Trust The Seed
By Penn Parmenter:
Ask the earth about the shelf life of seeds and she will answer in wildflowers you’ve never seen before. Last year’s incredible Super Bloom was a joy to behold with flowers that I hadn’t seen in years - or ever. Enter the Pony Beebalm, (Monarda pectinata), which delighted and amazed us seven long years ago. I photographed it then and have searched our 40 aces for it ever since, to no avail.
Last year it grew in spectacular waves across this land we call home, drawing pollinators from far and wide. This humble balm threw colors I had not seen before and I dashed from plant to plant to document it. I must admit to fearing they were gone forever during their long absence, that years of drought had done them in. But seeds are smarter and more resilient than that; they simply waited for conditions to be just right.
The same was true a couple of years ago when a major flash flood ripped its way across our bottom land and moved sand, gravel, rocks, and sticks, leaving behind a swath of destruction. Within days, the showy Cow Pen Daisy (Verbesina enceloides), a common but beautiful plant with cheerful yellow flowers atop soft, grey green leaves, germinated in July and made a complete spectacle of itself en masse. It was waiting for a bit of scarification and disturbed soil, like the image its name inspires “Cow Pen Daisy”.
Many of you know the Colorado Four O’clock, Mirabilis multiflora. We don’t see it much up here above 8,000'. Ten years ago my neighbor planted one in a protected garden, then never saw it again until last year. Deeply tap-rooted, this beloved perennial took its sweet time, tapping its foot until 2021, then bloomed its ever lovin’ head off. She thought it was long gone.
I had been missing the Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) that grows on the back end of our property. I checked year after year with no luck. Last year it was everywhere. Another deeply tap-rooted plant, it just hung out till it liked the conditions again.
I also discovered the little Woolly Plantain, Plantago patagonica. Such a little cutie! “Who are you?” I asked, as it stopped me in my tracks. I spend a lot of time here witnessing and enjoying the wildflowers but this was something new.
While driving to town one day I realized that a hillside I pass all the time was absolutely smothered in soft lavender flowers. Since I brake for wildflowers, I came to an abrupt halt and jumped out . “It’s a Penstemon!” I shouted to no one. We’ve lived here for 31 years but I had never seen it there before. Fuzzy Tongue Penstemon (Penstemon auriberbis), with its linear leaves, soft lavender flowers and bright orange throat is now a beloved staple in my native collection.
An interesting fact about Penstemons is that they become more viable with age. The seed off-gasses and over time alters a germination-inhibiting chemical in its seed and seed coat. Wind, water, frost heaving, and moving through sandy soils also help to scarify the seed making it ready for germination – one of many strategies seeds employ to ensure their survival.
Some plant families do have a shorter long shelf life than others. The Ranunculaceae Family’s for instance, is very short. Delphinium, Monkshood, and Columbine are a few examples.
These stories are true for most vegetable seeds too. Years of training from seed companies would have us believe that seed just up and croaks on a certain date so you need to throw out last year’s seed. Yes, fresh seed is desirable for maximum germination, but remember that seed is designed to last. If you didn’t use up all the seed in the packet, don’t despair; it will be good for years to come. Even if it seems older than you are comfortable with, you can still use it. Simply sow more heavily to make sure you get as many plants as you want.
Germination rates can lessen over the years but there is no sudden death. If you are unsure, perform a simple test. Count out 10 seeds, place them in a moist paper towel, and put that into an open plastic bag. Store it somewhere warm, keep it moist, and check on it in a week or two. If eight seeds germinated, you have 80% viability; plant those little guys into pots for later. If none germinated, time for the compost. You can also test seeds in soil, keeping the plants that make it.
Squash, corn and beans are good examples of seed that can last a very long time. Beets, Cucumbers, Radish, Tomatoes, Watermelon, Turnips and Okra, also have a long shelf life. Carrots, onions, and spinach don’t last as long so be sure to sow older seed more heavily. The key to a long shelf life is to store your seeds cool, dry, dark, in a steady temperature. Fluctuating temps can tire them out more quickly than steady temps. You absolutely can store your seed in a refrigerator to extend their life.
For wild seed, the earth is the optimal place for seeds to wait. There is a symbiotic relationship with all living things and seeds and soil are no different. Like the Pony Beebalm, which is an annual, the seed waited, stored perfectly in soil where it thrives.
I learn so much by observing plants – about patience, timing, and adaptation. I see remarkable things happen in the wild. Since all plants started there, our domesticated vegetables have much to teach us too.
Go through your seeds, keep an open mind, and have faith. Humans have a long relationship with seeds and they will feel you pulling for them. Perhaps the best advice I ever got from one of my seed teachers was, “Trust the seed.” You can too.
Penn & Cord Parmenter garden and grow food and seed near Westcliffe. Both are regional high-altitude gardening instructors and the founders of Smart Greenhouses LLC and Miss Penn's Mountain Seeds. Visit www.pennandcordsgarden.com