Shake a few seeds into the palm of your hand and behold the essence of creation. This dazzling product of sexual propagation compresses all the genetic information necessary to create an entire plant, plus opportunities for travel, and often, some sustenance for the journey. The birth of a seed is one of nature’s most ingenious gifts. The spirited cosmos start from seed, as does the giant redwood.
The acquisition of a startling new plant for the garden is one of the most compelling reasons to sow seeds. Producing a great number of plants is another. Scores of seeds can be sown, often at low cost (and sometimes free). Growing plants to sell at a fund-raiser for the botanical garden or edging the flower border with a single variety of annual are simple projects once the basics of seed propagation are mastered.
Mass production is just one of the benefits of sowing. Seeds also present an efficient, compact way to acquire plants, since they can be shipped around the world with minimal packaging and handling. (Begonia seeds come one million to the ounce.)
The next phase of the seed-sower’s career might be as a seed-grower– the actual production of the seed. By playing bee and delivering pollen, perhaps to the next county where a friend grows the same species, a gardener becomes a dedicated conservationist. There is also the potential to invent a new plant. If you anticipate the outcome of pollination by selecting and interbreeding two plants or a succession of plants, you can influence nature more directly, although this technique is controversial. Agri-businessmen, native-plant enthusiasts, plant purists and explorers have strong opinions on the subject. A good case is made by the seed-savers, who promote the old-fashioned heirloom varieties.
Conservation is another reason to propagate plants from seeds. Stealing plants from the wild is just plain wrong; the theft may contribute to a mini-ecosystem’s demise. The best way to stop people from digging plants in the wild is to make those plants readily available. The home gardener could obtain seeds of a wildflower from a native plant society, and germinate the seeds to help a species persist, even if its homeland does not survive.
There is one more incentive for sowing seed: it is so much fun. There is the challenge of the hunt for the seeds, the thrill of watching them sprout and the satisfaction of nurturing the seedlings. Ultimately, the joy of propagation is seeing the results in first flowers, or basking in the shade of a tree that will live beyond the length of our own lives.
Sowing for Selection
It is said that good luck is simply taking advantage of opportunity. Cultivars– varieties of plants that can be cultivated and introduced to the nursery trade–are found in intentional mass sowings all the time. More frequently, however, cultivars are simply discovered by someone who spends a moment taking a second look. Careful scrutiny of flats of seedlings at the nursery or seedlings sown at home often reveals something special. The more seeds sown, the greater the chance of discovering a unique plant.
Hostas are among the most popular herbaceous perennials; introductions appear each year and vie for the top spot on the annual list of favorites chosen by the Hosta Society. A hosta with the brightest golden leaves, sweetly-perfumed flowers, a shapely leaf with a wave or a wiggle, can command hefty prices: $200.00 or more. (Left, Recent fragrant introduction, Hosta ‘Stained Glass’.) Home gardeners can easily enter the sweepstakes.
Instead of dead-heading a prized hosta after its flowers fade, let the plump fruits form. When the fruits are still green but the stalk turns brown, cut the stem and bring it to a safe place indoors, maybe an empty vase set in a box where the warm air can dry the pods. Any seeds that drop when the pods split open can be collected and sown fresh; new hostas will come up quickly. The signs of something different soon be evident. Seedlings with promise can be potted up to grow in the garden, and the rest can be discarded. Thankfully, the seedlings that don’t measure up do not have to go to the compost heap. There’s a gardener born every minute, so the surplus should easily find homes.