Today’s post comes from my friend Melissa Keyser from Sweet Bee Garden. I first got to know Melissa from her frequent comments here on the blog, and as a result have enjoyed following both her blog and Instagram feed for a couple of years now. I really appreciate Melissa’s down to earth approach to gardening and self-sufficiency and I love her eye for garden design and focus on permaculture principles. When she suggested a guest post collaboration, it was a no-brainer to introduce you to her and have her write about one of our shared interests: seed saving!
Here is a little about Melissa:
Melissa lives in Santa Rosa, California on a half-acre urban farm with her husband, 12 chickens, dog Stella and cats Gaia and Bacon. Her goal is to help people connect to nature though gardening, seasonal eating, self-sufficiency and natural living. Make sure to stop by Sweet Bee Garden and say hello!
I hope you enjoy her guest post as much as I do!
Saving Flower Seeds
September brings change to my Northern California garden. The light is shifting, the shadows slowly grow longer, and although our days are still hot, dusk and dawn bring a slight chill. Bright colors fade to the rich tones of the earth, and we reach a more subtle time in the garden. It is the perfect time to gather and save flower seeds.
Saving seeds is an ancient way to ensure the succession of next year’s crops, or in the case of flowers, next years bouquets, pollinator forage, and color for the garden. I love the task of collecting seeds from spent flower heads because it connects me to the changing seasons; allowing me to be an active participate in the life cycle of plants.
Saving sees from flowers is easy and the simple task can save tons of money for the following spring. I grow many different flowers in my garden: bachelor buttons, cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, coreopsis, Mexican sunflowers, poppies, and hyssop, to just name a few. If I were to buy new seed packages each spring, I would easily spend $50 or more. Instead, I use a few simple things from my kitchen and invest just a bit of time, and have thousands of seeds to sow for next year. Here’s how I do it.
Identify what flowers you want to save and let the seeds develop.
The first step is to identify what flowers you want to save. Throughout the year, I look for colors that I love best, and make mental note of what plants I want to save from. I grow about a gazillion bachelor buttons, and always try to increase my number of the more unique colors, like the pink or wine colored. Let the flowers bloom and dry out standing on the plant.
It is valuable to know what the seeds look like and where in the flower they come from, which careful observation can reveal. Calendula seeds, for example, look like tiny seahorses clustered around the center of where the flower was. California poppy seeds are enclosed in a long tube, that only developed only once the petals have fallen off. Borage seed are almost square, found deep in the corolla of the individual bloom.
Once the flowers start to fade, I keep a close eye on the seed development. When I can see seeds that have started to dry out, I walk around the garden and gather them in various containers: bowls, strainers, cleaned out yogurt container, bags or boxes. A dry sunny afternoon is the best time, to ensure there is no dew or moisture. With some flowers, you can easily pull off the seedheads with your hands, or just bend them over into the bowl and shake the seeds out. Others need to be cut off with scissors or pruners. Some seeds, like nasturtium, are large and you can simply pick off the plant or the ground.
In a perfect world, you would allow the seeds to completely dry on the plant before harvesting. But that’s not always possible. In my garden, flocks of tiny gold finches storm on my cosmos like black-Friday shoppers at Walmart. Very few dried seeds remain, so I have to gather the flowers a bit when they are still green. I leave these, and any seed I gather, to dry for several weeks before cleaning and sorting. Come late summer, I have bowls and containers of seeds on kitchen counters, the table, on top of the fridge, on the desk and on dressers. My seed collecting also conveniently justifies my hobby of vintage bowl collecting.
Just a note: some varieties of seeds are designed so they have a pod which shatters open when dry, sending the seeds flying to an open area. This is a brilliant evolution for wildflowers, but not so much when you have the pods drying on your counter. More than once I’ve had a California poppy pod shatter and send seeds flying though my house. If this is the case, cover loosely with a coffee filter or towel to keep them contained. Don’t seal the container before they are dry, or they will mold.
Clean, if necessary.
Once the seeds are completely dry, its time to sort and screen. If I collected whole flowers, use my fingers to smush and pull them apart over a bowl, loosening the seeds from the flower. You are likely now left with an assortment of dried petals and bits of stem. These extra bits mixed in with the seeds are known as chaff. How I plant the flowers will depict on how diligent am I with cleaning. If I’m going to freely broadcast, like bachelor buttons, I don’t bother, as the chaff won’t hurt.
If you’re going to direct seed or start inside, or your selling seeds by weight, you’ll want to separate the seeds from the chaff. They make seed sorting screens, where you can sift the seeds away from the chaff, or you can use your kitchen colanders. If the seeds are large, and you don’t have many to sort, you can pour onto a plate and pick out with tweezers or your fingers.
My favorite way of cleaning off the chaff is called winnowing. This method consists of pouring your seeds in front of a fan or outside in the breeze from one container into a second, lower container. The wind blows the chaff, which is lighter, away and the seeds, being heavier, fall into the lower container. I tried really hard to get some good photos of this process, but photography isn’t my husband’s strong suit, and I haven’t managed to train the dog yet to use my iPhone. There are lots of videos out there, as it’s a common method used for small scale grain harvest.
After cleaning you’re ready to store! I simply use letter-sized envelopes, sealed and then the top cut off. I then fold over the envelope and tape closed. Use whatever storage method works best for you! Make sure to write the variety, and important notes about growing or color, and the date on your envelope or container.
In my garden, I don’t bother with isolation distances or keeping my flowers bagged or otherwise restricted. As a result, my flowers are open pollinated, and not all the seeds I save will be true to what their parents were. To me, that’s part of the fun- you never know what new colors or shapes you’ll end up with!
All photos and content in this post belong to Melissa Keyser | Sweet Bee Garden, used here with permission.