Harvest and Save Seeds from Your Garden

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harvest and save seeds from your garden
harvest and save seeds from your garden California poppies
California poppies seed pods in various states. Image by author

This comprehensive guide covers various aspects of seed saving, including the reasons to save seeds, how to identify when seeds are ready for harvest, different methods of collecting seeds, suitable storage locations, and a practical procedure for testing seed germination.

I’ve found tremendous joy adding the skill of harvesting seeds to my gardening know-how. The idea of raising new, wonderful plants and flowers from seeds I harvested months before is profound. I’m no longer just a spectator!

Whether you’re a seasoned horticulturist or a beginner, this article provides valuable insights to help you become a skilled seed saver.

Why save Seeds?

Whether you’re looking to save some green, ensure successful future harvests, or simply enhance your gardening experience, learning to save and harvest seeds from your own garden is a rewarding practice that’s worth diving into.

Save Money

One of the most obvious advantages of saving seeds is the cost-saving aspect. Buying new seeds every season can add up over time. Buying new plants, be it annuals or perennials, is even more expensive! By harvesting and storing your own seeds, you can significantly cut down on expenses while still enjoying a beautiful garden.

Guaranteed success, they’ve obviously grown

When you save seeds from your own plants, you know they’ve thrived in your specific growing conditions. This increases the likelihood of success in the next growing season since these seeds are already acclimated to your environment.

Very satisfying component to add to your hobby

Saving seeds adds an extra layer of satisfaction to your gardening hobby. It connects you more deeply with the lifecycle of your plants, allowing you to appreciate their growth from start to finish.

Give Your Harvested Seeds (or Plants) as gifts

Saved seeds also make thoughtful and personalized gifts for fellow gardeners. Sharing seeds from your own garden can foster a sense of community and enthusiasm among your gardening friends. Raising plants and flowers from seeds you cultivated yourself is truly a very personal gift, that goes beyond just picking something out at the store.

Preserve Biodiversity

When you save seeds from your own plants and flowers, you play a vital role in preserving biodiversity. Many commercial seed varieties are standardized, limiting the diversity of plants in our gardens and farms. By saving and sharing seeds from unique and heirloom varieties, you contribute to the conservation of rare and diverse plant genetics, helping to maintain a rich and vibrant ecosystem in your garden and beyond. It’s a small but impactful step towards promoting biodiversity and protecting our natural world.

How To Save Seeds

Timing

The key to successful seed saving is to wait patiently for the right moment. Keep a close eye on the plants, monitor the color changes, and touch the pods or seeds to ensure they are fully mature. This attention to timing will help you collect high-quality seeds that will flourish in future growing seasons.

Not all of a plant’s seeds will mature at the same time. You’ll likely be able to collect some seeds from this plant, some from another.

Seeds Must ‘Mature’ on the Plant:

wait to collect marigold seeds
Marigold seeds are just below the flowers. Wait until the blooms dry and discolor before collecting the seed head. Image by author

It’s essential to allow seeds to fully mature while still on the plant. This means giving them enough time to develop and reach their full potential. For instance, if you’re saving tomato seeds, let the fruit stay on the vine until it’s slightly overripe, ensuring the seeds inside are mature.

Leave on the Plant if Their Pods are Still Green:

harvest seeds from hollyhocks too early
A hollyhock seed pod taken off the stem too soon, note the green seeds inside. Image by author

If the seeds are enclosed in pods, like beans or peas, leave them on the plant until the pods start to dry and turn brown. This allows the seeds inside to mature fully.

If you’re going to collect seeds from a fruiting plant (i.e., tomato, cucumber, pepper) take some of its seeds from ripe fruit. Enjoy the produce from your garden, and don’t forget to save the seeds. Saving seeds from fruit has its own particular set of steps.

Wait Until the Pods are Brown, Dry, Crispy Between Your Fingers:

harvest seed pods when they're brown and crispy
These little seed pods from a salvia plant are just right to harvest; the pods are brown and crispy! Image by author

For seeds within pods, it’s crucial to ensure the pods themselves are completely dry and crispy to the touch. This indicates that the seeds are fully developed and ready for harvest.

Seeds should be dark brown or black

collect seeds from salvia small black dark brown
Salvia seeds coming out of the pods. Seeds should be dark brown or black. Image by author

When seeds are ready for harvesting, they typically turn dark brown or black. This is a visual indicator that they are mature and ready to be collected. Be patient and wait for this color change.

Find The Seeds On the plant

When you’re ready to harvest seeds, carefully examine your plant to identify these structures. For seeds under the flower, wait until the flower has faded, and the seed pod or fruit has started to develop. For plants with pods, ensure the pods have matured to a brown or dry state before collecting the seeds inside.

Underneath the flower

In many flowering plants, seeds are located right underneath the flower itself. After the flower blooms and is pollinated, it often develops into a seed pod or fruit that contains the seeds. This is a common arrangement in flowering plants.

dusty miller in bloom image by paul asman flickr
Dusty Miller in bloom, mid-summer. Image by Paul Asman, flickr
pull the entire spent bloom out of the dusty miller 'pod'
Dusty Miller seeds underneath their flowers. You’ll need to pull these out to get the seeds.

Within fruit (that emerges underneath the flower)

Some plants produce fruits that form directly beneath the flower. These fruits house the seeds. A classic example is the tomato plant, where the fruits develop beneath the flower cluster, and each fruit contains multiple seeds.

Usually within pods:

locating hollyhock seed pods on the stem
Hollyhock seed pods still attached to the stem. Image by author

Many seed-bearing plants produce pods. These pods can take various forms, from stiff little capsules to elongated pods. Inside these pods, you’ll typically find a collection of seeds, ranging from just a few to several dozen, depending on the plant species. Examples include peas, beans, and California poppies, hollyhocks, and milkweed.

How to Collect Seeds

Remember to work with dry, mature seed pods to ensure they have the best chance of germination when you’re ready to plant them. Labeling and proper storage are essential to keep your collected seeds organized and viable for future gardening endeavors.

Remember, you want healthy seeds. Reject any seeds that appear moldy, deformed, or just not right. The image below shows how hollyhock seeds look that I rejected:

what bad hollyhock seeds look like not worth saving.
These hollyhock seeds look a little funky to me. There seemed to be some growth coagulating half the seeds together. I won’t keep these.

Shake or Rub Pods

This is the method to get seeds from dianthus, snapdragon, columbine, salvia, Shasta daisy and rudbeckias for example.

dianthus seed pods ready to be harvested
Dianthus seed pods dried, ready to be collected.
what do dianthus seeds look like
Shaking the pods allows the seeds inside to spill out. Note the small seeds at the bottom of the picture.
how to collect dianthus seeds
I like to use a kitchen strainer to separate the seed from the detritus.
harvesting dianthus seeds
Almost all of the chaff is gone after separating. Ready to save! Images by author

I like to use brown paper lunch bags to collect and save seeds for this first step. Double up the bags, though. Small seeds can escape through the bottom of lunch sacks, and doubling the sacks keeps the small seeds coralled.

Step 1: Wait until the pods have dried and turned brown on the plant. This indicates that the seeds are mature.

Step 2: Hold a container, such as a paper bag, underneath the pods. A plate works well, too. Often, you will know the seeds are fully ready to collect when seeds spill out of the pods just turning the pods upside down.

Step 3: Gently shake or rub the pods. This will cause the mature seeds to fall into the container.

Step 4: Carefully separate the seeds from any remaining plant debris, and store them in a labeled envelope or container.

Peel the Pods Apart

Some flower seed pods need to be opened up, including hollyhocks and (sweet) peas.

hollyhock seeds are ready to be harvested
Hollyhock seeds in the pod are ready to pick! Peel the pod away to reveal the ‘carousel’ of seeds within. Image by author

Step 1: Once the pods have dried and turned brown, carefully snip them from the plant.

Step 2: Using your fingers or a small tool, gently peel the pods apart to reveal the seeds inside.

Step 3: Collect the seeds and remove any chaff or plant material.

Step 4: Store the seeds in a labeled container or envelope for future use.

california poppies seeds inside long narrow seed pod tubes
California poppies seed pods resemble pine needles! They’re at the end of the stems and can be harvested after the flower dies. Note this appearance. Like a vanilla bean, there will be numerous little seeds inside. Image by author

Pick the Seeds Out

Step 1: Allow the flower heads to remain on the plant until they start to wither and the seeds begin to mature. You might want to wait until critters and birds start eating seeds off first – this is a perfect signal that seeds are ready.

Step 2: Harvest the entire flower head, including the seeds.

Step 3: Rub or pick the seeds out of the flower head. You can do this by hand or by using a tool.

collecting dusty miller seeds under their flowers
Note that Dusty Miller seeds are just the base of the fluffy matter, not all of it. Image by author

Step 4: Separate any remaining plant debris from the seeds and store them in a labeled container.

Where do you Save Seeds

Proper seed storage in a cool, dark, and airtight environment is essential to maintain seed viability and ensure successful germination in future planting seasons. By following these guidelines, you can extend the life of your precious seed collection.

In a cool, dark place

Store your seeds in a cool and dark location to prolong their shelf life. Exposure to heat and direct sunlight can reduce seed viability. A cupboard or closet in a temperature-controlled room is ideal for this purpose.

basement or cellar

Basements or cellars are excellent choices for seed storage, especially if they maintain a cool and stable temperature throughout the year. Ensure that the storage area is dry and free from humidity, as excess moisture can lead to mold growth and seed damage.

refrigerator

For long-term seed storage, a refrigerator can be a reliable option. Place your seeds in airtight containers and store them in the vegetable crisper drawer. Make sure the seeds are completely dry before refrigeration to prevent moisture-related issues.

Airtight Containers:

Regardless of where you choose to store your seeds, it’s imperative to use airtight containers. Mason jars, reused glass jars with tight-sealing lids, or plastic containers with secure seals are suitable options.

use mason jars pickle jars relish jars jelly jars and plastic sealing containers to store harvested seeds
Mason jars, recycled product jars, plastic containers with tight-sealing lids are great to use to save seeds.

If you opt for plastic bags, ensure they are of high quality and can be completely sealed to prevent air and moisture from entering. Double-bagging can provide an extra layer of protection.

using recycled jars to save harvested collected seeds
If using a recycled product jar, make sure the lid provides a good seal. Images by author

Additional Tips for Saving Seeds:

Label each container with the seed type and the date of collection. This helps you keep track of seed freshness.

Consider adding desiccant packets to absorb any residual moisture inside the container, further safeguarding your seeds.

Regularly check your stored seeds for signs of mold, moisture, or pest damage, and remove any compromised seeds to prevent them from affecting the others.

Test for germination

By following this germination test procedure, you can identify healthy seeds and confidently use them in your garden. It’s a valuable step to ensure successful and productive gardening seasons.

take a number of seeds out

Start by selecting a representative sample of seeds from your collection. The number of seeds you choose depends on the quantity you have and your confidence in their overall quality. Typically, 10 to 20 seeds are sufficient for a small test.

place on moistened paper towel

Dampen a paper towel or a piece of blotting paper with clean, room-temperature water. Ensure the paper is moist but not soaking wet.

fold carefully, keep seeds separated

Lay the selected seeds evenly on one half of the moistened paper towel, making sure to keep them separated from each other. Fold the other half of the paper towel over the seeds gently.

put in plastic bag, keep out of the way

Place the folded paper towel with the seeds inside a sealable plastic bag. Seal the bag to create a mini-greenhouse effect.

Find a spot in your home where the temperature is consistent and warm. There’s no need for direct sunlight. You can place the bag on a shelf or countertop. Do not place on a windowsill, as the temperature will vary over the hours of the day.

Wait and Observe

Allow the seeds to remain undisturbed for about a week. During this time, check regularly for any signs of germination.

Healthy seeds should sprout within this timeframe, showing the first signs of growth such as tiny roots and shoots.

After a week, carefully open the plastic bag and inspect the seeds. If you see healthy sprouts, it indicates that these seeds are viable and ready for sowing.

Note the Germination Rate:

Note the percentage of seeds that have germinated. This will give you an idea of the overall viability of your seed collection. For example, if 80% of the tested seeds have sprouted, you can assume that around 80% of your entire collection is likely to be viable.

What’s Next?

By following these guidelines, you can not only save money and ensure successful future harvests, but also play a role in preserving biodiversity and enhancing your gardening experience. Happy gardening and seed saving!

Photo of author

Author

After years of denying it, Donald finally admits one passion in life is gardening. More specifically: growing seeds, plants, flowers and edibles and helping them to be the best possible. Neighbors call him a Green Thumb. He lives in Western Washington with his wife of 24+ years and three cats.

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