Seeds are the life givers in the garden. They carry on tradition of food, flavors and flowers from many generations past. Stories are told through the years about seeds tucked in a saddlebag on a long journey or cherished heirlooms from Europe carried for hundreds of miles to be planted in a new homestead. I have decided if I ever cease to be mesmerized by the simple act of planting a tiny seed that turns into bushels of food, I should stop gardening.
Collecting seeds is not magic; it’s an easy ritual as old as civilization. Begin by learning more about the plants you want to collect seed from. You need to know its life cycle (annual, biennial or perennial) and how long it takes the plant to grow from seed in the ground to when it produces seed again. Plants that grow from seed to seed in one growing season are annuals. Biennials produce seed in their second season. The seeds of perennials are typically produced in the second season of growth.
Seed collection is all about knowing when they actually produce the seed. Most herbaceous seed-bearing perennials will mature seed about 2 to 3 weeks after the bloom has died. Heavy blooming plants like annual cosmos tend to continually produce seed at the base of dying flowers as they complete a cycle of fresh bloom. If the area of the flower where the seeds are produced is left on the plant to ripen and dry, they will become viable for a next season of growth.
Get to know what the seed looks like. Some clusters of seeds are large and held obvious in a pod, like peas, and some are small and embedded at the base of a flower in the dried petals, like chives. Some we know as food; beans and corn are actually the seed of the plants.
The recognition of where the seed is formed and what it looks like will also help determine when it will be ripe to be collected. Seeds collected too early may not be viable. Typically, seeds are ready when they turn dark color and dry out. Dry seed is basically a condition of dormancy until the time, temperature, and place are suitable to grow a new plant. Many common vegetable and flower seeds, germinate as soon as they are planted under moist conditions and the seed begins to absorb water. Knowing this is the clue as to why we need to store seed in a cool, dark, dry place.
Collect seed and allow them to completely dry. Place them in labeled envelopes or paper bags. It is important to write the variety of plant and the date the harvest. Seeds are living, hibernating, embryos. They have a life span and storage needs.
Some seedy terms to know:
Pollination: the process of sexual fertilization in plants.
Self-pollination: this occurs without the need of another plant because it takes place internally before the flower opens.
Cross-pollination: Takes place when pollen is exchanged between different flowers.
Hybrids: Varieties resulting from pollination between plants to create a plant with desired traits. Typically sterile or produce few seeds. Seed collected from them tend to produce offspring unlike the hybrid and show only the traits of the original plants.
Open-pollinated: these are stable varieties collected directly from plants. When seed is collected and grown the next season, they will produce the same plant.
Easy herbs and flowers to collect seed from:
Basil: allow some of the flowers to mature. As the petals drop the stalks will begin to dry and turn brown. Split open at the flower base and if the seed is black in color it is ready to harvest.
Chives: As soon as the purple flower begins to dry out on the plant, small black seeds will appear deep within the blossoms at the base. Wind or rain will easily disperse the seeds, so keep an eye on them.
Dill: cut the flower stalks just before seeds begin to ripen and turn a tan color. Place a small paper bag up around the flower heads, fastened to the stalks and hang upside down to dry further. As the seeds ripen, they will drop and collect on the bottom of the bag.
Bachelor’s Button (Centaurea cyanus): Once the flower has faded the cylinder shaped seed appear with a fringe of blond hair on the end. They shatter easy, so remove the head and shake into a bag.
Calendula: The seeds are small dried curled pieces left in the center of the plant after the flower petals wither and fall off. Check the button-like center of a dried out calendula flower by rubbing your thumb across it; if they are ready they will pop out into your hand.
Columbine: the seed is enclosed in a capsule that appears after the bloom. Allow the capsule to turn brown and dry.
Cosmos: Black pine needle shaped seeds form as the petals start to dry. Pick the whole seed head just before they shatter open.
Nigella: Also known as love in a mist. A round, unique seed pod forms. Wait until he pod begins to dry. You can gently shake the pod, if the seeds rattle inside, they are ready for harvest. Pick the pods and allow drying further before breaking open.
Poppies: easy to recognize; the seeds are enclosed in the familiar shaped pods that show after the petals have dropped. Wait until the pods are brown and dry. The top of the pod will open to disperse the seed, so carefully collect it when it just begins to open.