Low-growing plants at the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden in Seattle. Most of the plants in this garden were started from seeds collected by Carl English. Photo by Angie Narus.
Up until about two years ago, the idea of harvesting seeds from my own plants had never crossed my mind. I thought only horticulturists and experienced gardeners did that. But two years ago when I visited some public gardens in the Seattle area, I learned that many of the plants in those gardens were started from seeds that were collected or traded. The notion of being able to get “free” plants and preserve plants just by collecting seeds intrigued me, so I decided to learn as much as I could about harvesting my own.
I’ve since collected seeds from numerous flowers in my yard. I found the information I needed by doing simple, online searches on how to get seeds from specific plants, such as marigolds, asters, and lobelia. Here’s what I learned:
- It helps to know the name of the plant you want to get seeds from so you can look up instructions on harvesting seeds from it. Just because a flower is growing in your yard doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to replant its seeds. Try to find out if the plant is invasive in your area, if it’s a noxious weed, or if it will multiply beyond what you can control. If you can’t find the name of the plant, think twice before you decide to add it to your permanent plant collection.
- You can usually find plant names in plant reference books at the public library, online, or by asking a friend or someone else who knows plants. Your local Master Gardener program might also be able to help you.
- Once you have the plant’s name, you can look up how to harvest the plant’s seeds. Whether the instructions are in the form of a video or article, they should 1) tell where to find the seeds on the plant, 2) describe the process of harvesting the seeds, 3) show a picture of what the seeds look like, and 4) explain how to store the seeds properly. Some seeds need a “cold stratification” period, and some don’t. Some will grow true-to-type, and others won’t. Little facts like that can mean the difference between success and failure in propagating your own plants.
- Pick a place to you can lay the seeds out to dry for a couple of days–a place where they won’t be knocked on the floor or blown off the counter (I’m speaking from experience, here). I don’t recommend drying them on a papertowel because some seeds will actually stick to the papertowel as they dry. I dry mine in small white, ceramic saucers. The seeds show up easily against the white ceramic, they don’t stick, and I can just pour them from the saucers into envelopes for storage. I can also easily see any bugs that might be in with the seeds, since they stand out against the white color really well. You can get a lot of other ideas for different ways to dry seeds online.
- When the seeds are thoroughly dry, decide how to store them. I let mine dry for a few days. I’ve found that the simplest, most sure-fire storage method is to use small envelopes, the kind you can buy in a box of about 100 at an office supply store. Brown lunch bags work well, too, especially for larger seeds and bulbs, but they take up more room. Write the name of the plant and month/year you collected them on the envelope, seal it with a piece of tape, and stand the envelopes upright in a file box or basket.
- Flowers grow pretty well from seed, but it can be disappointing when your seeds don’t come up after you plant them. Use it as a learning experience and do a little research to find out what went wrong. The seeds might not have been completely dry when you stored them, you might not have put them in the right spot or in the right soil, you might not have given them the right amount of water, you might have planted them at the wrong time of year or at the wrong depth in the soil, or maybe they needed a cold stratification period (i.e. time in the refrigerator).
- Know that all plants can’t be propagated easily from seeds. Some have bulbs or tubers and some start best from cuttings.
- If you have plants that are self-seeding, you can spread them more quickly by collecting the seeds before they drop to the ground, and sprinkle them where you want them. I’ve been able to spread ground cover over a larger area this way.
- If you can, leave some seed pods on the plants for birds to feed on through winter.
Seed harvesting is a fun hobby and can very rewarding, and it helps nature in more ways than one. It can be an inexpensive, quick way to multiply your plants, which makes pollinators such as bees and butterflies happy. If you have plants that produce a lot of seeds, consider giving some away or trading them with other plant lovers. Next spring, I’ll be starting my own “heritage flower garden” with seeds given to me by friends and family members, beginning with seeds from a purple flower growing in my parents’ yard—a flower whose name I haven’t figured out yet.
Some good articles from other gardeners who are experienced at seed-collecting:
Collecting and Storing Seeds. http://www.finegardening.com/collecting-and-storing-seeds
Saving Flower Seeds. http://www.dianeseeds.com/saving/flower.html
Video on How to Collect and Save Seeds from Flowers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCs4QrRMt18
Seed Saving Tips from BHG. http://www.bhg.com/gardening/yard/garden-care/garden-seed-tips/
Weekend Gardener article. http://www.weekendgardener.net/plant-propagation/annualseeds-090809.htm
11 Easy to Save Flower Seeds (article and video). http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/11-easy-save-flower-seeds.html
Seed Savers Exchange Program. http://www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/memberships/