Whether you’d like to save money or you enjoy following a plant through the entire growing process, saving seeds from plants in your garden is rewarding. And you can even share with friends! Here are a few tips for success:
What to grow
Many vegetables, herbs and flowers produce seeds that can be collected and stored for future seasons. However, you’ll want to know whether you have hybrids. Often listed as F1 hybrid on plant tags and packets, they don’t produce seeds that come true, or grow plants that look like the parents. Species and open-pollinated plants, ones pollinated by wind, insects or self-pollination, will produce seeds that come true. “Gather seeds” below shows 12 plants that are easy to grow and collect seeds from, and will likely come true. Keep in mind, however, that even if they’re open-pollinated, the same species of plants growing close together will likely cross-pollinate, then not come true after all. So to be sure next year’s plants look exactly like this year’s, only grow one variety of a species.
Here are some plants that are simple to collect seeds from and can be started easily next year.
- Blackberry lily Iris domestica
- Cilantro Coriandrum sativum
- Coneflower Echinacea purpurea
- Dill Anethum graveolens
- Four o’clock Mirabilis jalapa
- Larkspur Consolida ajacis
- Love-in-a-mist Nigella damascena
- Marigold Tagetes patula
- Poppy Papaver spp.
- Sunflower Helianthus annuus
- Sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus
- Zinnia Zinnia elegans
Pick when they're ripe
Where seeds form on the flower can vary between species. Some plants, such as sweet pea, larkspur and love-in-a-mist, form seed pods. Sometimes the seeds are all that’s left, such as on the dying stems of blackberry lily or cilantro. And on others, such as zinnia and marigold, you’ll need to remove parts to find the hidden seeds that form just below the bloom.
When you’re collecting seeds, choose the healthiest plants. Because seed formation is the last phase in a plant’s life cycle, you may have to wait until late in the growing season to harvest. Be patient and vigilant. Remove them too soon and the seeds will not have fully matured and won’t be viable. But wait too long, and you may miss out on being able to collect them if seedheads crack open and seeds blow away or drop to the ground.
Although seeds come in a variety of shapes and sizes, there are some characteristics to look for so you know they’re mature and ready to be collected. To start, the flowers will shrivel and turn brown. But seeds still may take time to ripen. For example, the marigold flower heads in the photo above are all on the same plant on the same day, but only the one that is entirely brown and spent is ready for harvest.
If the seed pods are papery, like the love-in-a-mist in the photo above, or you hear rattling when you shake the pod, it’s likely that seeds are ready.
In addition, look for mature seeds, often brown-black—leave ones that are still pliable and white to ripen a little longer. Once you know the seeds are ready, you can collect them. If seeds are neatly packaged in a sheath, you may be able to simply snip the spent flowerheads to take indoors.
But sometimes the seeds are loose and scatter easily. The love-in-a-mist in would probably make a mess if you took the pods indoors, so it’s easiest to collect the seeds in the garden. Other times you’ll strip the seeds from the stems, as I’m doing in the photo above.
You may need to protect your seeds from hungry birds, squirrels and other critters. Sunflowers seem to be a favorite, as you can see in the photo above.
To prevent loss, cover the head with a brown paper sack where the seeds will ripen safely. The paper allows air to circulate so they dry and don’t rot. After a week or two, open the bag to see if the seeds are mature; some of them may have fallen inside. When they’re ready, cut the head off the stem and carefully remove the bag so you don’t lose any seeds. Then lay it on a tray and use your fingers to scrape the seeds away from the head.
Once you've successfully collected the seeds, read about how to store seeds you've collected from your garden to ensure they're ready to sprout next year.