Thursday, October 25, 2018

Picking the Perfect Pod

Kathryn Kamowski

As autumn begins, it is the perfect time to try your hand at saving seeds! Many plants are almost ready to put their seeds out, or already have. In this post, we’ll go over some of the basics of seed saving from pods. Feel free to experiment and have fun!

Pods are protective layers that can hold a great array in size and number of seeds, and can come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The important thing to remember about pods is to allow them to mature on the plant. A dry, brown pod is a ready pod! In many cases, the pod may split, exposing the seeds. This is when you know they are ready to be harvested. If you harvest them too soon, the seeds may not be viable.

If you are worried that seeds will fall out of the pods before you are ready to harvest them, a tried-and-true strategy for collection is bagging the immature pods. Lightly secure a small bag or piece of cloth fully around the pod. Be sure that the material you use allows air and light to reach the pods, and that you secure the material firmly enough that it will not blow off, but not so tight as to damage the plant. The bag will catch any seeds as the pods burst open, with the added benefit of critters not being able to get to the seeds before you do.

You can see in this photo that the milkweed pod is still green. The seeds will not be ready for saving yet. Thanks to Delco Master Gardener Christine Coulter for the milkweed pods!

This milkweed pod is bursting and is perfect for saving!

These cleome pods are still green. They need some more time.

This photo shows a sense of the progression of a cleome pod from green to completely dried out. You can see a bag would have been helpful in capturing these seeds!

One of the nice things about saving seeds in pods is that they are typically already dried out and ready for storage. To be certain no moisture remains on the seeds, you can spread them out on a paper towel for a few days. Some seeds, such as the milkweed, may have other elements (like fluff) attached to the seed which should be removed prior to storage.

When your seeds are dry, store them in a paper envelope (plastic or glass is OK if you are certain there is no moisture left in the seeds). If you plan on sowing the seeds next spring, you can store them in the refrigerator as a cold stratification method to imitate the winter temperature and assist in germination. If you choose to store your seeds outside of the refrigerator, make sure the location is cool, dry, dark, and out of reach of pests.

These cleome pods are dry and ready for seeds to be saved. The paper towel helps remove any remaining moisture from the seeds prior to storage.
Remember to label your seeds! Come spring, it may be difficult to remember which seed packet contains which plant seeds.

A quick word to seed swappers and sellers: be careful about saving seeds from plants that are patented. Some plant varieties are patented by their creators, and in many cases it is illegal to save seeds from these plants. If you are not sure, check your variety online prior to saving seeds, or do not share your seeds with others.

Have fun saving!

You can find more fall seed-saving tips from the Penn State Extension Philadelphia Master Gardeners here.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Creative Space Saving Ideas

Kathryn Kamowski

Living in an urban area, space comes at a premium to many of us. Now that it is fall and we take stock of how our gardens and plants fared this year, I want to share some ideas with you on ways to soak up every last inch of growing space for next year’s garden so you can plan ahead.

I encourage you to find new, plant-growing uses for old items. Did your watering can spring a leak this summer? No problem; it will be your new cutest planter!

No yard? Go vertical. An old pallet becomes a planter wall to frame your favorite outdoor plants.

Earlier this year, I asked our fellow gardeners at the Philly Plant Exchange Facebook group to send in photos of their best space-saving ideas. With their permission, I am sharing their photos and ideas in this post.

Loren Taylor also used vertical pallet planters, creating a beautiful privacy wall in the process.

Arly Chulmans shared photos of her vertical gardening techniques. Old shoe organizers become perfect plant pockets.

Cinder blocks are creatively stacked to create lot of vertical space in a narrow horizontal space.

Rebecca Hamell showed that sometimes space saving is about minimizing tools. By burying an irrigation system, Rebecca eliminates the need for hose containment or a bulky sprinkler system that sprays beyond the wanted range.

Using trellises to support tomatoes and other large plants takes less space than traditional tomato cages and plant supports.

Melissa Mazur also uses a combination of trellises and raised beds to make the most of a narrow space.

Dominic Ariaudo makes the most of his outdoor staircase, hanging plants from the bannisters and steps, and using it to provide partial shade for his container plants.

Siri Mai packs a huge amount in her 5’x10’ balcony with plant shelves, balcony boxes, and hanging baskets.

And finally, Tresa Copes followed the tried-and-true strategy of fitting as many pots and planters in her space as possible! 

Hopefully some of these ideas have inspired you to take next year’s garden to the next level. Happy planning!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Seed Saving: Preserving This Year's Flavors

Meredith Nutting

As summer winds down and early onset nostalgia for this year’s tomatoes hits hard, it’s time to think about saving seeds for next year. Saving seeds is easy and it has many benefits.

The most obvious is that it saves you money – you won’t have to buy seeds or transplants for your favorite vegetables next year. It also helps maintain a genetic diversity. Go into any heirloom seed catalogue and you’ll see hundreds of varieties of vegetables you may have never heard of. Many of these varieties have relied on gardeners preserving the seeds and planting them through the years. In addition, it helps build a community through sharing seeds of vegetables that do well in particular regions. Finally, it connects you with your garden beyond eating the food it provides. Careful attention to the seeds you save and the plants you grow in following years opens up a whole new level of understanding how your plants interact with each other.

Plants produce seeds when their flower is pollinated. This can either happen through self-pollination or cross pollination. When a plant self-pollinates, no new genetic material is introduced and so the next generation of plants are similar to the parent plants. In cross pollination two varieties of the same species of plant are crossed and the future generations have a combination of characteristics from the parent plants. Ensuring your plants do not cross pollinate is important if you are trying to grow a specific heirloom variety. However, cross pollinated plants are great to maintain a genetic diversity and find new varieties. Depending on the reason for saving seeds, the process actually starts when you plan your garden.


If you want to plant delicious heirloom varieties year after year and preserve their genetic line, you’ll need to prevent cross pollinating with other varieties. You can do this in a few ways. The first is to consider what varieties you plant and create distance between them so that they do not cross pollinate. Depending on the plant, a distance of 100 feet to 1 mile could be required. In many cases this is feasible; however, if you have a small garden and want variety, there are still a few other methods.
You could plant just one variety per species so that even a cross pollination would result in the same heirloom characteristics. Alternatively, bagging the flowers will create a barrier so that they won’t be pollinated by insects or the wind. To do this, put a paper or fine mesh bag over the flowers before they open. If the flowers are perfect – containing both male and female parts, like a tomato – they’ll self-pollinate in the bag. If the flowers are male or female, like a pumpkin, they’ll require you to pollinate them when they open and then re-bag them.

If all of this seems like too much work and you want to be a bit adventurous and see what nature will create, you can just let your plants do what they’ll do. Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll self-pollinate; maybe you’ll end up with a delicious never-been-tried crossed variety; maybe the result will be inedible. The point is – if you are just starting seed saving and didn’t go through the meticulous process of avoiding cross pollination – you can still participate in seed saving.

A little note on hybrids. Hybrid vegetables are sold at nurseries and are wonderful. However, the seeds they contain don’t match the vegetables you are eating this year. They might, but like any cross-pollinated plant, they might not. In fact, the seeds may not even be viable. But, while the best seeds are “open pollinator” varieties, I would never discourage anyone from garden experiments – including saving seeds from hybrid plants.


Now that you’ve decided to save seeds you’ll need to know when to harvest, what to harvest, how to harvest and finally how to store them until next year.

Harvesting seeds often does not happen at the same time you harvest plants to eat. Vegetables that reach their market maturity, the time when we like to eat them, are often still immature with undeveloped seeds. Beans need to be dried longer on the vine, cucumbers need to stay out until they’re a little wrinkly and eggplants need to wait until they turn a yellow/green color. Because of this, you’ll want to designate some of your vegetables to be seed savers rather than dinner.

Choosing what seeds you’re going to save is key. You want to choose a vegetable that is ideal in size, color, and from a plant that’s free of disease. These are the characteristics you’re passing on, so you want them to be the best! 

Image courtesy of the author.
Once you’ve chosen the vegetables you want to save seeds from and waited until they’ve reached seed maturity, you’re ready to harvest the seeds. To do that you’ll either wet harvest or dry harvest. Vegetables with pulpy flesh – tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, etc. – are wet harvested, while beans, basil, lettuce, etc. are dry harvested.


Dry harvesting is fairly easy. You’ll want to let the seeds dry as long as possible on the plant. For example, a bean pod will be yellow, dry and nearly crumbly with hard seeds when it’s ready to be harvested. You don’t want to wait too long as eventually the seed pods will open up and scatter your beans in the garden (not necessarily a bad way to go for a lazy gardener). Once you’ve removed the seeds from the plant you need to further dry them by placing them in a single layer on a screen or paper towel in a well-ventilated area for a few days. Blow off any remaining seed pod, chaff or debris.

If the seeds are small – like from dill or basil – you can take the whole seed head and put it in a paper bag. Once they are all dry give the bag a shake until all the seeds are off the seed head. Again, blow off any chaff or debris and you’re done. 

Image courtesy of the author.


For plants with a pulpy flesh there are a few more steps. Once the vegetable has reached seed maturity – again, slightly after you’d want to eat it – remove it from the plant. Slice it open and scoop out the seeds. For tomatoes it’s really easy to crush and squeeze the pulp and seeds out. Put the mass of pulp and seeds in a jar or bucket and add a bit of warm water. These seeds require or benefit from a bit of fermentation. You simply need to stir the mixture once a day for three or four days. As the seeds ferment, the good ones will fall to the bottom leaving the unviable seeds and pulp at the top. Pour this off and save the sunken seeds. You can spread them on a fine screen or paper towel to dry.


Seeds need to be in a cool, dry place to last through the winter until the ground is ready to be planted next year. This can be in glass jars or paper envelopes, in a cool basement or the fridge. You can even freeze them – however this requires even more drying. If you’ve dried seeds on a paper towel and they’ve become stuck, you can fold them up in the paper towel and store them that way. Once you’re ready to plant them, rip the towel with the seeds and plant the whole thing – this will prevent the seeds from being damaged as you try to separate them from the paper fibers. Finally 
 label, label, label! Winter is long, and well-intentioned memories will fade.


Now you’re ready to start saving. Once you’ll do you’ll soon realize that saving seeds from even one cherry will give you way too many plants for next year. One of the most gratifying parts of saving seeds is being able to share with fellow gardeners. Starting a seed swap with your community is a great way to share the bounties of this year’s garden and to experiment with what your neighbors are planting!