Saving Seeds for the Future

Many herb gardeners prevent their plants from producing seeds by removing flowers. It is well known that doing this will increase the potency of herbs harvested at The Growers Exchange. We see this all the time, as we allow all of our garden herbs to go to seed. When the plants begin to make seeds, they do not put much effort into anything else, such as growing new foliage. Plants usually end their season looking pretty haggard. They are worn out; existing foliage is by now old and has suffered the ravages of weather and summer sun. But standing proud and dried above it is the product of its efforts; a bunch of seeds ready, willing and able to make a whole lot of new plants. There is value and intrigue in that seed head.

To begin, let me explain that I am a seed collector, I am the one seen by the roadside, bucket in hand thrashing through the weeds. And yes, people do sometimes stop and ask if I need help? Am I lost? Or confused? And of course I have been asked for ID by sheriffs, deputies, police, and state troopers. But, they all leave me as they found me in the weeds, shaking their heads and muttering about how “it takes all kinds”.

Learning to Collect Seeds

But they don’t know what I know! There is treasure is those weeds! Every gardener knows that seeds are expensive. With a little planning, seeds fresher than any you can buy are there for the taking. I divide my collecting into wild seeds and garden seeds. All the roadside adventure happens while collecting wild seeds, but I want to explain how I collect herb seeds from my garden.

As a commercial grower of herb plants, our biggest unknown is obtaining viable herb seed. Seeds are alive even though they don’t look it. They lose viability with age; this is a process some of us gardeners are familiar with. To hedge, we harvest seeds as well as buy them, hoping for good germination, but having to wait weeks to know. Seeds freshly collected usually germinate near 100%, they are worth the effort of collecting and cleaning. The nursery office is surrounded by our Growers Exchange herb garden, where we grow all the herb plants we sell. Our garden is invaluable to the greenhouse, often providing seeds or seedlings when not available anywhere. The herb garden also allows us to be familiar with the plants through their lifecycle. We can be of more help to customers when we are growing herb in a garden just like them. Many customers’ questions have been answered by someone first going outside to see what our plants are doing.

Collecting Herb Seeds

Collecting seeds is easy! All you need is a bucket and a willingness to grab hold of bunches of dried plant. The most important thing is understanding the nature of the seed being collected. Once the seed head is dried, each has unique characteristics just like the flowers they once were. Look at the seed head and determine how they are going to fall when you begin. Some pods are like little pitchers, waiting to pour their contents; others, the seeds are the head and they must be removed from a center cone. The nature of the problem is mechanical, not horticultural. In other words, common sense will lead you to a successful harvest.

Fall is here and now is the perfect time to start seed collecting! Seed collecting saves money, and is the most economical way to reap new plants for your garden year after year. Many gardeners also enjoy sharing their favorite seeds with friends. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty when collecting herb seeds – you’re bound to be rewarded with surprises.

When to Collect Herb Seeds

The method I use, to collect seeds, is to set the bucket on the ground and bend the seed heads over the bucket. It is important that the heads be over the bucket when tipped, as the seeds may just fall out. Some seed heads need to be crushed and some rolled between your hands. Just do it over the bucket so it all falls in. Annuals are some of the best and most pervasive plants to produce from home-saved seed, but bulbs, perennials and even some shrubs and trees can be equally gratifying. Be prepared for some variation in seedlings, especially if collecting from F1 hybrids which are special varieties bred by the seed companies for consistency and robustness; the seedlings produced by these plants are not likely to have the same properties as the parent plant. However, the different characteristics may be good ones and it makes the whole process more exhilarating!

It’s not always obvious when seeds are ready. The correct time to collect seeds from their fruits may differ from the time they are ready to eat. Some seeds are very straightforward and basically require storing until they’re ready for sowing, either into pots under cover or directly outside. Others, however, may be a little tricky and require preparation before they’ll germinate, such as exposure to certain temperatures, soaking, or breaking the seed coat. Seed pods and seed heads will usually dry out when they’re ready for collection, becoming straw-pale and papery. If you want to hold on to a few of these plants to produce seeds for next year you’ll actively want them to ‘bolt’, or run to seed. Of course, a lot of seed collection is commonsense. Just think about what would happen in nature when seeds are ripe and aim to copy that.


How to Collect Herb Seeds

  1. Choose a dry, windless day. Select a healthy, pest- and disease-free plant, whose seedpods appear as if they are about to split. Remove the entire seed head.
  2. Invert the entire seed head upside-down into a paper bag. Close bag without crushing the seed head and label. Place bag in a dry place for the seeds to ripen.
  3. Check the seeds’ progress regularly. When most of the seedpods have opened, remove the contents onto a dry surface and separate seeds from any bits of seed head still attached.
  4. Extracted seeds will need to be properly cleaned before storing to remove any remaining debris. Dried seeds can be sorted from its chaff by shaking the whole lot through a series of graded sieves/screens. Stack the sieves with the largest mesh size on top and smallest at the bottom, tip the seeds in and shake. One of the sieves will be just the right size to collect the majority of the seeds, leaving the chaff behind in the remaining sieves.
  5. Store the cleaned seed in a small dry envelope, seal and label carefully. Keep in a cool, dry, airy place until ready to be used. If kept in an air-tight container and placed in the refrigerator, these seeds will be good for at least six years.


Cleaning Herb Seeds

Cleaning seeds is not too difficult. If a seed sieve is not available, raid the kitchen for one and grab the colander too. The large trash can be removed from the bucket by hand; leaves, stems, etc. The mess at the bottom is a mix of powdered dried plant and the seeds. Use various size screens to separate the two. In one of your screens you will find clean seed, the treasure you seek! These seeds should be stored in paper envelopes inside where temperature and humidity are controlled. Never, ever, ever store them in plastic or the refrigerator; one rots them the other dies them out.

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You will have way more seeds than you will need. So, you should indulge in the gardener’s practice of sharing the bounty with fellow gardeners. Giving away flowers and veggies is great. But when you stop to consider the gift of seeds, you realize it is a gift of possibilities.  And even though it has been said many times, when messing with seeds, think about what the Navaho say. The simple statement that creates endless possibilities: “See This Seed, It is Not a Simple Thing”. Think about what a seed looks like and what it is capable of and you will see that messing with seeds is messing with one of the great mysteries of life. Is there any wonder as to why we garden?