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How to Save Seeds

October 21, 2011

A recent visitor to this garden blog asked me what the benefit of saving seeds from the garden for next year. The answer can be a rather long one involving issues like income, consumerism, and even politics when we get into the area of genetically modified organisms and saving heirloom seeds. The biggest benefit for me of saving seeds for next year is that I create a backup of my garden should plants die or get stolen. While saving seeds from vegetables, flowers and fruits you’re creating your own personal seed bank. Below are some seed saving tips and techniques I rely on to save seeds from plants in my garden. Hopefully they’ll be of use to new gardeners who come across this.

When to Save Seeds

Save garden seeds from good growing seasons, from healthy plants. Harvest seeds from plants before rainfalls and frosts. Seeds that have dried on the plant may absorb moisture during rains, swell and crack. All of this hydrating and drying is damaging to the outer seed coatings that prevent seeds from germinating and to the embryo inside.

Where are the Seeds?

This is the most frequently asked question by new gardeners wanting to learning about saving flower seeds. Locating the seeds on the plant can be difficult if you do not know what you are looking for. Ideally, a gardener should learn the basic flower shapes in order to be able to identify where the seeds will develop. Compositae (Asteraceae) are the largest family of flowering plants. These include common garden annuals like asters, sunflowers, Black-eyed Susans, rudbeckias, daisies, gazanias, calendula and zinnias.

Compositae(Asteraceae)Family,Zinnia, Sunflower, Gaznia

Being the largest family of flowering plants the Compositae family is most likely the plant family you are collecting seeds from in your garden. If the flower has a green, yellow, brown or black “eye” in the center it is likely a member of the Compositae family. This eye is made up of lots of tiny flowers which each produce a seed.

Rudbeckia, Black-eyed Susan seed heads

The seeds will develop in that “eye” forming a seed head. Oftentimes the “eye” looks like a button and sometimes it can look a bit like a cone like in purple coneflowers and rudbeckias. Some Compositae flowers, like those of marigolds, have tight bunches of petals, with no “eye,” but the seeds develop right in the center. When sowing these seeds the easiest method is to break apart the cone or button and sow the seeds directly in the ground.

Plants in the Lamiaceae (mint) family may produce many tiny flowers among a stem. Basil is a good example of this flowering pattern. An inflorescence (groups of flowers) is a flower shape you will come across in the mint family. I think these clusters of flowers look like bottle brushes. Anise hyssop is an example of an inflorescence. What looks like a flower is actually comprised of lots of tiny flowers, which produce very small seeds.

Anise Hyssop Flower, Inflorescence

Collect these seeds by shaking them inside of a paper envelope. Cutting off the stalks and hanging them upside down also helps release the seeds inside. Don’t crowd too many plant stems or seed heads into a small envelope when you’re harvesting seeds.

Celosias and amaranths produce inflorescences that resemble plumes and you can harvest these seed the same way as described above.

Seeds from vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers are found inside among the flesh. Some fruits like strawberries have seeds on that develop on the surface of the fruit. Ferns are among a group of plants that do not grow flowers or produce seeds, ferns reproduce by spores. Flowering bulbs like alliums and four o’ clocks also produce seeds that can be collected.

Candy Lily, Blackberry Lily seeds developing

An easy way of locating where the seeds are developing is to look at the flower petals. The petals are usually in front of or surround the ovary. As flowers are pollinated, the petals fall away after doing their job of attracting pollinators. At this point the seedpod or capsule begins to swell and inside of these is where you will find the seeds. In the photo of blackberry lily above: image 1 shows you the petals, in image 2 they’re starting to wither, in image 3 they’ve turned brown. But you can see how the seeds have developed behind them. Some plants like nasturtiums and bells of Ireland do not develop seedpods or seed heads–the seeds hang off the plant, but as long as you know the seeds develop where the petals where you will be able to find the seeds on the plant.

Seed Saving Kit

Seed Saving Kit, saving seeds for next year

Create a seed saving kit that you can keep by the front door, glove compartment, purse or backpack. You will need a small pair of scissors (or pocketknife), paper envelopes (junk mail works great) or paper bags. A pen (or marker) to label the seeds as you gather them from the garden. Do not rely on your memory, by the time you get the seeds home you could have forgotten the name, variety or color of the bloom. This is all valuable information you may need later if you trade seeds. Recycle small containers such as small tins to save seeds, prescription bottles and film canisters for very tiny seeds. Bamboo skewers help you dislodge seeds or collect seeds that are tacky and may stick to your hands or fingers. You can keep these items inside of a larger plastic bag.

Drying Seeds

Saving anise hyssop seeds

Air circulation is very important in drying seeds before storing them. You do not need fancy equipment or tools to dry seeds. Simply spread out the seeds on sheets of paper (or paper plates) and allow them to air dry for a few days. Do not place seeds on or in plastic to dry. This can create a breeding ground for mold and fungus. Small seeds that develop inside of a pod, like poppy seeds, should be poured out of their pods to dry. Place stems from the Compositae and Lamiaceae families upside down in large paper bags and envelopes to allow their pods and seeds to dry out. Remove as much plant material (stems and leaves) as possible if you’re drying seeds in paper bags or envelopes to speed up the drying process. Move seeds around (or shake the bag they’re in) so the seeds don’t clump together and they dry out evenly.

Whether you are interested in saving seeds for next year because you are a frugal gardener who likes to save a few, or you are saving seeds because you want to preserve biodiversity of heirloom seeds; seed saving is easy for the beginner gardener. Examine flowers up close and tear them apart to inspect each of the parts that it is comprised. Do the same with the seeds of a plant. Gardening, and seed saving in particular, is not rocket surgery. You can find seed saving tip for individual plants by clicking on the seed saving label. Use the Seed Snatcher search engine to search hundreds of websites, blogs and forums about everything related to seed saving. Two websites I recommend are Tom Clothier’s seed page and The Seed Site, both of them are included in the Seed Snatcher search engine.

Part 2: How to Store Seeds You Saved From Your Garden

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