Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seed Saving: A September Ritual that is Good for the Planet and your Soul

Late September is an ideal time to think about next year’s garden.  Collecting and saving seeds might be the world’s most ancient garden activity, and one of the most rewarding.  Why should you consider saving seeds?  Especially when there are so many great seed companies available?
First, it’s insanely economical.   Remember the sticker shock you got in spring at your local nursery when you HAD TO HAVE those 12 new plants?  Collecting and saving seeds cost you almost nothing.  Not only is it cheap, but it’s good for the earth.  Why?
Propagating plants from collected seed preserves the genetic diversity of open pollinated plants.  Most of the plants you buy in a nursery are propagated by some means of asexual reproduction, often through techniques like tissue culture.  While asexual reproduction guarantees you the same ornamental characteristics of the plant’s parent, all of the offspring are genetic clones of the parent.  In nature, the vast majority of flowering plants develop seeds by being pollinated openly by insects.  This means each pollinated plants gets mixed with the genetic material of another plant close by, resulting in more genetic variation.  More genetic variation creates new strains of plants that are often tougher and more resilient than their parents. 
Paper envelopes available here.
Heirloom fruits and vegetables are all the rage these days, and for good reason.  Most of the great heirlooms were the result of open pollination.  Plants that reproduce through natural means tend to adapt to local conditions over time and evolve as reliable performers.  Over the last 100 years, we’ve lost literally thousands of varieties of vegetables and flowers due to a reliance on commercial hybrid seed.  Overuse of hybrids and asexual reproduction has eroded the gene pool.  Collecting and saving your own seeds creates stronger, healthier, and more genetically diverse plants.
First time seed savers may want to collect from species that are easy to sow.  Most annuals and some perennials such as zinnias, basil, arugula, chives, borage, catnip, dill, parsley, mint, monarda, lemon balm, summer savory, and anise hyssop are easy to collect and sow again the in spring.  As you get the hang of seed collecting, try more challenging plants. 
Here are some tips for seed saving in your garden:
1. Understand the plant’s anatomy: 
Each plant has evolved remarkable techniques for developing and dispersing seed.  The first time I tried to collect seeds from my Acanthus hungaricus, I was rudely alerted to the fact that Acanthus actually catapult their seed through the air.  When touched, the dried fruits exploded from tension of it members and literally shot seeds across the yard.  I lost most of the seeds.  After doing some research, I learned how to put a bag over the dried fruits before picking them.    Some plants seeds are so small, they must be shaken in a paper bag.  Each plant is unique and learning their reproductive strategies is an entirely fascinating journey.  Do a little research first.
2.  Find out if your plant sterile:
If your plant originated from a nursery, it may produce sterile seeds.  Corporations are producing cultivars that cannot be reproduced (to protect their patent and profits).  Many popular cultivars can only be reproduced asexually.  Check the internet to see if the species and cultivar of your plant is able to seed.
3.  Make sure the seeds are ready to harvest: 
If the flower or fruit of the plant is still green or wet, it’s probably too early to harvest.  After the flowers fade and start to turn brown, it’s time to cut and dry the seeds.  It will probably take another few weeks of drying before the seed is ready to store.  Wet seeds can create fungus and other undesirable diseases.
4.  Dry the seeds in a dark, well-ventilated area:  Bright sunlight can actually kill a seed, and too damp an area spreads fungus.
5. Sift seeds through a sieve or colander: This helps to remove plant fragments from the seed.
6.  Use paper envelopes, not plastic:  Paper allows for a modest amount of transpiration, whereas plastic holds moisture. 
7. Label your packet: Remember to write the name of the plant, where and how you collected it, and the date.  This will prove entirely valuable a year or two down the road. 
To learn more about seed saving, check out these links:


  1. Great timely post - I'm realizing that some of the failures I've had might have been due to harvesting seed to early.

  2. Yes yes yes. I'm starting to get into this more and more, and as I watch the garden turn from color to puffy whisps of seeds flyign by, I know I must get cracking.

  3. Thomas, I've always been a bit intimidated by seed-saving, so thanks for the primer. Given my peripatetic life right now, I don't think it makes sense to try to fit seed-saving in, but I've flagged this post to come back to four years from now when my highly anticipated retirement will begin. -Jean

  4. i guess that forgetting to label our harvested seeds is the most common mistake and we end up with brown packets of mysterious seeds that could be goodness knows what...comprehensive study Thomas


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