Propagating, Collecting and Saving Seeds
Reading Time: 9 minutes
By Anita B. Stone; Photographs by S. Tullock
Had the Pilgrims not brought and introduced abundant seed varieties to the New World, we would not be enjoying a diverse variety of popular plants in the agricultural world and our homesteads would lay barren. Collecting and saving seeds is easy and rewarding. It’s a great way to save money, preserve and perpetuate the species, and cultivate plants suited to our zonal area. The key to successful seed saving and collecting is patience and timing. If you collect seed too early, in the fresh stage, it will not be viable. On the flip side, waiting too long will produce empty or dried out seedpods. Knowing when to collect seeds is not always easy because there are many different species. But with the proper tips and techniques, collecting seeds can be fun and profitable. Seeds can clump or separate. They offer a variety of colors and shapes, they can drop from plants or remain until they dry and fall off.
If you keep a journal as you collect the seeds, you can write down the name, date and where they were found. You can slip the seeds into small packets and identify the type on the outside with markers, including name of seed, location of findings and date.
If you plan to collect seeds from the wild, make sure you get permission from the property owner. Also be aware of other critters that are keeping a watchful eye on their food and will sometimes beat you to the punch for the seeds. Even ants may outwit you on several green seed pods, including lilies, coleus and alocasia, as well as the fruit of apples, pears and berries.
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Collecting Flower Seeds
To locate the seeds, always look where the flowers bloom, because the seeds grow at the bottom of the bit that sticks up in the middle of the flower. Sometimes seed pods form behind the flower, as evidenced by the daffodil. If you want to collect ripe seeds you need patience. When seeds begin to ripen over a period of weeks, the pods will become dry and change color usually from green to brown or white. The seeds inside will change color, from green to brown or black. During the color change the seed heads begin to open on plants such as the Cardinal Flower or Liatris Blazing Star.
On some plants, including aquilegia, the seeds are simple to collect because the urn-shaped pods open when they ripen, revealing the seeds. Just bend the stalks gently and the seeds will fall.
Geraniums are best handled by putting ripened stalks in a closed paper bag. The pods will open when ripe and the seeds are easily poured out of the bag.
If you choose to pick ripe seeds, simply cut off flower stalks and store them in paper bags indoors, leaving the bags open at the top for air circulation and to prevent mold. Shake the stalks from time to time and listen for the seeds to pop and fall out of the capsules loosely to the bottom of the bags. The fresher the seed, the better the germination. Carry a small pair of scissors to nip off the seed heads. You can use your fingers, but some seedpods are sticky and you end up with bits sticking to you.
Collecting lupines, impatiens and phlox is a unique adventure because the seed pods explode, revealing the viable seeds. So avoid paper bags. Simply spread them out in boxes that are tightly covered with netting for good air circulation. If you want to keep seeds for a long period store them in the freezer in a glass jar with a tight lid.
Alliums are marvelous plants and worth saving the seeds to grow more for the garden. The seeds germinate quickly and reach flowering size in a couple of years. Cut the seedheads from allium as they start to break open. Let them dry out before tapping out the seeds and storing them in envelopes or vials. Place the envelopes in a sealed plastic bag and keep it cool in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator until planting time.
To collect seeds, you need several sheets of paper or small specimen packets. Some collectors use tea strainers with holes, which is useful for removing unwanted small bits from fairly large seed. A nylon mesh strainer lets the dust or the small seeds through and keeps the pieces of rubbish out. A pair of tweezers is also useful for picking them up. If the seeds are small, separate them by holding the paper at an angle and let the seed roll down.
Marigolds and sunflower seeds are among the most popular and easiest to collect. Soon after the bloom, the center part of each flower will begin to darken and the seeds will be ready for picking. Make sure you have a paper bag or envelope ready to catch the seeds as they drop, because there are multitudes on the faces of these flowers, which you will probably be sharing with the birds.
To collect seeds from asters and pokers, simply wait till the stems appear brown. Asters dry and shrivel on the woody stems, which allow rubbing the dried flowers between the thumb and forefinger. Pokers begin to dry out from the bottom of the flower upwards and the seeds easily fall off. Just make sure you have a “catcher” or they will fall to the ground.
Once you get into the habit of collecting flower seeds, the different types will become familiar and you will be able to recognize the pods and the loose seeds. The process required for herb seeds is the same. Just wait until the herb flowers spike and dry.
Collecting vegetable seeds
Vegetable seeds collected for future sustainability need time to mature or will lack the required amount of food storage. If you wait too long, you end up with seeds predisposed to producing late in the season.
After separating the seed from the vegetable, make sure it’s dry before you store it. Damp seed will rot. Once dry, pack it in paper envelopes. Keep the seeds cool, dark and dry — in the fridge.
A multiple of vegetable seeds are ripe for collection purposes. Some vegetable seeds scatter automatically. Lettuce, onion, beets, carrots and other members of the mustard family ripen gradually. Collecting seeds from these vegetables requires daily inspections or attaching small bags to the seed heads to catch dry seed as it falls. When seeds become fully formed and dry on the plant or when the fruit which houses the seed is mature, as on tomatoes and peppers, it is time to harvest. The challenge is not to leave the open seeds on the plant too long. Seeds finish drying in a partially shaded area if necessary.
Once sliced open, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, and squash are allowed to ripen beyond the stage you would harvest them for eating. Do not allow them to rot.
Eggplants will fall off the vine by themselves when seeds mature. When peppers turn color and begin to shrivel, the seeds are ready. To remove the seeds, slice the peppers open and scrape the seeds away from the pulp. Let them air dry before storing. Cucumbers with white spines will turn a yellowish white when seeds are ready for collecting, and cucumbers with black spines will turn a gold-brown. Cut the fruit open lengthwise and scoop the seeds and pulp into a bowl of warm water. After a few days the seeds will sink to the bottom. Dry the seeds on paper towels before storing.
Winter squash seeds are mature when the squash is ready for harvesting in the fall. Clean and remove the seeds as you consume the squash. This also works for pumpkins and gourds. After you cut and scrape the item, separate the seeds by hand and let them air dry very thoroughly. Summer squash should be left on the vine until the fruit reaches full size and hardens. Edible seed such as corn, peas, and beans, where the seed is part of the plant that is eaten, collection time becomes less critical. Leave the vegetables on the plants until the pods become dry and the seeds rattle inside. For corn, let the kernels dry out.
Collecting Fruit Seeds
Seeds found inside fleshy fruits, such as tomatoes and melons are numerous. Simply cut the fruit open and squeeze out the seeds. Tomato seeds are ready to collect when the fruits are overripe and soft. Scoop out the seeds and place them in a bowl of warm water to separate the seeds from the pulp. Let this stand for a few days and the water will begin to ferment. Pour off the pulp and dry the seeds on paper towels before placing them in containers for storage.
Once collected, most seeds should be cleaned of debris before planted or stored. Shy away from plastic bags because they create static cling and possible mold caused by moisture. Gather a supply of paper bags or envelopes to put the seed heads in as soon as they are cut. Label the envelopes immediately. Paper, glassine envelopes or glass vials can be used to store seeds. It is best to air-dry most seeds by spreading them on paper towels in a single layer. For open seeds, a cookie sheet or a paper bag will work fine. For many seeds you can collect an entire seed head and separate the seeds later. The bigger the seed, the better the viability. Collect seeds only from the healthiest and strongest plants. Many large seeds can be cleaned by hand. Make certain the seeds are kept cool and dry to assure long time viability.
Large fruits, including peaches, can be propagated. A stone fruit, the peach falls into two categories, clingstone and freestone. Additionally, if you feel adventurous, you can collect seeds along ponds, lakes, rivers, and in fields. If you find a rare plant or don’t recognize what you have discovered, check with the local nursery or agricultural extension service.
Another inexpensive way to grow new plants is propagation by stem cuttings. Some tree cuttings such as crape myrtles, elms and birch can be rooted, and you don’t need a greenhouse to be successful. You can dip the end of the cutting into a root hormone, which is available at any nursery. The process is simple. Once dipped in the hormone, place the cutting into a pot filled with soil or directly into the earth. Many plants are propagated by taking softwood, (viburnum, camellia and forsythia) or semi-hardwood, taken between mid-July and the first hard freeze. This includes crabapple, gardenia, flowering cherry, flowering quince, butterfly bush, and spirea. Hardwood or herbaceous cuttings are best to take in the late fall or early spring, when the plant is dormant. Hardwood cuttings are also used to propagate many evergreens including, pine, juniper, spruce and cedar. Herbaceous cuttings are taken from non-woody plants such as dahlia, begonia, impatiens, chrysanthemums, geranium and coleus to create a new plant. The trick is to know when and where to take the cuttings. Two or three days after a rainfall and during spring are ideal times.
Propagate Oriental poppies when they have died down by cutting two-inch sections of the dormant roots. When replanted, the poppies will yield new plants. Begin your seed and propagation venture hunt now—make it a family project. You will find some of the best seeds on the planet. And you don’t have to spend a dime.
Another way to economize and duplicate plants is to divide them. Propagating plants refers to producing more plants by dividing, grafting or taking cuttings from existing plants. If you spot a plant that you want in your garden, think about taking a cutting. Or divide the plant. Unlike seeds, cuttings and divisions of plants will result in an identical plant that will reproduce the same beautiful flowers and greenery that you find attractive.
To divide a plant, dig it up once the flowers have faded. Shake the soil from the roots and proceed to break the plant into several pieces, usually at nodes or between leaves. Make sure each divided piece has shoots and roots attached. Replant each piece in good soil in a pot or sheltered garden bed and water it in thoroughly. If you place gravel in the bottom of the pot, any excess moisture will drain.
You can establish several small cuttings in the same pot, planted apart from each other. Make sure to use a clean, sharp knife when cutting a firm young shoot just below a joint or leaf. Strip or cut off any leaves on the bottom half. Make sure you don’t strip any higher than two thirds up the stem. If the stem appears sensitive, use scissors, or you can make a small incision to the lower end of the stem to encourage root growth from the “wound” you made. Insert the cutting into sand and peat in a pot and carefully fill with dirt. Once you insert the cutting into the pot, you can maintain humidity by covering the pot with a bottomless milk jug or a clear plastic bag. If you have plastic trays available, cover the cuttings in the tray with clear plastic so you can readily see the new growth. Make sure the trays have holes in the bottom for drainage. Place the pot and the cuttings into a plastic bag in an upright position. Tie the top of the bag with a twist tie.
For any type of propagation, keep the soil moist, not soaking wet, and wait about six weeks. To check out the progress, open the bag and wiggle the plant gently. If you feel resistance, then the plant has established roots. It is always best to research the type of plant you wish to propagate. When a seedling is well established, transplant into the garden bed.
If you live in a very cold climate, it is best to propagate plant cuttings indoor.
Collecting and propagating seeds is one of the best ways to reproduce your desired plant and control its growth. Ideally, it is the most inexpensive and creative method to add new dimension and value to your landscape.
Originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.