Friday, September 27, 2013

The Seed-Saving Gardener

Blue Pod Capucijner Seeds

Beautiful Blue Pod Capucijner (Pisum sativum arvense, var. ‘Blue Pod Capucjiner’) seedpods and seeds. All photographs by the author

How many of you gardeners out there take the time to save your garden seed? The allure of planting seeds in the spring is easy to understand, but do you linger over drying seedpods later in the season, waiting to harvest next year’s generation? Seed saving may seem like an onerous counterpart to seed sowing, but the task is endlessly rewarding. It’s not just about securing a free source of new plants for the following year or two; there are other benefits to reap, so to speak. By selecting seed from among the garden’s most healthy specimens you promote added vigor in subsequent generations of plants. You get to witness the often overlooked beauty of a plant engaged in seed production. And, really, is there anything more satisfying than sowing the seed you collected from your own garden? For the seed-saving gardener, it doesn???t get much better than that.

Ricinus Communis

The tick-like seeds of the castor bean???beautiful, but highly poisonous!

In the medieval agricultural world, the grain harvest was a laborious autumn task of threshing and winnowing to separate the wheat from the chaff. Here in the Bonnefont herb garden, we labor on a smaller scale: we strive to save seed from our hard-to-find annual or biennial species such as the castor bean (Ricinus communis), the stavesacre (Delphinium staphisagria), and the charming Blue Pod Capucjiner field pea. Occasionally we decide to save seed from our perennials in order to increase or replace our current stock; this year I harvested seed from our mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and sea poppy (Glaucium flavum) to propagate next season.

Papaver rhoeas Seedheads

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) seedheads

Hovering over garden seed candidates gives me a chance to enjoy the more minutely beautiful aspects of the plants, where many fine textures and colors can be observed. The ripe hollyhock seedpod looks like a burlap sack that has fallen open, and the long, sinewy pods on the sea poppy help explain its other common name: the horned poppy.

Glaucium Flavum Seedheads

Seedpods of the sea poppy, or horned poppy (Glaucium flavum)

Henbane seedpods look like gauzy crowns, with jewel-like seeds tumbling out when upturned, while the datura pods seem to drip with prodigious masses of seed. My current favorite is the seed of the castor bean, which draws its genus name Ricinus from the Latin word for “tick,” which the seeds are thought to resemble.


Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seedpods after harvest

Collecting seed from the garden is a simple affair???all you really need is a pair of snippers and your powers of observation. The key is catching the seed after it has ripened and before the seeds disperse themselves. Nothing is more tragic for the seed saver than trying to harvest from empty seedpods. Once you’ve dried, labeled and stored your seeds for the following year, you’re free to dream of spring planting. But don’t forget about the glories of autumn; after all, the seed saver reaps what the seed sower sows!

Datura Metel

A ruptured datura seedpod

For more information on reaping, harvesting, and gathering, please join us for our fall Garden Day on October 5 between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. We will be celebrating the arrival of the autumn season with an exciting program of lectures and tours (see schedule). Hope to see you there!

???Esm?? Webb

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Comments (3)

  1. David Says:

    Beautiful post, and lovely photos! I love thinking of the hollyhock seedpods as barley sacks spilling out.

    How can you tell when the seedpods have already ripened but haven’t yet spilled? Is it better to play it on the safe side and harvest the seeds early, or should you try to wait until the last minute?

  2. Esm?? Says:

    Great question! One way of making sure you don’t miss the seed drop is to tie a paper bag around the seedhead before it’s ready to be harvested. Using paper instead of plastic will ensure that the seeds will be able to continue drying, and when the seedpod shatters you’ll catch the seeds before they hit the ground. Generally it’s best to allow seeds to ripen on the plant, but if they seem close and you’re not sure, you can snip the stems and lay them in a safe, draft-free environment to continue drying. This is also a good practice if a long rainy spell is forecast!

  3. Rachel Says:

    This is a great post. I’m a gardener but I don’t think I’ve ever even seen some of these plants, they’re beautiful! I also tend to forage in my garden but I’ve read some beans are poisonous when raw. Is it really just this castor bean or are there others?

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