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As your garden dies back and the leaves fall to the ground, it’s hard to remember that the first signs of life are already developing under those fading flowers—in the form of seeds. Resist the urge to deadhead and instead, let the seeds develop on your favorite plants. Not only will you save yourself some money next season, but the new generation will have the same traits as the plants that are already succeeding in your garden, making them more likely to thrive than those bought from a store.
“It’s satisfying to complete the whole cycle of growing a plant: nurturing it, watching it blossom and then collecting the seeds to do it again next season,” says Brian Milliken, the farm manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Here, Milliken shares how to bring your garden’s final harvest of the season.
As a rule, seeds are ripe after the flower blossom has dried up or dropped to the ground. For most plants, this happens in mid to late October. Healthy seeds will be brown or black, swollen-looking and very easy to pluck. Some plants, like poppies and impatiens, have pods that will break open and fling their progeny throughout the garden, so keep a careful eye on the pods and grab them when the first cracks appear. On a sunny day, after the dew has dried, arm yourself with a pair of shears to start collecting.
Propagate from the most desirable plants and don’t bother drawing from hybrids (their offspring are either sterile or won’t resemble the parent). Cut off the head, including a few inches of stem, and let it lay inside to dry for a few days in a spot with good air circulation.
Once the head has completely dried out—it will have turned brown and be dry to the touch—you can thresh it to separate the seed from additional plant material (called the “chaff”). This will prevent any insects from sneaking into storage and snacking on your seeds. The simplest way to thresh is to rub the fully dried plant heads across a window screen held over a white sheet of paper, or by sifting them through a fine sieve. (If you don’t have time, you can skip threshing; it’s not necessary for successful germination.)
Paper envelopes are inexpensive, safe storage for your crop. Record the plant variety, the flower color, when it was brought in and any other facts of interest on the front of each envelope for easy identification in the spring. Keep the envelopes in a cool, dry spot like the fridge (not the freezer!) where temperature is consistent and humidity is low. Most seeds can be planted next spring after your area's last frost date. Visit GardenWeb, where you can enter your Zip code for nicely detailed local frost dates. So, which flowers should a novice start with? Milliken shares 10 nearly foolproof plants to save from.