Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2010
Regional Report

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I try to collect seedpods before they pop open on their own. This viola seedpod is mature and ready to spill its seeds.

Saving Seeds

Collecting and germinating seeds from your own garden is fun, and it's educational, too. With just a little effort you can increase your stock of favorite plants and even share the wealth with friends. The best part is that seedlings can be quite variable so you may even discover a brand new form of an old favorite.

Within a period of three 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 green to a tannish-brown color as they mature. When the seed capsule begins to split or crack open, the seeds are probably ripe.

Harvesting Seed
The most challenging plants to harvest seeds from are those that produce seed heads, such as marigolds, coneflowers, daisies and black-eyed Susan's. For seeds to be viable, the seed head must be mature before it's harvested. For these plants, allow the head to turn mostly brown and dry before harvesting. 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 like it might be a seed.

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 fingers to release the seeds.

Some seeds come away from the seed heads clean, but others can be messy, with debris attached. Those with attached parachutes, like clematis, larkspur, and columbine, require some work to separate the seeds from the 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 non-viable seeds along with the good ones, so not every seed will sprout. 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
In some cases you can plant freshly harvested seeds right away, but most of the seeds you harvest now and over the next couple of months should be stored and planted next spring or summer. To retain maximum viability, store the seeds in a cool and dry place.

For best results, make sure the seeds are very dry. Place the seeds in an envelope labeled with the plant's name and the date the seeds were 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, you can place the container in your refrigerator or set it on the floor of a seldom used closet. 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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