The days are getting shorter, the air a little cooler. Suddenly we miss the deep heat of summer, with all the blooms and oh-my-goodness-good fruit. Thoughts of “next year…” slip unbidden into our heads. We gaze at the now quiet garden and think “next year…”
Next year, we’ll make a really wonderful garden. We’ll use plants that the bees and butterflies love. We’ll have lots and lots of flowers, all different kinds. We’ll use a new approach, and we’ll have a unique garden that is not duplicated in every town, everywhere. Oh, it will be fun… But how can we get enough plants?
Seed collecting is a perfect activity for a crisp fall afternoon. A couple of enjoyable hours under the shining sun and you can collect all the seeds you’ll need for next year’s garden, although you may find it fun to spread it out a little. Talk with your friends – they may have some seeds they’re willing to share.
Wildflowers and native grasses are best for seed collectors, as they’re most likely to produce a plant that looks like the parents. Cultivated flowers may produce seed, and the seed may be viable, but very often the plant from that seed looks very different than the parent. Plants often discard the cultivated attributes in their own seeds, producing offspring that look like the plants that were bred to make the cultivar – and breeders are very, very good. The parent plants of cultivars can be astonishingly different from the highly bred progeny. Wildflowers are more predictable.
The seeds of next year’s glory are waiting to do their magic. We just have to go get them. Early fall is the best time to collect seeds, so now is a perfect time.
Seed collecting is fun but there are a few rules of the road. Please follow them; quite a few wonderful plants are near extinction because eager people have unthinkingly depleted the seed stock. Orchids are rather famously suffering from this phenomenon, but there are others, too. However, if you know of a vacant lot or fallow field that is about to be cleared for some other purpose, you might be the savior of a struggling species. That’s well worth doing.
So, here are some rules for wildflower seed collection:
- Never move a plant that is in a settled environment such as a park. Never. Do. It. That means NEVER.
- Go ahead and move wildflowers that are in a near-death situation such as getting paved over.
- On private land (and this includes #2 above) get permission. Walking across someone else’s land without permission is called Trespassing. Don’t do it.
- Except with #2 above, never take more than roughly 10% of the seeds available. The rest of the seeds are left to ensure that the population of wildflowers already on the land can sustain itself.
- Take extreme care not to step on some tender plant, and clean your shoes thoroughly after you leave the area to prevent spreading disease, fungus spores, etc.
- Collect only mature seeds.
- Never leave seeds baking in a hot car.
Let’s get started. Collect paper bags, a strong scissor or knife if you’re brave and dexterous, string or rubber bands. Take your best route to the spot you know is full of the wildflowers and/or grasses you’d love to grow in your garden or meadow.
Approach the desirable plant carefully and write the name of the plant on the bag (if you don’t know, write a description you’ll understand on the bag, like “tall, big white flowers, July). Check to see if the seeds are ready. You’ll have to grab a few and test them. They should snap or provide strong resistance if you try to break them open; this means their seed coat is mature and hardened. If possible, break one open. If the interior is white, the seed is ready. Greenish or yellowish look means the seed is not yet mature. Black or brown inside – there’s something wrong with the seed.
If seeds are ready, turn the bag upside down and slide it gently over the flower head/stalk, so that the bag extends down the stalk. Squeeze the bag opening closed, and, holding it closed, cut the stalk with the scissor or knife. Turn the bag with stalk and seeds upright, and tie string or use the rubber band to close the bag tight to the stalk so the seeds can’t fall out. You’ve collected wildflower seeds.
Clean your shoes, and on to the next plant you just must have. When you get home, place the bag, still with stalk protruding, in a cool, dry place to allow the seeds to dry completely. In a week or two just shake the bag and many seeds will fall right out of the flower remnants, ready to be planted.
Shrubs are some of the hardest native plants to find, yet some of the best to have. Many feed birds on top of the delightful bloom. To collect native shrub seeds, place a tarp under the shrub and shake the shrub vigorously. Mature seeds will fall onto the tarp – assuming the birds haven’t already eaten them all. As with wildflower seeds, dry them and clean off the chaff, or just place the seeds where you’d like a shrub or a hedge and let nature do the work. This process also works with trees, although tree seeds generally are large enough to be seen with the naked eye and frequently can be picked up off the ground.
If you already have flowers you want more of growing in your garden, or friends with some in theirs, collect as many seeds as you like. If you have some to share, the Talbot County Libraries (Easton and St. Michaels) have seed libraries where you can place your surplus. This is a great thing to do – there are more people who’d like to grow wildflowers than local areas to buy seeds, so the seed library can be an invaluable resource. Pollinators will thank you.
Of course, what’s the point of seeds if you don’t grow them? The easiest way to grow your new plants is simply to spread the seeds where you want the plants next year. Wildflowers don’t like being planted too deep; a good rule of thumb is plant them no deeper than the seed is long. This is because many need light to germinate. An easy way to “plant” the seeds is just like planting a lawn – sprinkle the seeds across the area you’d like them to grow and pat them in.
You can plant your seeds as soon as you get back from your collection trip. That’s what nature would do: the cold weather, the ongoing freezes and thaws all help the seeds to germinate. How’s that for easy? Let nature break open that seed coat that gave such strong resistance when you tested the seed. In spring, look online for pictures of your wildflower seedlings so you’ll recognize them when they spring up. Some seeds may take their time; nature has built in some safeguards to prevent all seeds germinating at once in the middle of a flood or drought. They tend to sprout little by little, hoping that at least one will hit the perfect conditions and survive to create the next generation.
Many people find growing the little seeds indoors to be quite entertaining. If you want to do this, you should dry and clean the seed, then place them in the refrigerator. This is to mimic the winter experience the seeds would have. In January or February, when you’re sick of winter and are bored, plant them and sit back and watch the show.
Just think…Milkweed, Black Eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Asters, Penstemon, Columbine, Boneset, Joe Pye Weed, Bee Balm, Blue Mistflower, Mountain Mint, Baptisia, Ironweed, Sundrops, Lupine, Cardinal Flower, Foam Flower, Wild Petunia, Redbud trees, Oak trees, Strawberry Bush … and then, the grasses, the utterly ornamental grasses…Purpletop, Pink Muhly Grass, Sea Oats, Carex…
So, what will you collect on your seed foraging trip?