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Salvage or Not

The Abundance of Seed in the Garden
by Donna Balzer
by Donna Balzer


If you somehow missed her on the award winning garden show Bugs & Blooms (now in re-runs on HGTV and around the world), you can catch her in the summer answering listener questions on CBC. Failing that, open the Calgary Herald and you’ll find her on-going gardening column. There’s also a good chance you’ll see her work in either “Garden Life Magazine” or “Canadian Gardening”

Donna’s work has also been recognized through several awards. Her first book “Gardening for Goofs is a Canadian best seller and her second book “The Prairie Rock Garden” received the Carlton R. Worth award for writing. In 2003 Donna received “The Distinguished Agrologist Award” from her peers in Agrology. HGTV’s hit internationally broadcast gardening show “Bugs & Blooms” won Donna and her Co-Host Todd Reichardt the Garden Globe Award for best talent in electronic media in 2002.

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September 17, 2006

When it’s harvest time in the garden its hard to miss the king-sized zucchini or bushels of potatoes and carrots. A more subtle harvest - the collection of flower seeds from the garden – isn’t as obvious. Many gardeners miss the opportunity altogether and let the seeds drop, explode or hitchhike out of the garden each fall.
While common perennials such as bluebells may not seem worth the collecting effort other flowers merit a second look. Plants from a family garden may have a unique heritage, a neighbor’s hollyhock may be an interesting colour, or a plant may be rare or only locally seen because of its nature which makes it impossible to buy as seed. As the season winds down this little gift of setting seeds is either a bonus or a nuisance for the home gardener. If you have something unique why not consider it a plus and save some of the seed now for friends, family and future garden displays? The first few weeks of fall give everyone the opportunity to look for interesting seeds in the backyard or neighborhood.
Keen gardeners or gardeners with hired help usually attend to dead-heading as an ongoing item on their to-do list. The rest of us walk into our back yard one spring morning to discover a veritable nursery of seedlings and we wonder where they the key - salvaging and saving seed now for your friends or for keeping in your fridge until you decide you definitely don’t want the bonus harvest will guarantee at least one thing - the seeds won’t fall to the ground independently and start growing on their own next spring.
Some plants produce seeds that simply fall out of the plant when they are ripe. Included in this group are lilies, columbines, trollius, penstemons, datura, heliopsis, sunflower and poppies. The ripe seeds of these plants are generally glossy brown or black. At this stage they are ready to grow and the simple process of letting them fall is the same as fall seeding. If you want to direct where the next crop of poppies emerges or penstemon pops up it is good to clip and save the seed now. Once you are sure you are dealing with mature seed, simply clip the stems and pop them into an envelope or brown paper lunch bag. If you want to bypass the “saving” stage you can simply carry the ripe seed pods to the future poppy area and scatter seed there. The ripe seed pods of poppies and columbines are like salt shakers. The tops of the ripe pods open and the clean ripe seed can be scattered out into the garden or tipped into an envelope for saving or sharing.
The seeds of plants in the daisy family are a little trickier. Sometimes – as with dandelions - the seeds become airborne when ripe and leave home without any assistance from the gardener. Other times, the seeds are heavy and simply sit or fall directly out of the mature seed head. In the case of sunflowers, the seeds are so heavy they don’t just fall but are assisted by birds. Many seeds in this group are better left until they are ripe enough to fall out on their own. If collecting scabiosa, echinacea, heliopsis or a favorite marigold or African daisy it is best to wait until the seeds are fully ripe before collecting. They are ripe when they fall without help from the seed head. If you have to tug the seeds off the head of a plant in the daisy family they may not be ripe enough to grow. If you are in a hurry to collect before the seeds are fully ripe it is good to clip a long flower stalk and place that in the bag or on a warm dry counter top. The seeds will continue to mature and will be ready to separate from the stalks when they start to drop off naturally.
Seeds of the exotic Jewel-weed need to be collected as soon as they mature because if they are left alone they will explode all over your garden and it will be impossible to see where the individual seeds have gone until they sprout in the garden next spring. This Himalayan plant, also called touch-me-not, grows from seed each spring into 2 metre tall plants with a tough 4 cm thick stems and hundreds of bright pink blooms. Each bloom looks like an orchid which is why the third common name for this plant is poor man’s orchid. If you wanted poor man’s orchids in your yard you would have to find someone growing them and collect them yourself. They aren’t usually sold commercially because the seed pods – when ripe - literally explode out into the garden. These projectile seeds make traditional harvesting difficult. A gardener wanting to collect seed could either contain the nearly ripe seed in a bag until it explodes , or could harvest the top of the plant before the seeds are ripe and lay the whole stem with nearly ripe seed in a large brown paper bag. As the seeds ripen they will still explode out of the seed pod but they will be contained in the bag and can then be carried to the area where they are wanted in the following year and seeded directly this fall.
The fall work is just beginning as the evening temperatures dip and with each garden, new or old, there is potential to take advantage of a harvest often wasted. The seeds ripe and ready now can easily be gathered and saved for future use. If there is a warning it is this: you won’t always get what you collect because the variable genetics of many of our hybrid seeds means the offspring could be unpredictable. Also, the seeds saved may yield a huge quantity of seed beyond what any single gardener can make use of. If you only have common white daisies or average pale pink columbines it might be best to remove these setting seeds before they seed themselves and become a pest. But if you have Granny’s special poppy seed from Poland or the interesting impossible to buy touch-me-not you’ll probably only need to save a few thousand seed - the millions of extra seed may be given away, used in cakes or simply tossed guilt free.

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