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Anna’s Annuals (and Perennials!): Saving the Seeds of Summer

By October 14, 2010September 26th, 20112 Comments
by Anna Johansen

Get harvesting! Now’s the time to collect all sorts of seeds to save or scatter. Keep reading for seed saving tips:

L: The curled seed shapes of Calendula ‘Solar Flashback Mix’; R: Papaver nudicaule ‘Meadow Pastels’ Poppy seed heads ready to be scattered. Photos: Anna Johansen.

Do you ever wonder if you should have waited to cut back a plant in the garden? Or how to get that full English Garden look without buying hundreds of potted plants? Or upset because you can’t find a favorite variety in your seed catalog anymore? Some wonderful plants offer their seeds in nice tidy pouches that are easy to collect and spread throughout your garden or meadow.

The much sought-after lupine meadow (this one at a private residence in Woodstock, VT).
Photo: Anna Johansen.

I often hear the woes of fellow gardeners – “my foxglove didn’t come back this year,” “my hollyhocks seem to be hopping about in the garden and never land where I want them to” or “I want a field of lupine but also need to win the lottery.” Knowing that foxglove and hollyhocks are biennial (meaning that their life cycle is completed after two growing seasons) and that lupine and poppies will practically hand their seeds up to you, is not only rewarding, but is also one of the thriftiest gardening techniques in the book. And, in the case of wild “wedding-wrecker” parsnip and dreadlock burdock, this knowledge can also help to cut the life cycle of some of those “undesirables.”

Common New England Garden Biennials:
Alcea (Hollyhocks)
Angelica gigas
Digitalis (Foxglove)
Lunaria (Money Plant)

L: Poppy ‘Meadow Pastels’ in bloom; R: Echinops (thistle) seeds developing. Photos: L: Johnny’s Selected Seeds; R: Anna Johansen.

Common New England Garden Self-Sowing Perennials:
Aquilegia (Columbine)
Echinops (Globe Thistle)
Lupinus (Lupine)
Knautia macedonica (a crimson pincushion flower)
Myosotis (Forget-me-Not)
Papaver (Poppy)
Tanacetum/Chrysanthemum parthenium (Feverfew)
Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan)

L: Nicotiana alata ‘Fragrant Cloud’ and ‘Lime Green’ with seed pod; R: Perennial Sweet Peas in stages: from flower, to green seed pods, to brown seed pods ready to harvest and open. Photos: Anna Johansen.

Easy to Save Annuals:
Amaranth
Bracteantha (Strawflower)
Calendula
Cleome
Helianthus (Sunflower)
Lathyrus (Sweet Peas)
Marigold
Nicotiana (Flowering Tobacco)
Nigella (Love-in-a-Mist)
Nasturium
Scabiosa (Pincushion)
Viola (Pansy)

How to Save Seeds
Instead of dead-heading after the blooms have subsided, let the healthiest-looking flower stalks of the plant remain until either:
a.) The seed pods have dried on the plant (in the case of lupine, columbine, poppy)
b.) The seeds look large and dry (like the umbels of angelica)
c.) You can easily flake apart the dead flower in your hand (as in scabiosa, marigold, rudbeckia), or d.) You shake the dead flower and seeds fall out (amaranth).
When your seeds are ready to harvest, bring a paper bag with you and cut the seedheads into the bag. If they are biennial or perennial, scatter at will. If annual, store thoroughly-dried seeds in a cool, dark, dry place in a paper envelope (I sometimes also put the paper envelope in a plastic bag so that the heat from my wood stove doesn’t dry the seeds out) and sow in the spring.

L: Rudbeckia seed head and scattered seeds; R: Angelica–remains of the umbel. Photos: Anna Johansen.

The Business of Seed-Making
Be sure to know if your plants are heirloom (also called open-pollinated) or if they are hybrids (a cross between different cultivars or species.) If open-pollinated, there may be some diversity in the seedlings but they will generally grow true from seed. Seeds collected from hybridized plants may carry some traits from one or both parents, may not be viable, or may be patented. You will have more consistent and predictable results from saving heirloom seeds, while hybrid seeds can make some pretty interesting life forms – just check out the squash coming out of my compost pile! If you are growing a few varieties of an open-pollinated flower, like sweet peas, you may want to prevent plants from cross-pollinating (which results in the mixing of traits). An easy way to do this is to stagger when you plant the seeds so that the plants flower at different times. Or, if you’re truly adventurous, just let it slide and marvel at the magic (I once had a ‘Black Knight’ pincushion with white petal tips!)

Miss Rumphius enjoys her lupine. Illustration by Barbara Cooney.

It’s no wonder that as a kid, I was smitten with Barbara Cooney’s tale of Miss Rumphius, a woman who travelled the world scattering lupine seed with the charge from her grandfather to “do something to make the world more beautiful.” Seed scattering is certainly a lovely way to do so…

More Seed Saving Links:
Fedco Seeds: Why Save Seeds?
Victory Seeds: Glossary of Seed Terms
The Seed Site: Seeds and Seed Pods (images)

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Great seed saving tips. That lupine meadow is to die for and it has a sense of the illustration as well, by the lake. Your inspirational illustration is beautiful. I like the little black and white kitty in the art too.

  • Wilhelmina Peters says:

    Barbara Cooney’s, Miss Rumphius was/is one of my favorite books. As well as my second daughter Vicky. She painted Lupines all over her car while she lived in Vermont. Now, it is probably the only Lupine decorated car in Wyoming…Good Tips!

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