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 saved seeds with friends, neighbours, or via organised seed swaps and expand your collection. Seed saving and sharing can also help to maintain and 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. Look at those gorgeous kohlrabi flowers below! And the bees loved them. Birds might also be grateful for the seeds, but you may be a little less keen to share with them depending on your seed saving plans!
What Types of Seeds are Suitable for Saving?
If a plant has seeds, you can save them, but not all seeds will germinate or stay true to type (see the potential issues at the end of this post for more details). Then again, part of the fun is in the experiments of trying and it costs next to nothing. Seeds for saving should be fully mature and taken from healthy disease-free plants. Collect specimens from your best performers and favourite plants. You can also give heritage and heirloom varieties a little extra love and support by ensuring a few are allowed to set seed for saving, even if it means sacrificing a few edibles.
Is it Better to Save Seeds or Let Nature Self-Sow?
This depends on the type of seed, your growing conditions, and whether you want the plant to be popping up again in the same location. Or wherever the wind and birds might spread things! Consider whether they can survive and thrive being directly sown in-situ, if you need to start them in other conditions for transplant, or if you’d like more control for location management.
I am a fan of direct sow varieties for easy planting, and self-sowing is fine for many of the flowers in the cottage-style garden of our current heritage home. Nature can do its thing, while I supplement and spread with my collected seeds. For other areas, especially in the edible garden, I want a lot more control on plantings, locations, and rotations. Saving seeds is my preference. Our growing conditions also mean that some plants are better started indoors (or in a glasshouse) and transplanted.
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.
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 and write directly on brown paper sandwich bags.
Store in a cool, dry, dark location until planting. If you have silica packets hanging around (I save and horde those little “do not eat” packets), 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 saving and storage process, you’ll 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 growth 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. This includes veggie garden favourites like carrots, beets, onions, and brassicas.
- Many garden vegetables and herbs grow very tall and/or wide flowering stems. You’ll need to give them space and time to grow, bolt, flower, and set seed. This doesn’t always work well with limited space or crop rotations. As a trick, I sometimes transplant mature bienniels or plant a few annual seedlings away from the veggie garden to produce seed in less valueable real estate.
- 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. On the flip side, you can usually enjoy all or most of the edible parts from that produce and still save some seeds. Win win! Think tomatoes, capsicum, chilis, pumpkins, squash, melons, etc. And as a little extra tip, you can save seeds from crop swap, market, or supermarket produce this way, too.