Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
July, 2009
Regional Report

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The seeds of this gaillardia are almost ready to harvest.

Seed-Saving Time

Collecting and germinating seeds from your favorite annuals and perennials adds a new dimension to gardening. With a little bit of effort, you can increase your stock and share the wealth with friends. And because seedlings can be quite variable, you may even happen onto a brand new form of an old favorite. Many of today's cultivars were discovered in this way.

Over the space of four to six weeks, most perennials go from fresh flowers to dry seed heads. It's sometimes difficult to determine if seeds are ripe, and here's where experience lends a helping hand. You can usually tell when seeds are ripe by taking a close look at the old flower heads. Typically, the seed capsules expand slightly and turn from a lighter color to a darker color as they mature. When the seed capsule cracks, the seeds are probably ripe.

Collecting Seed
The most challenging plants to harvest seeds from are those that produce seed heads, such as members of the aster family like marigolds, zinnias, black-eyed Susan's, coneflowers, and daisies. For seeds to be viable, the seed head must be mature before you cut it to harvest the seeds. Allow the head to turn mostly brown and dry before harvest. Then, tear the head apart over a piece of paper to remove the seeds. It helps to know what they look like, but if you can't distinguish the seeds, save everything that looks likely.

I collect most seeds by cutting off the seed stalk and placing it upside down in a paper bag. I allow the seed stalks to air dry for about a week and then rub the seed capsules and stalks between my hands to release the seeds.

Some seeds come away from the seed heads clean; others can be messy to dissect. Those with attached parachutes, like most varieties of clematis, globe amaranth (Gomphrena spp.) and little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) require painstaking work to separate seed from feathery chaff. I've discovered that it isn't necessary to remove all the debris. I plant them, attachments and all, and they germinate just fine.

Composite flowers, including sunflowers, coneflowers, and daisies, produce many nonviable seeds along with the good ones, so not every seed will grow. To find the plump ones, you can sort through your collected seed or just sow them extra thick, knowing not all will germinate.

Storing Seed
Although in a few instances you could plant harvested seeds right away, most of the seeds you harvest now and over the next couple of months will be stored and planted next spring or summer. To retain maximum viability, the storage conditions must be cool and dry.

First, make sure the seeds are very dry. Next, put the seeds in an envelope labeled with the plant's name and the date collected. Place a tablespoon or two of a desiccant, such as silica gel (available at craft shops for drying flowers) or powdered milk in the bottom of a sealable container. Put the envelope (or several) into the container, and tightly seal with the lid.

To keep the seeds cool, place the container in your refrigerator. Most seeds stored this way will stay viable for a year or more.

Many seeds require a moist, cold period in order to germinate. This is generally true for the seeds of trees and shrubs, but not necessarily true for seeds from commonly grown annuals, perennials, and vegetables. If you're not sure, you can simply sow your seeds outdoors in the fall and let Mother Nature do the stratifying for you.

My approach to seed saving is to keep it simple. Trial and error are just part of the game. If nothing germinates, you can chalk it up to a learning experience. If all the seeds germinate, you'll have a bounty of free plants. I don't think there's anything a gardener loves more than having lots and lots of plants!

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