Start simply, with flowers
Harvesting on a brisk autumn day is like a final celebration for the gardener. A glorious past season promises a bountiful new garden.
Packet prices can add up in a hurry, even if you have only a small bed to fill. A few minutes of shaking ripe seed into an envelope in the early fall can produce a summer garden next year that is filled with mallows, petunias, marigolds, and other favorites—all grown for free. Saving your own seeds enables you to use your garden budget for major nonplant investments, like that teakwood table and chairs you’ve been lusting after.
You can save seeds from all kinds of plants. Annuals are the easiest because they’re the most prolific at producing seeds, but perennials and biennials are entirely possible. However, some plants aren’t worth gathering seed from because they reproduce much faster by division. I don’t fool with bee balm (Monarda didyma), daylilies (Hemerocallis cvs.), irises (Iris spp.), or showy evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa), for example. Although I could grow them from seed, why bother? A quick thrust with a trowel and I have a good start ready to plant.
It never occurred to me to save seed from bulbs until a few years ago, but now I do it all the time. Small, early spring bulbs like scillas (Scilla siberica) and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are particularly rewarding. Instead of waiting half a lifetime to have an ocean of blue scillas under my trees, I accomplished it in five years by collecting seed and nurturing the tiny plants that sprouted, planting them one by one in a gradually outward-spreading area.
Birds gave me the idea of growing vines, shrubs, and trees from seed. They “deposited” the start of many of the plants in my woodsy front yard, from virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) to American holly (Ilex opaca) and hawthorn (Crataegus spp.). I appreciate the birds’ efforts, but I like my plantings a little less willy-nilly, so now I do my own collecting of berries and seeds for woody plants.
Flowers are best for beginners, because most of them need no special treatment to encourage seeds to sprout. Self-sowing plants, like California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), spider flowers (Cleome hasslerana), and cottage garden columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris), are perfect to practice on.
Not all plants grown from seed look like their parents. Those that do are called “heritage seeds.” They’re a specialty of some catalogs and, more informally, among backyard gardeners. Like my friend’s pink poppies, or the wonderful ivory-seeded sunflowers (Helianthus annuus ‘Tarahumara White’) developed by Tarahumara Indians of the Southwest, these plants always “come true” from seed.
By collecting seed from many plants in your garden, you’re bound to be rewarded with surprises. One of my favorite garden flowers is an oddball-striped, russet marigold that brightens my summer garden. It cropped up from a batch of seed I saved from an expensive named variety, and I gradually weeded out the strays until it bred nearly true. Now I hand out envelopes of the seeds, confident that most of the young’uns will look a lot like Mom Marigold, but knowing that friends may get their own just-as-welcome surprises in the batch.