Sprouts and Starts

This is a small posting just to follow up on the posting about “saving seeds” here:


Each year I have some new seeds I want to trial, and I’ve got some “very old seeds” that I figure have likely expired. But I don’t just “pitch them out”, I go ahead and do a germination test. Sometimes it’s just in a tub with water, often it is in a small plastic pot or recycled “6 pack” from some nursery stock bought long ago.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about individual seed habits. So here are some “little bits” of what I’ve learned for a couple of selected species.

First up, the general case.

I like to start things in a ‘bottom watering’ rig. I use the bottom from an old “cat liter box”, but any waterproof tub will work. I water the seeds from the top (for large seeds) and the excess accumulates in the bottom. It can then ‘wick’ back into the other pots keeping things evenly moist. For very small seeds, like onions (or, God Forbid, tobacco and potato seeds – that I can hardy even see without glasses on) pouring water on the top can cause the seeds to be buried under way too much dirt. In many cases, covering the seed with dirt is NOT what nature intended. Even for things like lima beans, they don’t dig themselves into the dirt, now do they?

But left on top in the garden all sorts of hungry things can see “Lunch”. So I start them in pots.

For some seeds, like radish or beets, I’ll water from the top once. This lets the seed “float” to the desired placement in the soil as it settles.

Christmas Lima Beans

OK, here is a picture of some Christmas Limas:

Christmas Lima Bean - 2000 stock

Christmas Lima Bean - 2000 stock

You can see a bit of slightly green root on the upper right bean. The others all had small root buds formed when placed here and slightly covered with a bit of potting soil.

Lima beans can be slow to germinate and get above ground. The advice to plant these guys up to an inch deep (especially if you have a clay soil prone to crusting) has caused me to lose many over the years. So I’ve got a “better way”.

These seeds were purchased from Seed Savers Exchange back in 2000. That means they are from some year prior to that. Probably 1999, but it’s not possible to know. I’ve kept them “refrigerated not frozen” since then. The implication is that “frozen” would last even longer. A few years back, I planted a batch of these that started to germinate, then failed. (I accidentally dug one up planting something else, that’s how I know that they were pushing roots). I think what happened was that they simply could not push that large a seed through heavy crusted soil and “died in the ground” planted per package directions.

OK, I got bummed about the Christmas Lima failure and ignored them for “a while”… that looks to be a decade now.

Figuring the seeds were probably “toast” and that I might as well ‘move on’ I decided to do a germination test (before moving to the next newer packet from a later growout). I selected 10 seeds and placed them in a plastic food dish. Paper towel below them, and folded over the top. (About a double layer). Add water until wet, then pour off the excess. Sit the lid on top, but “offset” so air can circulate but evaporation isn’t too high. Keep at room temperature and wait. Moisten as needed (add water, drain).

About a week later, some of the seeds had sprouted the little 1/3 inch long or so starter root. They were placed in the ‘6 pack’ here. That was the first 5. About 3 or 4 days later, one more filled it out. 4 days after that, the last 4 were inspected. 3 of THEM at tiny root buds starting and one was doing nothing much (but not molding!). They were placed in another pot. At this point I’ve got a 90% germination rate, and maybe 100% possible. One of the seeds in the 6 pack is greening and starting to lift the lima. They are much happier with no dirt to push through.

IMHO, the lima expects to be laying on its side, lifting through “leaf litter” only. In the garden you would need compost for something like this, not dirt. In a bottom wet pack, the bean can’t dry out anyway, so the top mulch isn’t really needed.

That the last seed was not molding is an important thing. That means it is still able to prevent infection and is likely to be alive. We’ll see. This is also a good demonstration of individual variation. Not all the seeds sprout at the same time. Some are for “early rain quick season” but some are for “we had a bit of rain, then drought, you are for next season when the rains return”. When you force them into “sprout on a schedule” you lose that adaptation to a variable environment. I typically leave the “slow ones” pot to continue germinating to see what is really dead and what was just “adapted for slow”.

OK, the downside:

Now I’ve got to find a place to grow out some very stubborn Limas! I’d expected these guys to be dead, but no, they are very high germination. I’ve still got a pretty good packet of them, so they will be labeled with this germination percent and put in the freezer…

Onion Mix

I’m lousy at growing onions. They are picky (wanting particular light cycles to cue their growth) and they want their own bit of dirt (where I tend to intensively mix things). They have a complicated life cycle and expect me to work on their schedule. When I don’t: they get grumpy.

But I keep trying.

Here is one stubborn Fistulosum that has decided to flower this spring. It will be making “foundation stock” seeds for future years as it is a very selected survivor.

Allium Fistulosum Flower DSCF0777

Allium Fistulosum Flower DSCF0777

I’ve ended up with some Allium Fistulosum that are surviving my “care” (as they are perpetual and perennial green onions) along with some shallots and a very nice yellow “multiplier” onion. There are also some bits of stubborn annual bulbing onions that I’ve not managed to extinguish (yet). Often “mixed” in a bed as I’m trying to “learn onions”. So some long time ago I had a bunch “run to seed” and just collected a ‘grab bag’. Now, reviewing the “dregs” bag I find a seed packet labeled: “Onion Mix. Yellow multiplier, California Red, Brittany Shallots. 10/2001”

OK, onion seeds are supposedly only “good” for a one year holding period and these are at the one decade point. Pretty much guaranteed to be all dead. Then again, these have been selected a couple of times and are a very mixed bag. I’ve also got 4 Yellow Multiplier bulbs that are going Great Guns after spending A YEAR in the seed fridge. They are one sturdy onion. So maybe something is still clinging to life in there.

I sprinkled a modestly thick layer of a few dozen to hundred seeds over the top of the 6 pack and gently sprinkled from the top, then sit in the tray for a week or two. The results? A few seeds actually sprouted! These will now get very special care in a pot of their own in Darwin’s Garden. If I can’t learn onions, then maybe they can adapt to me ;-)

Onion Mix from 2001

Onion Mix from 2001

You must look closely to see the half dozen slim green baby onion sprouts. There are also a few more that are still at the ‘tiny white dot’ stage and likely will disappear into the specular reflections from damp surfaces in this photo.

Realize what a spectacular thing this is. Onions sprouted after a decade of cold, but not frozen, storage. The system of storage works rather well, even if you don’t go all the way to frozen. Also, even a “1 year” species can have some “outliers”, so don’t pitch a seed packet just based on the date! Sprinkle them on a germination test bed and see what you get! Over time, you will get a very sturdy seed selection…

Also notice that onion seedlings are just incredibly fragile. Think of giant water drops from a hose exploding the dirt around them in the garden… then desiccating in the August sun… So I’ve learned that to start onions from seed you really need this kind of gentle consistent moisture system. Darwin’s Garden has its soft side some times…

OK, I’ve got several newer packets of onion seeds. I now know that they will have some viable seeds and are worth a similar germination test / grow out. I also know that the ones “only” 3 or 4 years old are most likely in very good shape. All good things to know.

Sidebar on roots:

I’ve taken to giving store onions a “Second Life”. When I cut the bottom off the onion, I leave about 1/4 inch above the “root plate”. Then I set them with their roots in the top of a 3 inch pot of damp potting soil and ‘water them in’. Then they sit in the bottom watering germination tray (but with daily watering-in until established). So far every one has sprouted from the central area (core growth area). At a minimum this is an easy way to get green tops for ‘green onions’.

My purpose is to see if I can do faster propagation of other onions. So I’m going to do the same with any of my shallots. They “multiply” slowly if not done from seed. Maybe 6:1 or 8:1. That means that if you grow six, and need to plant 2 to get 6 again (insuring against a loss AND maybe getting some net increase) at the end of 2 years you have been able to eat all of 4 shallots (but have more in hand for the next cycle). Not very efficient. Now, if instead, every single onion became a new 6:1 expansion even the ones that were eaten…

So far, so good.

I’ve also been able to cycle them faster by putting them in the fridge for 2 to 4 weeks to say “winter” then planting out again for the “next spring”. For seed production and for multiplier onion “multiplying” you sometimes want faster cycles.

So now I’m going to find out just which of “my mix” are the stubborn ones that can spend a decade as a seed and come back for more… But now they get the “reward” cycle of a pampered grow out and full run to seed production.

Potato Seedlings

The Big Surprise for me was that some of my potatoes (that had naturalized UNDER Bermuda grass in an abandoned square) made fruit a few years. I’ve carefully saved the seeds from them, even though the fruit are very small and the seeds are incredibly small. OK, more seeds than I can ever plant, so some packets get ignored a while. Found one labeled “Potato seeds 7/2004”. A seven year storage is long for small seeds, but tomatoes keep well and these guys are first cousins of tomatoes, so what the heck. I figure I’ll get a few that I can run to “seed potatoes” and evaluate for things like color et.al. But Nooo…

Potato 2004 Very High Germination

Potato 2004 Very High Germination

These guys are very small, and the image has been de-rez’ed to save bytes, but you can see that forest of little green dots.

I’ve now got a few dozen potato plants to deal with!

OK, I’ve got a ‘potato tub’ I can put them in as they get a bit bigger. I don’t want them in the ground with everything else as these, being grown from seeds, will have fairly low pathogen levels. I also want to be able to select those with purple stems (they tend to have more colorful and especially purple potatoes) if any and generally keep the accounting clear as to which potatoes are from when.

The good news is that the bunnies don’t eat leaves of large potatoes. The bad news is they might nibble a sprout to see, and a nibble is a dead sprout. So at some point I can plant the larger ones out into a square that is not bunny proof. Probably in a few months.

In Conclusion

So this is how my garden life tends to unfold. I plant a few “interesting new things” I find at the nursery (some purple and red brussels sprouts this year along with a ‘walking stick’ kale) and some “old favorites” from seeds. (That Rond du Nice squash…). Then I start The Trials. Usually with the oldest seeds I’ve got.

Some packages are “duds” and nothing lives. At least that empties the space for the next seed packet.

Some packages seem to be duds, then surprise me. That squash in the background of the Greek Giant Bean? A seed that had not sprouted for 2 weeks, so I planted the bean. Then the sucker sprouts… A “plastic Tupperware tub and paper towel” test with a full layer of seeds had sprouted mold all over it. I was about to pitch it as “all dead” when I noticed that about 20% were pushing roots… those were placed one at a time (tweezers are your friend!) into pots to grow out. I’ve now got about a dozen squash plants in pots. As these grow to about 20 foot vines “I’ve got a problem” developing… (I hope to train them up the bamboo or up a tree as I’ve done in the past ;-)

And the others are as you saw above here. A few Darwin’s Select (c) seeds. Some that have near 100% germination.

Then comes the scramble for dirt. Who goes where in the dirt I’ve got?

But that’s for next week ;-)

For now, they have the pampered life in a sprouting area next to my desk. A view of the morning sun through the window (open to let in fresh air and UV if the weather is nice) and with a CFL daylight bulb overhead into the evening. No predators, bugs, bad weather, or cold to worry about.

Subscribe to feed

About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Plants - Seeds - Gardening and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sprouts and Starts

  1. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Your potatoes from seed will tend to be quite small in the first grow out. The biggest “seed” potatoes from these would be used to grow the next crop. For the best size up you only want one or two “eyes” to develop to plants. The more “eye” shoots that develop, the smaller the potatoes that develop will be.

    50 years ago I had an argument with a Cal Davis scientist about the viability of potato seeds of the fruit that grew in our field crops. Seedling potato plants look more like nightshade but do make tubers. Anyway, he insisted that any seeds would not produce tubers and said He would pay $10,000 for any that produced tubers! Of course he was an expert in that field and I was a dumb teenager. ;-) pg

  2. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Oh yes I do grow purple potatoes, quite small, a big one is the size of a grade AA large egg. Very tasty! Almost wild, once you plant them, they are hard to get rid of as every tiny one you miss when you dig will come up the next spring. They are the first to come up in the spring or late winter and the last to die down in the late fall and survive freezing soil above them. Poor producer and worth every bit of trouble. pg

  3. E.M.Smith says:

    @P.G. Sharrow:

    Thanks for that guidance!

    I’ve got one small spot of potatoes on the growout from seed (probably a half dozen plants?) where I directly seeded into the garden. Got tiny little plants last year ( it is in a ‘challenging’ location) and figured I’d give them a second year to “develop” before I dig anything up to see what I’ve got.

    The goal is “self tending potato” rather than large yield… I figured starting with the ones that survived for about 4 years now in an untended square that’s overrun with Bermuda ought to be a good start!

    When I was about 8 my Iowa farmer Dad told me about potato seeds and how to plant potatoes. He said you could grow them from seeds but they didn’t produce well and you didn’t know what kind you would get. Then again, he was just an Irish / Amish farm kid, not an “expert” ;-)

    I think I was about then or a bit later that I saw my first potato flower. We got one or two and my Dad pointed them out to me. Lovely things. Frankly, part of my doing this is just to get a plant that reliably makes flowers and I just think they are pretty… figure if every few generations I shove it through the flower stage, it will see the virtue in making more of them ;-)

  4. P.G. Sharrow says:

    The potato flower color and fruit maturity will tell you something about the color and the maturity of the tubers.
    I grow potatoes the are golden, red, white and purple tubers and flowers. A real flower garden. :-) pg

  5. P.G. Sharrow says:

    Additional to growing potatoes. When the plants bloom they are building tubers and must be kept well watered to attain full smoothness, any dry then wet spells will cause lumpy growth spurts. When the blooming is done and the fruits fill, the plant is done and the tubers are mature, the plant will begin dieing. The tubers should be harvested and stored in a cool to cold (36F to 40F degrees) very damp place (100% RH)with NO LIGHT ( root cellar) or hole in ground ;-) good place for carrots and other root crops too. pg

Comments are closed.