Inner Life of Seeds
By: Brent and Becky
Seeds are at the very core of our gardens. They surround us daily and are the source of life in nature and our own gardens. Most gardeners work with seeds every new growing season, but so many of us don’t take a lot of time to think about how they work. It’s time to look a little deeper into this important player in our gardens.
Inside a Seed
There are many different types of seeds that we encounter on a nearly daily basis. Beyond the seeds that we curate for our own gardens, we see other types in our food, and even in the dandelions we try (often in vain) to oust from our yards. There’s a staggering variety of forms and functions but, at their core, every seed is an embryonic plant.
The seed itself can possess a number of adaptations intended to protect or even help transport the seed. All of these extra structures are designed for the new plant life within it. They typically include food stores to support the growth of the seed in the early days of its life and a protective casing.
Seeds are a capsule with everything they need to start a new plant life. They are designed to spread from their parent plant and then patiently lie in wait for the right conditions to be met. Once everything is set up to support their growth, the seed will finally begin to sprout and grow.
Mainly, seeds are concerned with are water, temperature, and light. The new plant will need a combination of these in order to support its growth and feed itself - it just wouldn’t make sense for the seed to begin growing until these conditions are present in the right amounts.
Where it Starts - Germination
There’s a lot of science packed into every little seed. Each tiny package contains the beginning of a new life, and they each have a number of special adaptations to help them survive.
Even buried in the dark soil, seeds somehow know what direction is up. No matter what direction you plant the seed, the roots and new shoot will figure out how to grow in the correct directions. The dominant theory is that seeds are able to sense the pull of gravity and will orientate their growth accordingly. Growing seeds in zero gravity on the International Space Station might confirmed this idea, since those plants started to send roots in all directions as they germinated.
The first sign we see of germination is when the first shoot emerges from the soil. Whether this is in your garden, or indoors as you get a head start on the season, this first glimpse of green is a welcome sign of spring on its way.
The first signs of growth are two tiny leaves called seed-leaves. They use the seed’s stores to grow rather than pulling nutrients from the ground via new roots. They often don’t look much like the mature plant’s leaves - it’s easy to mistake them for clover. “True-leaves” typically start with the third leaf, and they look much more like the leaves you’d expect on the mature plant. These are the beginning of the plant’s growth, drawing their nutrients from the ground and from photosynthesis. Never fertilize a plant until the true-leaves appear, and even then only fertilize immature plants at half-strength.
Knowing the inner workings of your seeds gives you an advantage in coaxing them to grow in your garden! From buying your seeds to getting them started at home, removing some mystery from the process makes everything a little easier.
Buying Seeds - When you’re buying, make sure that you are checking the expiry date on the package. Seeds that are past their prime will still be able to germinate, but not as reliably as new seeds. The older the seeds are, the less likely it is they will germinate predictably or at all. If you have old seeds, you’ll want to sow them a little thicker to try to compensate for lost coverage.
If you are gathering seeds from your own garden rather than the store, you might throw them in water to test them. One long-held notion is that by keeping an eye on which ones sink and float will indicate which are “good” seeds worth planting. The belief is that “bad” seeds will float, typically because they’re lacking an embryo and won’t grow. However, there’s little evidence to show that this is true, and you are likely throwing away some good seeds with the rest that float. The only reliable way to tell if a seed is good or not is to plant it and see if it germinates and grows.
Diverse Varieties - All seeds require the conditions of water, light, and warmth in some mixture in order to germinate. This cocktail of conditions is the beginning of seed life - but some varieties are far pickier than others. Tropical fruits, cacti and carnivorous plants (among others) are notoriously difficult to coax into germinating. Luckily, some of the seeds that are the easiest to grow are also the most useful. Garden classics like tomatoes, salad greens, and many herbs are nearly foolproof, as long as you have a sunny windowsill to start them. In the spring, you can start your beans, carrots, or peas directly in your garden. Just sow them into the dirt, add water, and let them do their work!
With every new year, there is new noise over the most recent developments by plant breeders trying to develop the latest, best cultivar. For reliable plants that germinate easily, the classics have always been unbeatable in their performance and ease of care. Trendier new varieties offer many other benefits in the niche purposes they have been bred for, but might need a gentler hand and more careful attention to flourish.
They look so simple when we hold them in our hands, but our seeds have a lot of complicated things going on under their tough exteriors. Understanding how your garden works makes it that much easier to take care of, and understanding the science of seeds makes it that much more magical when those first sprouts appear.
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