Journal of Horticulture, 7: 230-231 (September 20, 1864)

R. Fish

Practically among good gardeners we consider there is little difference between the seeds of last year and seeds from three to six years old. Generally, when placed under similar circumstances the new seeds will produce the more vigorous plants, with the greater tendency to grow and make wood instead of setting the fruit quickly; whilst old seeds will yield plants of more sturdy growth, and be inclined to show and set fruit more quickly, because they are old, and it is a universal law in vegetable nature, that whatever tends to lessen vigour of growth will also tend to promote the production of seeds, the extra production of leaf buds and fruit-buds being in an inverse ratio to each other—a fact which, thoroughly understood, has led to many improvements in modern gardening. Practically, however, the age of the seeds of a Melon, provided they vegetate freely, is of less importance, as extra vigour may be neutralised by frequent pinching and disbudding (for the Melon does not relish much cutting with the knife), and more dryness, especially at the surface of the soil, when the plants show bloom. If much cutting is resorted to, the plants when very vigorous will be apt to gangrene if the wounds are not well dried or daubed with charcoal and lime. The luxuriance, when disbudding is well attended to, will often cause the fruit to swell very rapidly after they are set.

Plants from old seeds will generally grow much more slowly at first, and have a tendency in similar circumstances to be of a more short-jointed growth, and will, as a general rule, give less trouble in disbudding and setting. Though, therefore, if we suit our practice to circumstances there will be little ultimate practical difference, we can see the wisdom of our old gardeners in carrying new Melon and Cucumber seeds in their pockets some time before sowing, and thus, by the heat of the body drying the seeds, placing them in much the same position as older seeds as respects their growth.

The chief advantages of seeds one or two years old, therefore, over new ones are the less vigorous growth and the greater tendency to show fruit early. If the seeds are too old, so as to vegetate very slowly, and vigour cannot be imparted by rich nourishment, or the plants are too delicate to receive it, we arrive at the extreme of weakness—just as new seeds, if treated with rich compost, are apt to give us the extreme of luxuriance. Whatever checks the luxuriant production of stems and roots will insure earlier maturity. In old seeds the drying consolidates the carbon, and the starchy matter becomes to a certain extent converted into albumen; and this is less easily changed by moisture and the oxygen of the air into a sugary liquid than a starchy substance in the seed. On the amount of the sugary matter which the germinating seed can obtain will depend, in a great measure, the vigour of the young plant.

The matter may be simplified if we recollect that as a seed ripens the sugar, gum, and albumen are changed into starch; and then when we wish that seed to germinate we must reverse the process, and by the chemical agencies brought naturally into operation get the starch and the albumen converted again into sugar. As a familiar instance, look at a fine Marrowfat Pea, soft, and sweet, and fit for the table—how sweet it is! Taste it when ripe, and tasteless starch along with nitrogenous matters are its chief components. Make that seed germinate, and you again obtain the sweet moist taste of the half-ripened Pea. So much is this the case, that we have sometimes wondered that our epicures do not malt their old Peas to make them soft and sweet again for the table. Sow the Peas as soon as ripened, and they will soon germinate vigorously; keep them for a year or two, and they will germinate more slowly and more weakly. Dry them very much when thinly spread out to a bright spring sun, and the seeds of last autumn will sprout little more vigorously than older Peas. Dry them still more in sunlight, and the carbon may be so consolidated that the application of moisture will cause rottenness to ensue instead of germination. Dry fresh young Melon seeds especially in the sun for a fortnight, and you will get the slower germination that takes place with older seeds. Dry them still more, and the vital germ may be unable to find any sugar out of the consolidated starch and albumen. Old seeds, therefore, require more care at the germinating period. The moisture that would suit a fresh seed would at once in an old seed produce rottenness and decay. Old seeds thoroughly indurated should be allowed to absorb moisture gradually. We have sown two pots of Melon seeds from the same packet, and taken from the same Melon four years previously. In the one pot we used soil slightly damp, and gave no water until the seeds were swelling; and the other pot we watered a day after the seeds were sown. In the first case almost every seed grew, in the latter case not a single seedling.

We might go on and yet not explain the matter more. Without referring to man, we might instance the animals generally reared for human food. The breeders act on the same principle, though applying it differently. A quick build of beef, mutton, or pork is their object, and to secure this the animals are well fed from the commencement of their existence. The gardener would do the same with a Melon plant if his object were mere growth of plant, bulk of stems and leaves; but as early fruit is his object, he rather lessens excessive vigour of growth, and old or well dried seeds give him a weaker and stubbier young plant to start with.—R. Fish.