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Collecting Seeds

- a Time-honoured Tradition
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow

Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).

September 10, 2006

Collecting seeds from flowers and vegetables is a time-honoured tradition, one that keeps many a gardener occupied during the quiet days of mid-summer and beyond. There are several advantages to collecting your own seeds.

  • You can save money when you don't need to buy seeds.
  • By making intuitive choices about the plants from which to collect seeds (the biggest, the strongest, the most fragrant) you develop plants that are well suited to your own growing conditions and tastes.
  • You can also share saved seeds from favourite or hard-to-find plants with gardening friends, who will appreciate your generosity.
  • By the same token, you can ask friends or neighbours for seeds from unique plants that reside in their gardens. The key here is to ask first; never collect seeds from a garden, public or private, without first asking permission.

Take your time to select the best parent plants possible and don't wait until the last minute to do this. Rather, start making observations early in the season, taking note of those plants with the qualities you most wish to perpetuate. Desirable traits in both vegetable and flowering plants include vigour, colour, size, disease and insect resistance, weather and drought tolerance, and fragrance. For vegetables, also look for flavour, yield, size, storage life, whether they are early-bearing or late-bolting, texture, tenderness, juiciness, and suitability for purpose.

Once you have identified the best parent plants, label them clearly so that you don't pick them by mistake, before you have had a chance to collect their seeds. Also remember to stop deadheading annuals and perennials early enough in the season so that they have time to set seed. If you don't, there will be no seeds to collect.

The timing for collecting seeds is critical and varies with individual species. The best way to learn is by observation. Regular inspection of the garden will reveal changes in seedpods as they take place. Seeds are usually ready to be picked when they are thoroughly dry and break under applied pressure. In many species the seed-containing capsules will lose their colour, turn brown, shrivel, and dry out as they ripen. The seeds themselves will also change colour and dry out. The seed capsules of other plants, however, stay green, even as they ripen.

Still other seed capsules shatter and disperse their seeds the instant they are ripe, posing a challenge to the seed collector. A small paper bag punctured with air holes and tied loosely around the ripening seed head will help in collecting this type of seed. It is also useful to remember that seeds of this type of plant (lettuce and onions, for example) ripen one stalk at a time so if you miss one dispersal, there will still be several others on the same plant.

Collect seeds on a dry, sunny day. Make sure that the seeds are free of moisture from rain or dew. It doesn't matter if the seeds have been exposed to frost as long as they are dry when they are collected. If winter comes early, as it sometimes does here, and the seeds have not finished ripening, cut stems from the plants and place them in water inside to allow the ripening process to finish before collecting their seeds.

Once collected, the seeds need to be cleaned, dried and stored. Winnowing and screening are two useful techniques for getting rid of unwanted leaves, stems, pods, and insects. To winnow, pour the seeds from one container to another, blowing out the chaff with your breath or a small fan. To screen, use a piece of screen or a sieve to separate out the coarser, heavier materials from the seeds. Seeds can also be cleaned by placing them in water; the chaff will float to the top while the healthy seeds will sink to the bottom.

To dry seeds, lay them out on newspaper or paper towels in a well-ventilated place for approximately one week, turning them frequently; the bigger the seeds, the longer the drying time required.

Dried seeds should not be left to sit around in the open air or they will reabsorb moisture. Instead, store them immediately in well-labelled, airtight containers such as plastic film canisters, glass jars, or sealed glassine envelopes (the type used by stamp collectors). Store seeds in a cool, dry place.

It's not too late to collect seeds from the garden this year, even if you haven't identified the perfect parent plants. Annuals that grow well from seed, either under grow lights or planted directly in the ground, include sunflowers, bachelor's button, marigolds, calendulas, nasturtiums, and poppies. Perennials that are also a breeze to reproduce from seed include chives and other ornamental onions, oriental poppies, delphiniums, lamb's ears, cranesbill geraniums, ornamental grasses, and centaurea.

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