Introduction: Harvesting Flower Seeds for Next Year's Gardens
Flower gardening - so much to like about it. Beautiful fragrant plants that attract bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and photographers. Exercise and fresh air are built in since gardens require quite a bit of work and time. I'm not a vegetable gardener (only herbs), but I've been planting flowers for years. Many of the plants in my gardens came from seeds given to me by family & friends over the years, and flowers from my gardens grow in many different parts of the country. Most gardeners love to share seeds and late summer into early autumn is a great time to start collecting them. Seeds should be collected, though, as soon the flowers end their bloom cycle and the seed pods are mature (late Spring/early Summer for collecting Columbine seeds in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., for example).
Following a few basic steps will provide you with an abundance of flowers next year and for years to come at no additional expense. Read on to see what I do to harvest flower seeds from year-to-year.
Step 1: Flowers With Seed Pods
I collect 2 types of seeds and I've learned mostly through trial-and-error how to properly save and store the seeds until planting season returns in the Spring.
Poppies, nasturtiums, alliums, cleomes are shown here, but cosmos, petunias, impatiens, morning glory, 4 o'clocks, and columbines are just a few more annuals that have a one-year life cycle and produce seed pods that can be harvested. The idea is to collect the pods when they are mature, but before they've released their seeds. Pods are mature when they are full and firm. When the pod is opened, the seeds are dark and hard, not pale white and soft. Mature pods are sensitive to touch and will burst open when brushed by an unsuspecting hummingbird, butterfly or human.
The reddish-orange poppies and buds shown here have not yet produced the seed pods, which are much smaller than the buds shown in the photo, tan in color, and have a hard outer shell that houses the seeds. The gold nasturtiums next are flowering with no seed pods yet; the seed pods will form after the colorful flowers dry and start to fall away. Next, this single-stem allium is soft purple when it flowers, but after flowering, this head with these many tiny round, greenish-color seed pods remain; as they mature, each tiny pod will dry, open, and release seeds for next year's flowers to grow.
The final 2 photos show cleomes with seed pods. The photo with the single cleome's seed pods are not yet ready to harvest since they are thin, green and just starting to produce seeds. The second photo with many cleomes shows an abundance of mature seeds pods, almost bean-like in appearance. Compare these 2 photos and it's easy to distinguish between immature and mature cleome pods.
Step 2: Flower Seeds
The first photo is my garden of Double French Marigolds - one of my all-time favorites to grow. My mother and grandmother both loved gardening and I learned much from them. In the early 1940s, my grandmother grew double French marigolds in her gardens every year. Through the years since then, my grandmother, mother, and I have grown the next generations of these beautiful flowers. For more than 75 years, we collectively have successfully harvested seeds from these flowers in the early Fall and have planted them again in the Spring of the next year.
Rudbeckia, commonly called Black-Eyed Susan, also shown here, produces colorful flowers that produce seed heads when dried after blooming.
To harvest marigolds and varieties of black-eyed susans, with clean, sharp scissors, I cut the most colorful and healthy-looking blossoms, dry them in a single-layer on sheets of newspaper in a cool room for 1-2 weeks. After the seeds are completely dry and free of moisture, I label brown paper bags (never use plastic bags or containers) with the name of the flower and the date and store them in a cool dry space until Spring. You also can harvest the dried seeds that you dead-head from the plants, but be sure the seeds are completely dry before storing them for the winter. I don't use this method since I want to see the condition of the blossoms I'm cutting and can only do than when the plants are flowering.
When it's time for planting, usually near Memorial Day here in the Mid-Atlantic states, I break apart the individual dry seed heads and sprinkle them on a lightly hand-tilled or raked garden, cover the seeds with 1/4" fresh compost or soil, and water. When the plants emerge and are ~3 inches, they can be transplanted.
Here are a small sampling of the many varieties of seeds I collect at the end of the growing season. After the seeds dry completely, I put the small tiny seeds (for example, from alliums, poppies, cleomes) in small glass jars labeled with the plant name and date. I store flower seeds from marigolds, rudbeckia, ageratum, fever few, and other annuals in labeled brown paper lunch bags.
A reminder that it's always a good idea to choose flowers and seed pods that are fresh and healthy to hedge your bets for growing outstanding plants next season.