All About Seeds (Part II)

Okay, I’ve been unable to post this in the  last two weeks because of a slew of midterms for school (7 exams in 7 working days!).  At any rate, I’m doing my best to keep things up to date.  Now, without further ado… the conclusion of my All About Seeds post.

Harvesting Seed

As with anything plant related, you must consider the three primary factors:

  • plant propagation
  • hybrids/hybridization
  • germination difficulty

In particular, if you are not a “seed-a-holic”, many things are difficult to germinate.

When to Harvest

Seeds should be harvested when the seed is dry on the plant (it is best when fully dried on the plant).  Early bloomers will likely be harvested in July or August while late bloomers may be harvested around October or even later (sometimes even January or February!).

It is best to have a journal in which you can record observations such as seed drying and dropping.  From this you should make a schedule – that way you know approximately when to harvest.  Harvest when the seed pods are dry (have I said that enough?).

Seed pods that drop seed quickly or expel seeds should be “bagged” directly on the plant.  For culinary herbs and greens: stop deadheading herbs, and allow greens to bolt in early August.  Prolific sowers (those that sow themselves readily) should be bagged once the flowers start to fade.


Bagging refers to simply enclosing the seed pod while it remains on the plant.  This allows the seed to be harvested without having to watch carefully for the moment the seed pod bursts.  Basically all you need is some cheesecloth, satin thread/fishing line/dental floss, and a darning needle.  Scissors help to cut the cheesecloth.  Simply wrap the cheesecloth around the seed pod and sew closed around the stem.  Don’t sew too tightly as you do not want to damage the plant.  (If I’ve described this completely wrong, or bastardized it severely, please let me know so I can update this.)


Basic materials in addition to those described above are:

  • envelopes or freezer bags
  • tweezers (for cleaning)
  • sieve(s) (for cleaning)
  • saucers/lids/pans (for drying)


When stored properly, seeds can be stored from months to years, depending on your needs.  Basically all that is required for good storage is a cool, dark, dry place.  Coin envelopes work wonderfully as they are the perfect size for most seeds and are effective at keeping them cool, dark and dry.  Take care, however, because once moisture is introduced to the seeds, they must be sown immediately.

Winter Sowing

This was probably my absolute favourite part of the evening.  Many people are unable to start seeds indoors for lack of space, or for other reasons.  There is a very nice solution to this known as winter sowing.

Basically, you can take your seeds, sow them in a container (4-litre milk jugs work well), and place them outside in a snow bank.  The seeds will germinate naturally when conditions are right.  The funny thing is that I was reading about just this thing the day of the presentation, but they didn’t call it winter sowing.

Be aware, however, that germination rates are unlikely to be as good as with indoor sowing.  If you are looking to start a nursery, indoor sowing is best.  If you’re looking to get your garden going and have fun in the winter, then winter sowing is a good option.


There are a great number of benefits to winter sowing, including:

  • protection of seeds from critters and from the elements
  • a cheap, easy way to get plants (seed packets are cheap!)
  • helps relieve gardening-withdrawal during the winter months
  • no need for grow lights or heat mats
  • doesn’t take up space in the house
  • allows you to easily try different plants
  • experimentation is fun


Only a small number of tools and equipment is needed to get started in winter sowing:

  • container
  • notebook
  • drill
  • box cutter
  • labels
  • duct tape
  • felt marker or paint pen

Container Requirements/Options:

Several options will work for containers, but 4-litre milk jugs seem to work wonderfully.  Otherwise, the container must:

  • be translucent, able to transmit light
  • allow drainage holes to be drilled

Do not use non-food-grade, dark, or opaque containers.  Even green pop bottles are not suitable.

What to Sow?

The following have been tried in the Calgary area, which is zone 3a:

  • Annuals
    • clarkia
    • phacelia
    • alyssum
    • dahlia
    • zinnia
    • marigold
    • bells of Ireland
    • sanvitalia (creeping zinnia)
    • rudbeckia
    • sunflower
    • ornamental grasses
  • Perennials
    • blue fescue
    • joe pye weed
    • monarda
  • Biennials
  • Edibles
    • kale
    • buttercrunch, cesclu lettuces
    • spinach
    • sunflower
    • pansy
    • mint
    • thyme
    • cabbage
    • broccoli
    • cauliflower

How?  Soil?

The how and soil parts are simple.  What follows is based on a 4-litre milk jug.

  1. cut ventilation slots in the top part of a 4-litre milk jug; keep the cap on the jug
  2. drill or otherwise create drainage holes in the bottom of the jug
  3. use box cutter to cut 3 sides of a 4-litre milk jug approximately 2/3 up from bottom (just below the bottom of the handle) (doing this before cutting and drilling makes it very difficult to cut vents and drainage)
  4. label the top and bottom of the jug in a manner that works for you; record this in your notebook or spreadsheet
  5. fill bottom portion of jug approximately 3/4 full with soil mixture; tamp lightly and water
  6. repeat #5 once
  7. sow seeds, label container with seed name, record in notebook/spreadsheet
  8. close container and secure the top to the bottom using duct tape – wrap all around the container to ensure it doesn’t easily come apart
  9. place container(s) in a snow bank with morning sun
  10. water when soil is drying out

The soil mix can be as simple as the inexpensive mix from (ugh) WalMart or Canadian Tire, or something nicer like ProMix.  It all depends how much you want to spend.

As for myself, I’m waiting for Seedy Saturday (March 19 in Calgary) to get some seeds and then get going with my winter sowing.  Once spring has sprung a bit more, we will get some square-foot gardening plots going.  I can’t wait!

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