are really, really long and narrow on a big plant. And I didn’t have any of the dark, super-dark colors. I still had green. I still had pink. I still had white and sort of medium heights and shorter heights. So I kind of mixed it up, I got some seed or I got some seedlings this year, and kind of reinvigorated so that now the seed that’s dropping at this time of year and later will hopefully give me back that look of 10 or 20 years ago.
Ken: Maybe you should just save some seeds from a couple.
Margaret: [Laughter.] A couple of goodies.
Ken: Just as a backup. I mean, it’s pretty easy to do.
Margaret: So coffee filter, you’re saying, so I sometimes tapped it into a cup [above, Ken tapping seed into a jar].
Ken: Yeah. Right. Exactly. Same. That’s a good idea. Paper cup or something [laughter].
Ken: I was thinking about marigolds, because that’s really easy. A lot of people grow marigolds, and if you have marigolds and the flowers fade, you can picture this. They sort of shrivel up, they’re like miniature shaving brushes, you know what I mean?
Ken: The fluff at the end. And if you just hold that fruit, that dry fruit, and you pull on the fluff, that used to be the flowers, there’s seeds attached to the bottom of all this that just come right out. It’s like a dandelion, there’s a seed at the bottom of the fluff.
Margaret: Right. It’s like a little bouquet of seeds. You know what I mean?
Ken: It’s almost the same thing. And things that have cones like purple coneflower and Rudbeckia, black-eyed-Susan, you can pick those later, not yet. When the cones are practically black and if you hold them over a bowl, the cone part and rub them with your thumb, the seeds will fall off the cone. But you don’t want to take them all because we want to leave plenty for the birds. There’s hundreds of seeds, so you don’t really need 100 seeds, so you can share them.
Margaret: Right, and just since we were just talking about flowers, I mean, looking ahead in September and October, especially I think October where we are, but a lot of the meadow wildflowers, if we wanted to make more of those, we could anticipate, and like you said, kind of go look and wait until they’re just about ready. And those are the ones for winter sowing, not sowing right away. [A primer on winter sowing, with Wild Seed Project.]
Ken: Well, I guess with many perennials you’d want to do it in March, January to March.
Margaret: The sowing, yeah.
Ken: You want to store them. And I store all my seeds that aren’t sown right away (and very few are sown right away), I store them dry. And if they come from a moist fruit, I clean the fruit off and have them dry, wash them if necessary, store them dry in envelopes, inside a closed jar in the refrigerator.
Margaret: So it’s cold, but it’s dry because you’ve closed the jar. Do you put any desiccant in?
Ken: If I have some vitamins that came with some, I’ll just pop them in there. So I don’t really do a big number. You could probably put something like rice in the bottom or something.
Margaret: Yeah, but tight-closed jars to keep…
Ken: Oh, absolutely.
Margaret: Yeah, have you done Verbena bonariensis? Now that’s something that… The tall Verbena… Even though it’s not native, it’s so popular with butterflies. I think in various surveys, it’s been the most visited flower by butterflies in average gardens.
Ken: That’s interesting. I’m sorry, what were you going to say?
Margaret: Well, just that I was… It sows itself where it wants to sow itself, usually near where it was. But what if you wanted to make a colony somewhere else? Would you collect those too?
Ken: Well, those are what we call hardy annuals, even though that’s actually a tender perennial. But we grow it as if it’s a hardy annual. And larkspur, things like that, and the columbines, too, and biennials, things like that. I’ll harvest and I won’t store them over the winter. I’ll just take them where I want them next year and sow them right away, because that’s what would happen in nature.
Margaret: So would you cut off the dried seedheads and move them around or what would you do?
Ken: Verbena bonariensis just hates me. And I have a little bowl of gravel with some Sempervivum in it and the Verbena grows in that and nowhere else.
Margaret: So it sows into a pot [laughter].
Ken: It sows into a big container that’s gravely, but even on the gravel there’s parts of the garden that are mulched with gravel. Nope. And I also get a kind of disfiguring thing at the tips. This is just a plant that doesn’t like me. I think it’s another sun thing. I think it really wants a lot of sun.
Margaret: So that’s one, if we’re doing well with it and we have it in one place and we’d like it in another place, you’re saying we could move it when the seeds ripe,n when the seeds starting to dry. We could move it now, not put it inside and store it and then sow it next year, right?
Margaret: O.K., and angelica’s, some of the biennial angelicas like [inaudible 00:16:13] and so forth.
Ken: Verbascum, the mulleins.
Margaret: Verbascum. So you would do the same thing with that?
Ken: And columbine really aren’t annuals. And even for me, they’re sort of short-lived perennials. So they sometimes come back for like two years, but I sow them as… So I’ve already sowed them… Actually I did move some. So if I want those, I harvest the seed, which is pretty easy. I did that in the bag, and then put the seeds where I want them because I don’t want them in the path [laughter]. So I move them out and move them to a nicer place. Also, gave some seeds to friends and with our issues with transferring critters, I think sharing seed is a pretty safe way to do it.
Margaret: Now, what about opium poppies, the breadseed poppies, things like that? So those now, too, if you had the sort of shaker, the beautiful seed pods right now filled with seed, would you kind of go shake them somewhere else? [Above, opium poppy pods drying upside-down in paper bags at Margaret’s.]
Ken: Shake them, that’s interesting, because that’s another one that you blink and you’ve missed it. The seeds, which are so tiny, just pour out. So I watch that and if I’m really serious, I’ll either cut the stem, turn it upside down in a paper bag, or I’ll put a bag over the stem. Stems are pretty thin so it’s not that easy… And that’s not for perennial poppies, that’s a whole different thing. This is for the hardy annuals and annual poppies.
Margaret: Right, and what about morning glory and moonflowers, have you ever saved seeds of those?
Ken: I have. Morning glory and moonflowers make pods that are dry, and they don’t split open, surprise, like daylilies. Daylilies have really nice fleshy green fruits. And then one day they’re brown, split open, and the seeds are gone [laughter].
Margaret: So real quick, I wanted to just ask you about one of the things that I’ve seen pictures from you and your books and things like that, were jack-in-the-pulpits, which are perennial. Is that something that right now we can go look for if we have it in the garden, we could maybe make more of it?
Ken: Very soon and it makes kind of a club with red fruits. They’re not quite berries, but they’re all over the club. And every seed has a mechanism that keeps it from sprouting or germinating in the wrong place at the wrong time. Otherwise, sunflowers would sprout right on the flower head, but they don’t.
And a lot of things that have moist fruits, it’s the fruit that keeps them from germinating. That’s why when the fruit falls to the ground, it has to rot over winter, has to be cold, and then the fungi come and the seed ultimately is exposed. But almost every year I’ll collect the fruits, wash off the pulp, and if I want, I can sow them right away in October and they come up in three weeks. [Above, the process under way at Ken’s.]
Margaret: Sow them indoors, in a pot or sow them in the ground?
Ken: Sow them indoors in a pot under lights.
Margaret: All right. So that would be another one that if…
Ken: [Laughter.] It sounds hard but…
Margaret: But that’s another one that if we have it in the garden, they’re not cheap plants to buy, if you can find them in a native plant nursery or whatever, but you could make more if you have it in your garden? I’m not saying stealing it from the wild or anything like that.
Ken: Right, but sometimes over the years I’ve gotten some very weird ones from seed-saving clubs and things, exchanges. And it doesn’t work quite like that, because you have to rehydrate them. I know we don’t have a lot of time, but I couldn’t get them to germinate no matter what. And I talked to a person in the North American Rock Garden Society, and he told me you have to rehydrate them. You have to put them in water and change the water two or three times a day for two weeks.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. O.K.
Ken: And as you may know that I put them in an organza bag and hung them in the tank, not the bowl, in the tank of the toilet. And the water got changed two or more than two or three times a day. Lots of oxygen. And after two weeks, I sowed them and they came up.
Margaret: Oh, secret unlocked. So I want to talk about some vegetables and another Ken, friend of mine, Ken Greene from Hudson Valley Seed said to me years ago that the easiest things in the vegetable garden to save were bush beans. And he specified bush versus pole, which I didn’t know this.
Margaret: Bush beans cross pollinate less than pole beans, so you’re more likely to get what you started with. And peas, those are easy. And the pods split open; when they’re rattling inside the pods they’re ready. Cilantro and dill, both he said, very easy. And dill, as anyone who’s ever grown it and had it sow around the garden knows, it’s pretty prolific. Speaking of one that needs a paper bag on its head before it lets go. And lettuce is another one that’s easy and sends up little tiny yellow aster-like flowers and so forth.
And then open-pollinated, non-hybrid tomatoes. And speaking of wet seed, those are one.
Ken: Oh my gosh. I don’t know if we have time, but can you walk people through the tomato seed collection?
Margaret: Well, real quick, and one thing it’s good news: It’s not too late because no one recommends using your first fruit. Your first flush of fruit is the one not to save from. You want to save a little later into the fruiting cycle, not your very first fruits. And I don’t even think I understand why, but everyone from Seed Savers Exchange etc., all recommend you don’t use the first fruits that are formed for your seed saving.
So you save it when the fruits are at the edible stage. And a good thing to do is do your seed saving when you’re doing some cooking, make some sauce or gazpacho or whatever, salsa, with the rest of it. Because you’re just basically squeezing out the gooey inside parts with the seeds in it, and all the rest is fair game for cooking.
And so could just smear the innards with the seeds onto a paper plate or a paper towel and then let it dry and use the seed. But the natural act of fermenting, which is a little bit of an extra step will help break down germination-inhibiting compounds, so you’ll get better germination. That gel sack around the tomato seeds has some of those in it. And also it can reduce some very unwanted diseases that are seed-specific, that you wouldn’t even know you had because they’re seed-specific.
So you use your healthiest, most disease-resistant productive plants. You wait until they fruited a bit. And then from a couple of different plants, if you have multiples of a variety, you take a couple of fruits from each.
And you can put them in water. I just kind of squeeze it, squeeze the inside into… Halve the fruits and squeeze the seeds and pulp into a jar, labeled by the way, because they all look the same [laughter] and add kind of an equal amount of water and put a piece of paper towel with a rubber band or a piece of cheese cloth if you have it or a screen so that nothing gets in there and just let the mixture sit. Half-water, half pulp/seed, out of the sun for several days. It’s going to get smelly and a mold surface is going to form. You skim that off and then you rinse the seeds in a strainer and then you dry them on that paper plate or paper towel. So it’s this extra step that gives you a little better quality. So not hard.
Ken: I hate to say it, but it sounds like fun.
Margaret: It is kind of fun. And it’s kind of like the mad scientist, this gooey, weird, foamy stuff is happening.
Ken: Have you got kids around this? Sounds like a good idea.
Margaret: And to show them that seeds alive and explain why it’s happening. That’s a good point. Any other in the last minute or so? Any other thing that you’d like us to try that you feel is a really… I mean, I know you’ve done lilies and you’ve done all kinds of things.
Ken: We’ve covered so many things. Well, I have to say over the years I have intentionally crossed things… And I was talking about that tree that I grew 30 some years ago. I sowed a lot of those maple seeds from a tree I had in Brooklyn and the tree… I have two trees here now. And one of them is about, I’d say 12 feet tall and spreading and has the beautiful fall color. But another one, ever since it came up was very small. And now it’s about three feet tall in the same age, so I accidentally got a dwarf.
Margaret: Oh, how funny. Cool.
Ken: So when you’re collecting things around the garden, you can take the pollen from one and put it on another one and be careful or use a paintbrush to try to make your daylily, not that we need another one with 50,000. But I was very fortunate just by accident to get a dwarf Maple tree.
Margaret: Well, on that note of the miracles of genetics. Thank you, Ken. And I’ll talk to you soon.
Ken: Thanks Margaret.
Margaret: And I’ll talk to you on the Virtual Garden Club, too, soon. Talk to you soon.
Ken: Yeah, meet you there.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Sept. 5, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).