A packet of information for gardeners interested in seeds

Seed saver Elaine Specht is shown with a few samples of seeds that will be available Saturday at the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners Association's annual seed exchange at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce. Ashley Miller/Daily

WINCHESTER – Elaine Specht, master gardener and seed saver, finds enjoyment in not only extricating seeds but also in watching the tiny seedlings grow into mature beautiful plants.

As any good gardener knows, it’s never too early to start planning the next seed crop. For many, starting in the winter is not uncommon and can be an exciting endeavor.

“What I find most interesting is what’s inside the seed itself,” Specht said. “Regardless of their shape or size, the seed itself houses everything the plant needs to mature. The roots, shoots, and every other cell are right there. It’s fascinating.”

Specht found her passion for seed saving over seven years ago when she moved from Blacksburg to Winchester. Instead of leaving behind her beloved marigolds, she simply removed the blooms, seeds intact and relocated them. But her seed story started as a young girl when her grandparents shared the fruits of their labor with their local community.

“I come from a farming family,” Specht said. “My grandfather on my father’s side would carry cantaloupe from his garden in the trunk of his car and give them away to anyone that would take one. My dad gave bushels of apples from his orchard to his hunting buddies each fall. And my grandmother on the other side of the family grew strawberries and made them into jam for friends.”

Today Specht is known as a seed saver: an individual who not only understands the science and history of seed saving but also the mechanics.

“Seed saving began in the hunter, gathering era,” she explained. “Years later, hybrids became more prevalent and farming became more specialized.” Over time Specht noted perennials and annuals have also changed due to science and gardener curiosity.

“Now we’re able to cross pollinate many species of plants to create new and miraculous ones,” she said. “It’s always interesting to me to see one type of plant cross-pollinated with another to see what the end result will be.”

Seed extraction typically takes place in the fall. Many gardeners get ahead of the spring season by starting their seeds inside. Specht and fellow master gardeners practice this themselves. Specht admits some more so than others.

“There’s one individual in our master gardeners group who converted her guest bathroom into a makeshift greenhouse,” she said. “She has shelves lined with rows of seedlings and florescent lights.” By doing this, gardeners are able to give their seedlings a longer time to germinate and mature.

For gardeners of all ages, growing seeds indoors is an easy and rewarding project.

“The reason you’re seeing seeds in the big stores is for the people who start their seeds early for transplanting outside,” Specht said.

Starting the seedlings inside gives them more time to mature to adulthood she explained. With the proper light, materials and patience anyone can start their flowers or even produce inside during the colder months for transplanting.

Perennials are the only seeds that can be planted during colder months. “They’re tough – they can fight the colder weather unlike annuals,” Specht said. “And then can be transplanted when you like.”

When perennials are planted in the winter they typically don’t need to be watered, Specht explained. As they grow, they put their roots out during mild weather, which allows them to settle and get use to their surroundings.

“You plant them, and forget about them,” she said.

As for annuals, these plants and flowers grow best in warm months. If planted too early, frost may claim them. For cold-climate locations, Specht suggested waiting until the danger of the last frost has occurred.

Specht prides herself on her seed-saving techniques and enjoys educating the community on the proper way to care for plants and their seeds. When she’s not cross-pollinating or harvesting seeds, she can be found participating in many master gardener programs and projects in the valley. She also gives lectures on Seed 101 to local libraries and garden clubs.

Most importantly, Specht said she wants to continue her grandparents’ tradition of giving.

“I feel like I am continuing their tradition when I give away things that I grow, including seeds from my garden.”