Collecting Seeds in the Garden

Seed saving tips at Chicago Garden.png

Seed saving season in the garden is underway and I thought I’d share
some tips that I find useful when trying to save seeds for next year. The
first thing I’d recommend for a new frugal gardener to do is start an
Emergency Seed Saving Kit. You can place this kit in the glove
compartment of your car, your purse or backpack.

1. One large freezer bag
2. Small pair of scissors or pocketknife.
3. Fine point Sharpie (or similar pen) to write.
4. Small notepad.
5. Napkins, you probably have tons of them from visits to the drive-thru. Half-sheets of newsprint work just fine.
6. Digital camera (optional).

Place all of the supplies in your Emergency Seed Saving Kit inside the
large freezer bag and keep it with you at all times during seed saving
season. You never know when you’re on a walk or drive when you’ll come
across a bunch of seeds you’d like to save and start in your garden.
Use the scissors or (pocketknife) to cut off dried seed heads without
damaging the stalks of plants. Place the seed head inside a napkin and
roll it tightly and if you know the name of the flower write it on the
napkin with your Sharpie. I find it very hard to write on napkins on
the run so I recommend using a Sharpie or similar type of “marker” pen
where the ink “bleeds” out without the need to apply pressure.

you’ve collected the seed head and made note of the name, place it
inside of your Emergency Seed Saving Kit and proceed. Placing the
rolled up seed pod in the napkin is very important. Nothing worse than
doing a load of laundry and remembering later that you had seeds in
your pockets.

If you’re new to gardening or are unfamiliar with
the flower from which you collected seeds, get a small notepad– for
field notes–one from the dollar store that fits in the palm of your
hand is perfect. write down as much information about the seed pod in question in
your notepad. What color was the flower? How tall was the flower stalk?
What do the leaves look like, what shape are they? how long are the
leaves? what color were they? Were they shiny? Soft or coarse? Nothing
worse than trying to guess the ID of a flower from the vague
recollections of a new seed saver on a gardening message board.

found this plant that my grandma used to grow when I was a kid and I
want to grow it in my garden. I saw some in a ditch and I saved the
seeds, can you tell me the name of it? I think the flowers were yellow.
She called them ‘forever flower.’ PLEASE HELP, it reminds me of my nana
and I miss her. 🙁 Signed, NewGreenThumbGirl85

If you can’t
take a picture make the best sketch you can of the plant, leaves,
flower and seed pod in your notepad. You can scan it into your computer
or take a photo of it when you get home and upload it to the message
board. Your drawing skills may be lacking but they’re better than
nothing, trust me.

Processing Your Seeds at Home.

you’re home with your seed bounty set it out to dry. Take a paper plate
and write down the name or notes from your notepad on the paper plate
and spread out your seeds or seed pods to dry. I like to cut open paper
bags (see photo above) since I don’t buy disposable plates and set them out on a table
near the window to dry for a period of a few days to a couple of weeks.
If you live with people who think that kitchen counters and dinner
tables are for eating and socializing or with pets use junk mail
envelopes instead.

garden seed saving tips in Chicago Garden.png

Give them a shake every day to keep the seeds or
pods from sticking together. Using paper is important because it can
wick up moisture in seed pods and seeds. Moisture is your seed saving
enemy, seeds and seed pods can and will get moldy if stored in plastic
before they’re 100% dry.

Ethical Seed Saving.

lived this long guided by your own moral compass so I won’t tell you
where you can’t or can’t collect seeds from outside your garden. The
following is just what I think. Your mileage will vary.

Places I’ve collected seeds from:

Public planters: Yes.
Yes, kinda, well…sorta. I wouldn’t collect seeds from a park
like The Lurie Garden or a nature preserve, but I’d be all over a seed
pod in Grant Park. 
Garden centers & nurseries: No. Kinda,
well…sorta. I’m not saying a seed pod has never somehow managed to
fall from a plant and land in the pot of a plant I was buying, but you
could get in trouble.
Private gardens: Yes, if you ask first.
Gardeners are generous and if you just take a moment to knock on a door
and strike up a conversation with a gardener– you just may walk away
with those seeds you’re lusting after. Also, if the seed pod is hanging
over on the sidewalk I consider it fair game. All but one of my Hostas have come
from seed pods that hung out into the sidewalks around my neighborhood,
all of them.
Landscapings: The plants used in landscaping; parking
lots, banks, restaurants strip malls and restaurants are usually very
common. That doesn’t mean I’m above collecting seeds from them and
growing them myself.

Taking seeds from plants you didn’t buy is
a sensitive subject for many gardeners because this is theft. Try to be
mindful of where you take seeds and pods from, and always remove the
seed pod or seeds in a way that doesn’t hurt the plant. Don’t pull on a
seed pod or stem, instead make a clean cut with a small knife or
scissors. Pulling on a stem will usually result in the whole plant
being lifted out of the ground and can lead to the plant dying. I’ve
lost all of the coneflowers that were originally planted along my fence
because people pulled on the flower or seed pod. Had they just asked, I
would’ve shared the seeds.

What do the Seeds Look Like?

Rudbeckia seed cone at Chicago garden.png

Depending on the plant the seeds can be easy to spot or they can be a pain. Composite flowers like the Rudbekia pictured here are a bit of a pain. They are actually lots of tiny flowers clustered together to form one “flower.” When the flower petals fall they leave behind these cones and there is usually one seed inside each chamber. You can tap the cone into the palm of your hand and seeds may fall out. I like to just collect the whole cone and dry it, then break it apart by crushing it in my palm and scattering the whole thing in the garden. It isn’t worth my time to sit there and remove all those seeds from the chaff. On the other hand you’ll have some flowers like the daylily with a single pod than when ripe will split open revealing several larger-sized seeds, which are easy to identify.

I’ll probably do a separate post on storing the seeds. Stay tuned.


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  • I wonder what Lurie's "official policy" on seed collecting is. It's not like they do it themselves (they cut back and discard)... I have taken seeds out of public gardens and parks; just not out of protected areas, obviously, or when told that seed collecting was prohibited. Also, MBT, I host a snail-mail round-robin seed swap in January, let me know if you want to participate. It's open to everyone, not just bloggers... I hosted two rounds last year and will mention it on my blog soon (so people collect and save seeds).

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Thanks for the info Garden Faerie. I'll keep my eye on your blog for notice, I may want to participate this year.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    I've recently gotten back into starting plants from seeds, haven't done that in years. It's a combination of the economy, the variety of plants available, the fun of starting plants from seeds, and the fact that this garden is so darned big in previous years I didn't have the patience to wait for seedlings to get big enough to make an impact here. With all the shade and maple roots, it takes a long time for seedlings to get established. Growing them in pots for a while in a sunnier spot until they're more substantially-sized has helped a lot. This year I started all my veggies and herbs from seed, (some of it saved,) and quite a few perennials and annuals from saved or free seeds. The whole process of saving, storing, and growing from seed is time-consuming but it's free, it's rewarding, and it's so worth the effort.

    Most of my summer-sown seedlings are in the garden now - still have some Baptisia australis babies from seeds from a friend's garden. They were started late and are pretty small. I'm wondering whether to try overwintering them indoors or plant them out later this month and hope for the best.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I agree with you about is being rewarding. Even more so than the money saving, I appreciate that I can point to something and say I grew it from a seed. It is too bad it takes perennials a while to bloom though, because like you I was impatient when I started.

    Don't have experience with the Baptisia so I can't say. Although, one year I was faced with a similar dilemma with Hollyhocks and I wish I would have left them out and hoped for the best.

  • Hi CCWriter,

    Funny you should mention that. I was just looking for my shop lights that I used to use for this purpose the other day. I'll make a note of it and put something up when we get closer to seed starting time.

  • I am saving my collected poppy seeds for fall broadcast and spring broadcast...and then I'll cross my fingers till summer 0f'10!

  • I just started seed saving last year, with mixed success. Got fennel hybridized with dill, for one, but did manage to grow some great heirloom tomatoes from seed that I saved. (Tomato seed saving is an art in itself.) I also had my cleome come up this year in 4 different colors (very strange, since it's all reseeded from whatever came up last year and that hasn't happened before) so I've been collecting seeds from each variety to see if they breed true next year (and thanks to MBT for cleome seed-saving tips!) I do swaps too-- check out my "swap list" over at, where I'm "nax"

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