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Shake down your plants for free seed: an introduction to collecting seeds

By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologistOctober 16, 2008
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Collecting your own seeds is a great way to save money. If you trade seeds with others, you can end up with a great variety of seeds for only the cost of postage. If you need flats of ground covers or other plants, starting from seed is a good way to economize. Not having to buy the seed is better yet! But first you have to get out into the garden and find the seeds…

Gardening picture

Finding and collecting seeds from plants after they've flowered doesn't require lots of intricate botanical knowledge. If you've never collected seeds before, you'll be surprised at what you can find once you start looking. These tips will get you started, but the best way to learn is just by doing. Get out into the garden and investigate the spent, dried blooms on the plants. You'll find the seeds!

The ovary where seeds form is generally found at the base of the flower, so if you remember how the plant looked when it was blooming, you'll have a good idea of where to look for the seeds. Seeds vary a lot in appearance. Some are large and crinkled, some are round and shiny, some are like dust. It can be confusing at first, but once you learn to recognize the seeds of one or two plants, you'll get the hang of figuring out where the seeds are on other plants.

partly crushed seed head of Heliopsis helianthoides in my handWhen you're poking around at plant parts, looking for seeds, remember that the seeds will usually be harder, often darker, and more uniform in appearance than the surrounding bits of chaff and dried leaves. On most plants, you'll want to wait until the seed stems are turning dry and brown before collecting seeds, or the seeds won't yet be mature. Immature seeds are often green, with a soft coat that you can dent with your fingernail.

Some plants tend to drop their seeds before you can harvest them. In those cases, you might want to bag the developing seedheads. Fabric mesh wedding favor bags are inexpensive and work well for this purpose. With tiny seeds that are easily lost, I like to snip off the seedheads into a paper bag or other container. A little shaking will generally drop the seeds to the bottom of the bag for easy separation from the snipped stems and spent blooms.

Hybrid plants, created by crossing one variety with another, won't generally come true from seed. Some hybrids may be sterile and not produce seeds, or the seeds might not sprout. If you're not sure if a plant is hybrid or "open pollinated," whether to collect seeds from it or buy seeds instead depends on how disappointed you'd be if it didn't work out. Especially with seeds I'm collecting for winter sowing, where little effort is needed to try starting them, I often figure "nothing ventured, nothing gained."

From dandelions to castor beans, plants have their own unique ways of forming and dispersing seeds. Looking at some examples will give you an idea of where you'll find seeds on some common garden plants.

Spikes of little flowers can turn into stems of little seed pods.dry seed heads of Agastache amid garden greenery

Basil flowers in this fashion, and I described collecting and de-chaffing basil seeds in detail in this article. The same methods can be used for sages (Salvia), beardstongue (Penstemon), toadflax (Linaria), anise hyssop (Agastache), and speedwell (Veronica). Just strip some remnants off a dried stem and crush them in your hand, then look closely to see if you can find seeds. Seeds will often be tiny, even dust-like. If you're not sure but want to try anyway, just dry, save, and sow it, chaff and all.

Big flowers often form central seedheads

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are the most obvious example, and their seeds are easy to recognize, with their dark or striped hard shells at maturity.

spent flowers and seed head on Echinacea plant

Echinacea seed head in my hand, showing single seed and some chaffConeflowers (Echinacea), black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia), yellow ox-eye (Heliopsis helianthoides), and blanket flowers (Gaillardia) have very different looking seeds, but they all form in a cluster at the center of the flower petals.


Some flowers produce pods filled with small seeds.

blooming plant of Rose Campion
seed pods forming on rose campion
pod of rose campion spilling small dark seeds into my hand

The upright, vase-shaped seed pods of columbines (Aquilegia) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) will spill a wealth of round, dark seeds into your hand.

petunia plant with bloom and seed pods in various stagesdried petunia seedpod releasing tiny round seeds into the palm of my hand

 

Crushing a round seed pod from a petunia or toadflax plant releases dozens of tiny seeds.

 

 

 

Marigolds (Tagetes) leave behind papery sheaths filled with what seems at first to be fine dried straw, until you pull the sheath away and see the dark seed at the base of each shaft.

 

Some flowers produce larger seeds.

If you know where the flowers used to be, look for some sort of seed-containing structure there on the plant. Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) produce fat pods containing huge seeds, viable when the pods are dry and the beans are hard. Morning Glories and other Ipomoea species produce papery round pods containing several chunky seeds that have a hard, black coat when mature. Castor Beans (Ricinus communis) are found within the sections of enormous round, hairy pods.


open red flower of Cardinal Creeper on vining plant
round papery dry seed pods of cardinal climber on plant
seed pod in my hand, partly crushed to release a single seed

 

Some DG PlantFiles entries include seed photos, and there are other good seed identification resources online, such as TheSeedSite. DG subscribers can turn to the Saving Seeds forum and other discussion forums for help with finding and harvesting seeds from different types of plants. Once you start saving seeds from a few garden favorites, you may find yourself looking for seeds everywhere. The art and sport of seed snatchin' is an honored tradition among many DGers.

Collecting your own seeds is easy and can become downright addictive. It's a great way to get lots of seeds for sharing, trading, and sowing! Whether you start seeds inside or winter sow them, it's fun to have a fat seed stash to choose from when it's time to start planting.

Get out into the garden and shake down your plants for some seeds!

Photos in the article were taken by me in my garden. Move your mouse over the images for additional information.

Understanding the botany of flowers can give you an even better idea of where to look for seeds, so please check out LariAnn's excellent and clearly-written
"Botany for Gardeners" articles.

Botany for gardeners--The basics of blooms

Botany for gardeners--More blooms: simple to complex


  About Jill M. Nicolaus  
Jill M. NicolausBetter known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. The birds are mobbing our feeders lately, so Sunshine Girl and I have a job keeping the Flyby Cafe' open for business! This year, we put out a special feeder just for the squirrels, filled with a seed & corn blend. We still see them acrobatically snatching food from the other feeders, but at least now they let the birds get a beak in edgewise! (Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Separating Seed From Chaff irishmist 1 3 Sep 14, 2013 9:41 PM
Separating Seed from Chaff? haighr 1 4 Aug 23, 2012 2:42 PM
Do the seeds I collect "expire?" Mel72 2 10 Apr 3, 2011 2:23 PM
Petunia Question cianoy 1 6 Apr 3, 2010 5:19 PM
Part of the Trade Noturf 3 12 Nov 18, 2008 1:26 PM
Just in time... MountainFlowers 1 6 Oct 25, 2008 12:58 PM
First year seed gathering ACWinOH 7 38 Oct 22, 2008 7:48 PM
seeds Barbell 1 12 Oct 20, 2008 7:17 PM
Thanks Sundownr 1 10 Oct 17, 2008 2:00 PM
Neat guide there! Dinu 15 56 Oct 17, 2008 4:10 AM
Great for the beginers! adinamiti 4 21 Oct 16, 2008 6:28 PM
Good phicks 1 11 Oct 16, 2008 3:55 PM
Thank you, thank you, thank you. LouC 1 27 Oct 16, 2008 2:40 PM
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