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.

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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. Hehehe…  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 flower and 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! 

Advantages of Seed Saving:
  • Free seeds for replanting, sharing, or swapping.
  • Maintaining and supporting genetic diversity.
  • Maintaining and supporting heirloom varieties.
  • Selecting seeds from best performers and personal favourites to try for a repeat or perhaps to improve on future plant qualities and productivity.
Bee on kohlrabi blossom

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 or suffering a little end of season mess.

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.

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 of extra 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 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 paper bag helps with the collection process. This is especially true for plants with open/loose seeds so that you also catch any seeds that pop their casings or sprinkle out when snipped.

Preparing Seeds for Storage

Ensure your seeds are fully dry before preparing for storage. If your pods or casings aren’t completely dry, place them somewhere warm and dry and let them 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 mesh is small enough) 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

Make notes in your garden journal if/as you wish. I make notes straight on the envelopes and paper bags and use my seed information labels on other containers.

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 from packaging), consider placing some with your stored seed for extra moisture protection. Check out our post on organised seed storage for details tips and ideas.

Free seed packed information label templates

Potential 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 dud, germination fails, or parent-child mismatches. It’s all part of the gardening experience.

Germination Surprises or Fails

  • 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! Or they might not germinate at all, leaving you behind on your planting plans.
  • 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 for those plants if you’d like to propagate, so a little research might save you a lot of effort and time.

Garden Time, Space, and Tidiness

  • Biennials will only seed in their second growth year. Or in their second growth cycle, depending on your climate. If you live in a temperate location, you may simply need to wait things out – I can usually get seeds in the same year here. However, if you have a proper winter, then you would likely need to overwinter to get second-season seeds. This group includes some veggie garden favourites like carrots, beets, onions, and brassicas.
  • Many 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 biennials or plant a few annual seedlings away from the veggie garden to produce seed in less valuable real estate.
  • Setting seed can be messy. Leaving plants to ripen and dry for seed collection doesn’t always mesh with keeping a picture perfect garden. Some flowers, like poppies and nigella, have beautiful seed pods that are garden specimens themselves whilst other plants just look like fading spindly heaps of garden neglect.
Extracting and Preparing Seeds for Storage
  • Preparing seeds for storage might require some extra work. 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! Or hopefully a win if they grow well! 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.
Gathering and Storing Seeds from the Garden

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