Thursday, October 11, 2012

Autumn Seed Foraging

~ Jessica S. Herwick

I am a notorious seed ninja this time of year. I start by reserving the seeds from my best garden vegetables, and then I start the grand search outside of my own backyard. My friends laugh at me when I pull over on the side of the highway to snag a wildflower or sneak around their backyards, tucking flower heads and strawberry runners into my purse like I’m stealing from a Sunday buffet. It’s true, I confess. When I remember, I will go as far as hiding a few sandwich bags along with a permanent marker in my backpack… and I carry them around with me… just in case. There is a smorgasbord of plants that can be started next spring (ahem… for free) from seeds you collect, dry and store this month! 

Seed harvesting and storage is a method used by farmers who grow and produce heirloom vegetables. Seed collection enabled certain plants to evolve into the veggies we eat today, like corn! For centuries, many cultures relied on their ability to collect, dry and store their seeds in order to survive. These seeds were the start of their gardens the following spring. Centuries beyond this history, our food systems have changed so drastically, it is no longer necessary for us to collect this years seeds in order to eat next year. Without seed foraging, we will not starve. But, in today’s society, a little know-how and a few extra minutes in October can certainly save you a ton of money, and it can be a lot of fun. Consider trying nature’s methods this autumn to continue, and perhaps even enhance your garden next spring.

How To Collect Seeds for Next Spring's Plantings

Bloom found on plant with pods on right.
Identify the plant before you take the seeds.  If you’re storing seeds form your garden for next year, this isn’t a problem. You know what you’ve planted.  But, if you’re borrowing a small sampling from your neighbor’s garden or a strange out-of-town walkway, you might need to ask a few questions or refer to a field guide.  You want to know exactly what you are planting.  

Perfectly Ready Seed Pods to Forage

Ensure the seeds are ripe so they are mature enough to grow.  Seed pods have to be fully matured and dry before removing.  The rule of thumb is to tap the seed source – flowers will drop seeds when the seeds are ready to be harvested.  Pods will shake with loose seeds, although you have to listen closely if the pods are still closed.  Many seedpods will pop open when the seeds are ready to drop to their new home in the ground.  If you wait for this stage to harvest seeds from pods, watch closely!  Many other animals are after those seeds too, and they will go quickly once the pod makes the seeds available. 

Seeds Drying on Paper Towel
Collect the seeds, or the pods.  Hold your sandwich bag or your hand under the dry seedpod or flower and shake the loose seeds into the bag.  If you’re in a hurry, you can remove the whole pod or flower head by detaching it at the base of the pod or flower.  Usually, this can be done by pinching it with your thumb and forefinger. (finger nails help!) Keep each item separate in separate bags.  Seal with as little air inside the bag as possible, label the bag and take it home. 

Dried and Packaged Seeds
Fully dry the seeds, even if they seem ready for storage.  Once you’re home, remove the seeds or the seed pods/flower heads from their bags.  Shake seeds free onto a paper towel.  Spread seeds on paper towel so the air can flow around each seed.  Set seeds on a sunny windowsill or on top of the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days to ensure the seeds are completely dry on the paper towel.  Once completely dried, store.

 Store fully-dried seeds in airtight containers. (Used medicine bottles can be sanitized and used for this).  Tupperware, or sealable sandwich bags also work well.  I prefer sandwich bags because they are the easiest for me to store.  Label your seeds with the name of the plant, the date you harvested the seeds, and the location of the seed source.  Keep in a dark, dry, cool place until spring planting.

Seeds from your fresh garden veggies!     To harvest, dry and store seeds from your vegetable garden, follow the same directions as above but instead of shaking seeds from dried flowers or pods, you will remove the seeds from the actual vegetable.  Cut the seeds out and then lay them onto the paper towel.  This may require a few extra days of drying time. 
This will not work for all vegetables.  Root vegetables and leafy vegetables produce seeds a different way, as the seeds are not inside the vegetables.  Use this method for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons, and any fruit that holds the seeds on the inside.
Note – Some hybrid vegetables may not produce heavily active seeds.


Hosta Seeds
Marigold Seeds

1.  INVEST IN A GOOD GUIDEBOOK  (specific to your areas of interest and location)
Even the experts use reliable references, guides, and other experts to identify the plants when collecting seeds or taking cuttings for transplants.  Many perennials, shrubs, and wildflowers have look-alikes that are invasive or harmful to animals.  Only collect and transplant seeds you can fully identify.  Use trusted resources.

Collect only native species!
Do not take seeds from long distances and transplant them in your backyard!  If you have followed step one and invested in a good guidebook, that book will give you specifics for your planting zone.  Transplanting anything that does not naturally grow in your environment can throw delicate ecosystems way off balance or can become problems that cost time and money to solve. 

Keeping a good record of what you find, where you find it and when it was found, will be unendingly helpful in the long-run.  I guarantee.  You might think you will remember where you grabbed that little seed pod attached to those amazing blue flowers across the street, but life gets busy, and it’s not always easy to keep your items organized. 

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