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Collecting and Storing Seeds

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When I was new to ­gardening, I depended upon the kindness of friends and strangers to help fill my beds. Unfortunately, I was too green to realize what treasures I had in hand until I’d wasted them.

When an elderly friend gave me her heirloom, ruffled, pink, annual poppies (Papaver somniferum), I sowed them freely in a new bed of perennials. The first year they did fine, no doubt because I’d planted hundreds of seeds. By the ­sec­ond year, though, the perennials had filled in, leaving no bare space for poppies to sprout. I scavenged a few plants when I saw they were struggling and transplanted them to open areas of my garden, but in vain. Poppies need to be moved with their roots undisturbed, intact in a shovelful of soil. The bare-rooted seedlings I’d pulled up hung on for a few weeks, then declined and died. By that time, my friend had passed on to the great garden in the sky, and the new owner had turned her glorious gardens back to grass.

No problem, I thought—I’d just purchase seeds. Turns out that those pretty, frilly flowers were the result of decades of natural selection in her garden. After years of self-sowing and my friend pulling out the plants with single-petaled flowers or off colors, they’d settled into a variety that reliably reproduced itself year after year. I spent more money than I want to admit buying seeds from every available supplier before I realized the sad truth. Her variety of poppies wasn’t offered commercially. So I started from scratch, saving seed from the pret­tiest poppies until I had something close to my friend’s ruffled beauties. Now, I can smugly say I have my own strain of annual pink poppies from which I religiously gather seed year after year to perpetuate what I call the ‘Sally’ strain.

Collecting seeds is one of those activities that makes me feel like a wealthy woman. As the seed supply spills out of the first, small envelopes into manila 8210s and Mason jars, I take as much pleasure as Midas in counting my riches of coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata and other spp.), calliopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), and moonflowers (Ipomoea alba), among others. By the time I’m finished in fall, I will have shelves stuffed with the makings of next year’s garden.

Start simply, with flowers

Packet prices can add up in a hurry, even if you have only a small bed to fill. A few minutes of shaking ripe seed into an envelope in the early fall can produce a summer garden next year that is filled with mallows, petunias, marigolds, and other favor­ites—all grown for free. ­Saving your own seeds ­enables you to use your garden budget for major nonplant investments, like that teakwood table and chairs you’ve been lusting after.

You can save seeds from all kinds of plants. Annuals are the easiest because they’re the most prolific at producing seeds, but perennials and biennials are entirely possible. However, some plants aren’t worth gathering seed from because they reproduce much faster by division. I don’t fool with bee balm (Monarda didyma), day­lilies (Hemerocallis cvs.), irises (Iris spp.), or showy evening primrose (Oen­o­thera speciosa), for ­example. Although I could grow them from seed, why bother? A quick thrust with a trowel and I have a good start ready to plant.

It never occurred to me to save seed from bulbs until a few years ago, but now I do it all the time. Small, early spring bulbs like scillas (Scilla siberica) and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are particularly rewarding. Instead of waiting half a lifetime to have an ocean of blue scillas under my trees, I accomplished it in five years by collecting seed and nurturing the tiny plants that sprouted, planting them one by one in a gradually outward-spreading area.

Birds gave me the idea of growing vines, shrubs, and trees from seed. They “deposited” the start of many of the plants in my woodsy front yard, from virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) to American holly (Ilex opaca) and hawthorn (Cra­taegus spp.). I appreciate the birds’ efforts, but I like my plantings a little less willy-nilly, so now I do my own collecting of berries and seeds for woody plants.

Flowers are best for beginners, because most of them need no special treatment to encourage seeds to sprout. Self-sowing plants, like California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), spider flowers (Cleome hasslerana), and cottage garden columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris), are ­perfect to practice on.

Not all plants grown from seed look like their parents. Those that do are called “heritage seeds.” They’re a specialty of some catalogs and, more informally, among backyard gardeners. Like my friend’s pink poppies, or the wonderful ivory-seeded sunflowers (Helianthus annuus ‘Tarahumara White’) developed by Tara­humara Indians of the South­west, these plants always “come true” from seed.

By collecting seed from many plants in your garden, you’re bound to be rewarded with surprises. One of my favorite garden flowers is an oddball-striped, russet mari­gold that brightens my summer garden. It cropped up from a batch of seed I saved from an expensive named variety, and I gradually weeded out the strays until it bred nearly true. Now I hand out envelopes of the seeds, confident that most of the young’uns will look a lot like Mom Marigold, but knowing that friends may get their own just-as-welcome surprises in the batch.

If you want to start plants from seed…

Check out All About Starting Seeds for links to what you need to know about equipment and techniques.

Packet prices can add up in a hurry. A few minutes of shaking seed into an envelope in the early fall can produce a summer garden next year.