Gardening In Autumn: Fall Is For Seed Collecting
Native and cultivated plants are going to seed — in a good way! Collect now, store for winter, and grow or barter them next spring.
I’ve always had a penchant for collecting dried grass and flower stalks in fall. As a kid, this was my favorite season as the humidity abated and the landscape blazed with yellows, reds, and oranges. The empty lots and fields I walked home through after school offered a visual delight of shapes, colors, and textures. I couldn’t help but bring home some of that joy.
As I got older, I continued to collect dried plant matter for floral arrangements. It didn’t take long to see they were full of seed, which was all over the table. This is where my seed collecting obsession began.
Collecting seed at home
If you have been remiss about deadheading your flowers, seeds pods are surely developing. Busy with watering, weeding, fertilizing, and fending off bugs over the last month, I have not been removing spent flowers as diligently as I should have been. But now I have a collection of annual and perennial flower seed to share and plant next year – Calendula, Marigolds, two varieties of Delphinium, Dianthus, Cosmos, Poppies, Bachelor Buttons, 4 O’clocks, Nasturtiums, and Columbine.
This time of year, I see tourists and locals plucking seedpods off the towering hollyhocks that grow in front of businesses along our main road through town. I have been known to get flower seed from planters and gardens in public places, too, including the hardware store, the doctor’s office, the library, and the second hand store. I’ve embarrassed my children doing this!
Your friends are also an abundant source of seed. If you have been visiting them over the summer and admiring their gardens, ask if you can have some seed.
Collecting seed in the wild
Collecting wild seed is a great way to start a native plant garden. What could be easier than growing plants that flourish right in your region?
Roadsides are a good place to find seed. Don’t harvest all there is. The plants need to propagate themselves, and the seed is food for wildlife. The general rule is to take 10% of what is available. Don’t harvest seed from rare or endangered species, either. This will take some research on your part before you go out seed hunting.
If you see plants you want on private land, find the owner, and ask permission before trespassing. This seems like common sense to me, but it is shocking and violating to have a stranger traipsing across your yard.
Once I harvest the seed, I put it in a small glass jar labeled with the variety, year, and where it was grown. I keep these in a warm dry place with no lid so the seed can continue to dry. When it’s completely dry, I separate the seed from the pod or chaff, and store it in the same jar, manila coin envelopes, or glassine envelopes. It depends on how much I have and how big or small the seed is.
My seed stash is in a dark, unheated room to stay cool. Heat lessens or destroys seed viability and shelf life. Seeds of shrubs and perennial flowers go in the freezer to be stratified. It’s like faking winter, which they need to break dormancy and germinate. Some annuals need the cold treatment, too, so if you are collecting seed from your garden or those of your friends, be sure to research their individual needs.
Label, label, label! Take great care to properly label your seed! Last year, I was disappointed with some seed I was given. It was supposed to be a native pollinator plant, but turned out to be arugula, which I can’t stand! That’s a pretty big mistake, so be sure you are labeling your seeds correctly.
Growing seed to save
Seed saving is somewhat different than seed collecting. To intentionally grow your garden to save seed takes planning. Certain varieties of plants will cross-pollinate, so they need distance between them, sometimes miles, to assure purity.
This is hard to achieve, because you don’t know what your neighbors are growing. Also, wild plants can cross with your cultivated species, so maintaining distances can be a challenge.
It is easier and more accurate to isolate flower heads to keep pollinators from transferring unwanted pollen. Mesh bags are available from many seed companies and reputable nurseries.
Planning for next year
I keep repeating myself that the garden season never ends. It’s a constant process of planning, growing, maintaining, harvesting, and planning some more.
Include the plants from your seed collection into your garden plan for next year. Keep excess for bartering with friends or trading at a seed exchange, seed library, or seed swap in the spring.
Correctly label seed you give away and that you bring home, grow it out, trade it again, and keep the cycle of life going.