Harvesting Flower Seeds

2015 August 12

About a dozen folks gathered in our Alamosa flower garden to harvest seeds last Saturday. This event, part of the Adams State Nielsen Library’s Seed to Seed program, was planned early in the year.  You can’t tell that far ahead which flower seeds will be ready, but we were able to gather from about a dozen varieties.

We were able to gather seeds from columbine, hollyhocks, penstemon, larkspur, delphinium, California poppies, Shirley poppies, peony Poppies, trollius, Maltese cross, may night and meadow sage, and blanket flower. Sadly, there were only a few lupine seeds and the dwarf hollyhocks weren’t ready yet. Many of these self-sow so you may not need to collect them from your garden for yourself unless you want them to grow in particular places.  The goal of this workshop was to share seeds with other gardeners.

Armed with bowls and scissors (or just plucking fingers!) we swarmed the yard to collect.  Most of the Columbine and Shirley poppy seeds that were ready to be harvested didn’t have any flowers left on the plant. Therefore, it is impossible to tell what color of flower the seeds will produce. 

I know some gardeners are very particular about which seeds they want to harvest. They label the plants they want to propagate and pull out the others. They gather and plant seeds from the desired plants hoping the next generation will have identical blooms.

This is problematic for Shirley poppies as they bloom white, pink, red, or mixed and are single or double.  They are pollinated by bees, flies, and beetles as well as being self-pollinating. There was a particularly beautiful, double red Shirley poppy blooming Saturday that several of us would like to see in our gardens next year. We could only be sure its seeds would produce similar flowers if it had self-pollinated.  Since it was amidst a group of white and pink single blossoms, I think the chance of its seeds breeding true is small.

Questions included how do you know when to harvest, how do you store the seeds, and when do you plant them?

It’s easy to tell when to harvest some seeds.  For example, columbine pods turn brown and open up cradling the seeds. Check the seed pods after they start turning reddish brown.  I open them with my finger nail.  If the seeds are shiny black, they are ready.

Hollyhocks often have mature seeds at the bottom of the stalk while the top is still in bloom. Blanket flowers and fleabane seed heads turn a bit fuzzy (they resemble a toned-down dandelion seed head).  If you break the head apart you’ll see small, dark seeds under the fluff.

Lupines turned out to be a bit more difficult.  A few days before the workshop I checked the seeds pods.  They were brown and seemed dried to the touch. However, by the morning of the event, they had uncurled and popped their contents. We only found a few.

Next year I think I’ll use a seed gathering bag such as the one Mary Walsh, Nielsen Librarian, showed us.  If I had tied a muslin or net bag around the seed pods the week before, they would have popped into the bag. By the way, you can check out these bags at the library. They also have seed sifting trays with different mesh sizes for separating the chaff from the seed.  I think I might trot over to the library and check one out for cleaning the large quantity of Shirley Poppies I still have to gather.

Once you’ve gathered your seeds, you need to make sure they are dry – rarely a problem in Alamosa.  If you’re not sure, place them in a paper bag in a cool, dark, dry location for a week.  I ran out of small paper seed envelopes that I usually have on hand so handed out plastic snack and quart-sized zip locks. Jan Oen brought a collection of envelopes she’d received in the mail and cut in half.  It was very easy to slip the seeds inside, fold over the end, and label them. Great recycling approach! Store the seeds in a cool, dry, dark place.

The best two times to plant seeds are fall and spring.  If I have a lot of a particular kind of seed, I spread it by hand in late fall after we’ve had some hard freezes – I don’t want it to germinate until spring. Then I lightly rake the area and walk over it to push the seeds in a bit.  If I plant in the spring, I make sure to keep the area moist until the seeds sprout.

“Judge each day not by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.” Robert Louis Stevenson