Gathering and Storing Seeds from the Garden

Seed head on dill plant

It is autumn here (happy spring to folks up north!) and prime seed collecting time in the garden Seed gathering is a simple way to re-grow some of your garden favourites or expand you collection with seeds from friends and sharing sources. Here are our quick tips on harvesting seeds for storage and replanting.

Why Gather and Save Seeds?

Who doesn’t love free plants? Seeds gathering costs nothing and can save you a bundle on purchased seeds. Or if you’re like me, you can buy more seeds and build an even bigger seed stash. Heheh…  You can also swap seeds with friends, neighbours, or via organised seed swaps and expand your collection. Seed saving can also help support genetic diversity, especially if you are growing rare, heritage, or heirloom varieties. 

By selecting seeds from your best performers, you can potentially improve your future crop yields, flavours, colours, size, health, and other desirable traits. If you’re really keen, you can even start to develop your own unique strains, but I’m a simple “leave it to the bees” kind of gal…at least for now!

Letting things go to seed is also great for the bees and other pollinators, especially if you’re allowing some blooms you might otherwise discourage on edibles to generate some seeds for saving. Birds will be grateful for the seeds, but you may be a little less keen to share with them. 

What Types of Seeds are Suitable?

If a plant has seeds, you can save them, but not all seeds will germinate or stay true to type (see the potential pitfalls at the end of this post). Then again, part of the fun is in the experiments of trying and it costs next to nothing. 

Seeds should be fully mature and taken from healthy disease-free plants. Take specimens from your best performers and favourite plants. Give heritage and heirloom varieties extra love by ensuring a few are allowed to set seed for saving, even if it means sacrificing a few edibles.

Consider whether they will be direct sown or if you will need to start them for later transplant. I am a big fan of direct sow varieties, especially with flowers in the cottage-style garden of our current heritage home. Nature can replant in situ while I supplement and spread with my collected seeds. 

Nigella seed pods

How to Collect and Store Gathered Seeds

When to Collect Seeds

Wait until your seeds are mature and ready for collection. Try to appreciate the messy appearance of your garden as part of the natural process. Haha! Yes. This typically drives me crazy. Neat freaks beware and birds rejoice! See more about the pitfalls below. 

Harvest your seeds on a dry day so that the pods are free from environmental moisture. I prefer (when timing and weather cooperate) to let things mature fully on the plant and harvest after several days of continuous dry weather. This helps to minimise any indoor drying as I simply don’t have a suitable location for extra dry-outs (see below) in our current home.

Gathering the Seeds

Use clean garden scissors or cutters to collect the seed heads and pods. I find that clipping over and into a bowl or straight into an envelope or bag really helps with the collection process. This is especially true for plants with open/loose seeds so that you also catch any seeds that sprinkle out.

Preparing Seeds for Storage

Ensure that your plant material is fully dry before preparing for storage. If your pods are not completely dry, place your clippings somewhere warm and dry to dry-out completely before separating the seeds for storage. Spreading them on screen, newspaper, or something similar helps to speed things up, reduce the risk of mould or rot, and (provided the screen is small enough, of course) contain any seed that may fall out in the process. When  ready, separate your seeds from any pods and other plant matter. Compost the waste, if possible.

Storing Seeds

Place your separated seeds in labelled paper bags, paper envelopes, jars, or other suitable containers. If you don’t have a special storage set-up, standard envelopes are convenient to use and easy to store.  If you’d like to fancy things up, there are some very cute printable seed envelopes out there, like these fab freebies from Pass the Pistil. A great way to gift seeds from your garden to friends and family. Make notes in your garden journal if/as you wish. I make notes straight on the envelopes and use my seed information labels on other containers.

Store in a cool, dry, dark location until planting. If you have silica gel packets hanging around (I horde those little “do not eat” packets that come in products), consider placing some with your stored seed for extra moisture protection. Check out our post on organised seed storage for details tips and ideas.

Seed Saving Issues

Gathering and saving seeds is easy, but there are a few pitfalls to be aware of. Don’t expect 100% success. Even if you have a perfect process (if so, do share!) you will likely still encounter some germination fails or parent-child mismatches. It’s all part of the gardening experience!

  • Not all plants will produce true-to-type seeds, including many modern hybrids, due to parent plant genetics. Cross-pollination can also create variations. With open-pollination, it can be difficult to control nature. You never know though, the child variants might turn out to be great!
  • Some plants can be very difficult or slow to propagate from seed. Other propagation methods, such as runners, cuttings, root cuttings, or division, might offer better options if you would like to propagate, so a little research might save you a lot of effort and time.
  • Biennials will only seed in their second year. If you live in a temperate location, you may simply need to wait things out – I can often get seeds in the same year here. However, if you have a “real” winter, then you would likely need to overwinter to get second-season seeds.
  • Leaving plants to ripen and dry for seed collection doesn’t always mesh with keeping a picture perfect garden. Some flowers, like nigella, have beautiful seed pods that are garden specimens themselves whilst other plants just look like fading spindly heaps of garden neglect.
  • If you’re collecting seeds from pulpy or fleshy fruits and veggies, you’ll need to go through some extra effort with extracting, separating, washing, and drying seeds from your ripe edibles. On the flip side, you can usually eat the produce and still save the seeds. You don’t need to endure the same natural dry-out time in the garden as you will for most flowers and pod plants. 
Gathering and Storing Seeds from the Garden

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