I will never forget the first time I watched Grandpa Jack deadhead a marigold and scatter its seeds. It was a flat out miracle. I took high school biology, so I knew about the birds and the bees, but somehow I never quite put it together that flower seeds would be a part of the flower. Where I grew up seeds came from the store. Everyone dutifully paid $1.79 for their little packet of marigold seeds or shelled out $3.50 – $5.00 for transplants already done half their flowering. Watching Grandpa Jack open up that seed pod blew my mind.
It seems crazy to me now, that I so missed the obvious, but my mindset was a symptom of the Great Forgetting that’s gone down throughout the United States since the 1950’s: a casualty of the same cultural intention that birthed a single-serving plastic bottle to commodify water. I was habituated to spend money on a free natural resource, so much so that I had stopped remembering it was free.
The good news, though, is that the green realm doesn’t share our cultural amnesia. Further, despite the fact that in our man’s world a 1980 Supreme Court decision rendered seed subject to intellectual property laws and paved the way for the current situation in which the proprietary seed market now accounts for 82% of the commercial seed market worldwide (1), the plants and trees kept on making seeds. And despite all of Monsanto’s attempts to the contrary in the intervening decades, they’re still doing so — in my garden, in your garden, in the manicured landscaping in the office park down the street. And high up in mountain meadows and down in the salty reeds near the ocean too.
What follows is a basic guide for how I collect some common seeds found in our garden.
- Hand(s) with opposable thumb
- Scissors or small garden clippers (optional)
- Annual plants that have seeded out
- Various containers, baskets, or ventilated cardboard boxes
- Newspaper or paper towels
- Glass jars, paper envelopes or paper bags
1. Set your intention as a seed collector. For a rigorous intention of preserving genetic purity, leave this page now and go directly to a source such as Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed. I am not a professional gardener, nor a botanist. I don’t aim to cultivate the best Durham tomato by hybridizing my two favorite strains. I am a mom who feeds her family from our kitchen garden and I like free seeds. They satisfy both the anarchist and the dreamer in me. The anarchist loves getting something for free that my culture taught me required money. The dreamer loves being in relationship with multiple generations of the plant families with whom we share this acre. Helping to insure that the children of this year’s plants will be born in the spring is a small homage I can pay to the green realm for its abundant gifts of food, oxygen and beauty. So my intention as a seed collector is simply to participate in the propagation of annual plants in my garden.
2. Allow plants and flowers to go to seed. In the case of many annual flowers, as with Grandpa Jack’s marigolds, the flower buds themselves contain the seeds. Similarly, with some veggies like beans, what we’re eating is the seeds, so to collect the vegetable is to collect the seed. With other plants, such as hairy vetch, a seed pod may develop after flowering and separate from the blooms. The secret is to simply wait it out and see what happens with the plant you’re trying to propagate. Eventually that plant will move through its life cycle which will include a part where the plant knows it’s going to die. It’s an heroic moment for the plant, a time when it gives a gift of life to children it will never know, insuring an immortality of a sort. Bear witness to this rite of passage and you will learn how to collect the seeds.
3. Collect and dry seeds. Yup, that’s it. When you see that a plant’s seeds or seed pods have been formed, pluck them off with your hand or cut them off with scissors or garden clippers. I typically use both hands and toss the seed pods into a container I rest near the plant. When possible, wait to harvest seed pods until they are well dried by the sun and wind, but before they are so dry that they start to crack open. You may also choose to harvest before the pod is fully dried if you are expecting significant rainy weather that could cause the pods to mildew. Sometimes I yank the entire plant out of the ground and hang it out of the rain to continue drying until I have time to harvest the seed pods. Choose a container for collection that is suited to the shape and size of the seeds or seed pods. Ventilated containers are essential for seed pods that have not fully dried as air flow will help prevent the seeds from rotting or developing mildew. If your seeds come straight off the plant without pods, such as buckwheat seeds, you will need to collect them in a container without holes and then transfer them to a piece of newspaper or paper towel, spreading them out for 2-3 days of air drying.
4. Store and label seeds. Remove and composte all seed pods, also discard any seeds that show signs of deterioration or decay. I store seeds in either glass jars or paper envelopes which I get free by saving them from junk mail. Paper lunch bags also work well. Label your seeds and store them in a cool, dry, dark location. Return occasionally to vent the seeds, particularly those stored in large quantity in glass jars. Any remaining moisture in the seeds will then be able to escape, preventing the seeds from mildewing. Most annual seeds will remain viable when stored for 1-2 years.
5. Or ignore Steps 1 – 4 and instead take the lazy man’s approach. With all of our annual flowers, after harvesting some seeds to save for direct sowing, I drag the dead plants with any clinging seeds to places in our yard or around the garden where I want to encourage their growth. I leave the plants there over the winter, allowing them to decay. In the spring, we rough till the area and then leave it alone. The process turns lawn into a patch of “wild flowers” in one season.
Six Seeds for Simple Collecting
1. Beans (Leguminosae) — Soy, Green, Lima, Black, Jacob’s Cattle Gold, Tiger Eye, Maine Bumblebee, Red Kidney, Pinto — and the list could go on. These are by far my favorite seeds to collect. I love to run my fingers through a bowl of dried beans, their textures and vibrant colors those of jewels. Simply let the beans dry on the plant: preferably in the garden, but if the deluge threatens, you can also hang them in a dry, humid and well ventilated location. Once dried, remove the seed pod from the plant and crack it open. Continue drying the seeds by spreading them out on newspaper or paper towels until they are hard enough to crack with a hammer. Then freeze the seeds in an airtight container for five days to kill the weevil eggs that may be under the seed coat. Allow the seeds to return to room temperature before opening the storage container.
2. Marigolds (Tagetes) — Stripped French, Aztec, Single Stem — which I tend to call around these parts, respectively, little marigolds (those growing about 12″ tall), big marigolds (those growing 3′-4′ tall) and Tiki Torch (those growing 5′-6′ tall with single stems and orange petals like a daisy). For each of them, simply wait until their blooms die, then harvest the seed pod at the bloom’s base. The single stem marigolds form a much harder seed pod that can really poke you, so I wear gloves for that seed harvest. Break open the seed pod to reveal the seeds. Store them in a glass jar and vent it often.
3. Zinnias (Zinnia)— This is the one flower I tend to harvest before it’s fully dried. Often harvesting from my favorite blooms just as they are starting to decay in my flower vase. This is because zinnias store a single seed at the end of each flower petal. Pluck the petal and you’ll harvest the seed. I discard the petals that break off, but also store the seeds with any attached petals, making sure to fully dry the petal and the seed. It makes for a delicious aroma when I vent the seed jar.
4. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) — This flower will do a great job of self seeding, but if you’d like to give it some serious legs and start a new patch way across your yard from an existing patch, the seeds are a cinch to gather. Wait for the blooms to die and you’ll see that the brown center of the bloom remains. Let it dry and then cut it off. Smush it in your fingers and you’ll see it disintegrate into tons of tiny brown seeds. Store in a paper envelope, or keep the seed balls whole and store them in a glass jar.
5. Hairy Vetch (Vicia) — A wonderful and beautiful cover crop which we interplant with winter rye. It grows slowly throughout the winter and then in the spring bursts into a vibrant purple bloom. After blooming, seed pods form on the vines. Allow them to dry and then harvest the seeds (small, black spheres) as you would dried beans.
6. Buckwheat (Fagopyrum) — This is a fabulous, self-propagating, quick cover-crop that goes from sowing to flowering in about forty-five days. And our bees LOVE the white flowers, though be careful if you go into a buckwheat field after noon. Buckwheat’s flowers shut down their nectar flow in the afternoon, which can really frustrate the bees. After flowering, the buckwheat will develop black seeds, each in a tiny brown casing, at the top of the stalks. I walk through the field with a tall cup and grasping the stalk in my hand, pull the seeds off and into the cup. You can also cut down the buckwheat and place the entire plant where ever you want it to grow next.
Today’s post is offered as part of the SOP for Our 43,560 project.
© Jennifer S. and harvestliberty.net, 2012.