Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Um…no, not that season, though you’d be justified in guessing that if you too have noticed the sudden onslaught of holiday carols on the radio. I’m thinking about seed seasons. You see, a year in the life of a seed geek includes four seasons, but they’re a little different than the usual calendar or meteorological ones: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to share, and a time to acquire.
These seasons don’t work like normal ones, because there’s a lot of overlap. Here at Hayefield, sowing happens pretty much continuously from January into September, for instance, and seed collecting can run from June well into winter. The sharing season – in other words, the time for cleaning, packaging, filling out donation forms, and sending everything off to the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s Seed Exchange – is intense but short, and it always has a definite yearly deadline: October 31.
To be totally accurate, October 31 is the deadline for the donation forms; the seeds themselves don’t have to arrive until early January. But I’ve been taking part in the Exchange so long that the October 31 date is set in my mind, and I always use that as my goal date for getting it all done. This year, I collected seed from the gardens at Linden Hill as well as from home, and the dry weather was so ideal for seed-collecting that it was hard to make myself stop. My car became a mobile seed-collecting and -drying station for the Linden Hill seeds.
At home, I ended up with pots, bags, boxes, and envelopes of seedheads scattered all over: on the porch, in the shed, in the basement, in the cold frame, and throughout the house. I started cleaning them in early October, which would have allowed plenty of time if I hadn’t kept collecting right into last week. Last Tuesday and Wednesday saw the final frenzy of cleaning and packing. Usually, I like to do the cleaning outside, because it can get really messy, but the weather wasn’t cooperating, so I ended up spreading out on the kitchen floor.
I like to start with the easy seeds first, such as these of Job’s tears (Coix lachryma-jobi). They’re so easy to handle and hardly need any cleaning at all.
Smaller seeds that don’t have tiny or sticky chaff, such as love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), are pretty easy too. These, I just pour into a shallow tray, blow off the chaff with a few puffs, and pick out the rest with a fine paintbrush.
After these, things get a bit more complicated. One of my most precious tools is a set of sieves I’ve had since college. Back then, I used them for soil samples, but they work beautifully for many seeds too. There’s nothing like dumping in a few handfuls of chaffy stuff, giving the stack a few shakes, and lifting off the top sieve to find a layer of perfectly clean seed than can go right into an envelope. If only they all worked that way.
When the deadline looms, it’s tempting to send in just the easy-to-clean stuff. But I figure that if everyone did that, the Seed Exchange list would be pretty slim, so I try to do my part by contributing the harder-to-clean seeds too. With its large seeds and seedheads, you’d think cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) would be a snap.
It’s rather time-consuming to pick apart the tufted centers and separate the fluffy parts from the seeds, though. And nearly a week later, I’m still finding the tufty bits throughout the house.
Extracting the dust-like seeds of ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera), which I collected from my meadow, was simply a matter of tapping the seedhead onto a piece of wax paper, then picking out a few bits of chaff. The hard part was folding the paper while trying to keep my hands steady and not breathe.
Amaranths and celosias can be tough to clean thoroughly, because they have so much chaff. It takes a lot of sieving, winnowing, and hand-picking to do a very thorough cleaning job. It’s worth it, though. After all that cleaning, I ended up with 40 donations total, and that’s a great feeling!
Mind you, these are just the seeds for the HPS/MAG Exchange. Those I plan to keep for myself seldom get much cleaning; they’re still in their original bags, boxes, and envelopes. Come sowing time, I’ll mostly use whatever has fallen to the bottom of each container, chaff and all, and it generally grows just fine. It’s important to me to have it well cleaned for the Seed Exchange, however. A dedicated group of volunteers gather in January to clean, sort, and catalog the donated seeds, and with many hundreds of donations to deal with, they have more than enough to do. I figure that anything we donors can do to make their jobs easier is worth every minute.
Once those seeds are packed up and mailed off, it’s already time to think about acquiring new ones. Seed catalogs seem to arrive earlier every year! Thompson & Morgan came in early October, and I spotted a few cool things when I flipped through before hiding it to remove the temptation of ordering right away. Unfortunately, I hid it so well that I can’t find it now. But clicking around the T&M web site reminds me of a few things I plan to order, such as the red-stemmed Malabar spinach (Basella rubra), ‘Black Beauty’ dahlia, and ‘Cherry Brandy’ rudbeckia. I see that they’re again offering Eryngium leavenworthii, and I think I’ll re-order this year, because I’m not sure my plants are going to produce viable seeds.
And then there’s the yearly thrill of the Plant World catalog, arriving from the U.K. in its traditonal plain brown envelope. This year, they’ve jumped into offering a range of heirloom veggies, along with their usual exciting selection of unusual annuals, perennials, woodies, and climbers. If you crave columbines (Aquilegia), they have 17 different listings this year, from ‘Alchemist’s Gold’ to A. yabeana. Seventeen kind of angel’s fishing rods (Dierama), too, which makes me wish they were hardy here. Echiums, euphorbias, hardy geraniums, meconopsis (for you folks in Nova Scotia), primulas, and many other goodies appear in their catalog, and even more on their web site. Time to start planning that order, too. I’m thinking that the “Yugoslavian Finger Fruit” is a must try, for one.
No new seed catalogs arrived today, but something else exciting came in the mail: a copy of ¡Tropicalismo!: Spice Up Your Garden with Cannas, Bananas, and 93 Other Eye-Catching Tropical Plants, the new book by Pam Baggett. Those of you who remember Pam’s fantastic and much-missed nursery, Singing Springs Nursery, will be as happy as I am to relive the fun of reading her personality-packed plant descriptions. You can pick it up through Amazon, and at a smidge over $10, it’s a steal! Now, if we could just get Pam to start a garden blog….
And finally, a special welcome to readers from the Greater Philadelphia Gardens news article Believe-It-or-Not Tales from the Garden. If you’ve arrived looking for more information about gardening with alpaca manure, check out my post Non-Natives in the Garden over at the group blog I participate in, Gardening Gone Wild.