Where I live, the light has started to shift… the forest smells different, and even though the days are warm, there is a nip to the morning air. Squirrels are starting to scurry through the oak leaves gathering acorns, and the honeybees are busy packing their hives with the bounty from late-summer blooms. In the garden, many plants are beginning to set seed, which means it is time to start saving up for next year’s dye garden!
Seed saving is much easier than many people seem to believe… in fact, the hardest part may be getting to it before the birds do! While every plant is different, with a little knowledge you can begin to recognize when most seeds are mature and ready to harvest. This post will focus on seed-saving basics, and highlight a few dye plants that are ready in my garden right now: Bidens, Cosmos, and Coreopsis (which all happen to be in the same plant family, Asteraceae).
Saving seed from your garden has many advantages–it will save you money from year to year, allow you to select seeds from the best plants in your garden, and, over time, will help you develop plants that are optimized for your specific growing region and local climate. Not to mention that it is both fun, relaxing, and incredibly satisfying… a fall ritual to be celebrated.
Please note: this guide is meant as a resource for dye gardeners who wish to save their own seed for next year’s garden. It is not a comprehensive guide to saving all garden seed, which can be readily found by searching the internet. Instead, it is meant to provide a foundation for looking at specific dye plants and recognizing when their seed is ready for harvest. Future posts will build upon the information provided here, and focus on different plants.
Step 1: Harvest
Most dye plant seeds will be ready to harvest when they have begun to dry on the plant. The spent flower and its stem will dry down, turn brown, and often open to expose the mature seeds. Dry seeds should fall off readily as you harvest–if they seem like they are stuck to the plant, it probably means they are not ready. Some dye seeds, such as that of Pokeberry, are held inside a juicy fruit, and harvested when the fruit is ripe. This method involves a different process, and will be discussed in a future post.
-Make sure to save seeds from your healthiest plants–those that are free of disease, and demonstrate qualities you would like to keep (large blooms, drought tolerance, etc).
-If birds are eating the seeds before you can get to them, or there is the threat of frost approaching, cut whole stalks of almost-mature seed heads and bring them inside to finish drying/ripening in a dry place.
A note on cross-pollination: nowadays, many garden plants are grown from hybridized seed (tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, etc). This seed is the result of very specific parental crosses made by seed companies, and as a rule will not yield true in the next generation… for example, seed saved from this year’s Sungold F1 tomatoes may produce spindly plants with tiny red tasteless fruit when planted next year!
Fortunately, most dye plant seeds that are available these days are non-hybrid, open-pollinated varieties. This means that, while plants will cross-pollinate with their neighbors, their offspring will be generally recognizable from year to year. Therefore, unless you are intentionally breeding for specific traits, you won’t need to worry too much about the effects of cross-pollination in your seeds.
For a simple, clear explanation of hybrid vs. open-pollinated varieties, please see this post by Seed Savers Exchange.
A closer look: Coreopsis, Cosmos, & Bidens
Use the photos below to recognize the different stages of flower and seed development in Coreopsis, Cosmos, and Bidens spp. In my experience, these seeds are best cleaned using the “light breeze” method outlined later in this post.
When mature, Coreopsis tinctoria‘s seed head dries completely, and fans open at the top to release seeds. The seeds fall out easily when shaken or crushed.
To harvest Coreopsis, take the mature seed head between your fingers and gently crush to release seeds.
When mature, Cosmos seed heads dry down completely, and fan open dramatically. Seeds fall off easily when pinched.
To harvest cosmos seeds, pinch the whole seed head gently at its base. Seeds should pop off easily into your hand.
When ready to harvest, Bidens seed heads dry down and fan open, similar to Cosmos, but much smaller. They can be easily pinched off in the same way.
To harvest Bidens seed, pinch the seed head at its base. The seeds should fall easily into your hand.
Step 2: Clean
Once you have harvested your seeds/separated them from their seed heads, it is time to clean them. In the case of most dye plants, this involves separating the seeds from any dry plant material, or “chaff”. This can be important for a few reasons: dry chaff often absorbs moisture in humid environments, and can lead to mold forming on your seeds during storage. It may also house the eggs of insects whose larvae can hatch and eat away at the seeds over the winter months, ruining their viability. Finally, cleaning your seed will make it easier for you to sow it evenly come planting time!
There are several basic methods for separating seeds from chaff, and the most effective one will vary based on the size and shape of your seeds. In many cases, you will want to combine methods for thorough cleaning.
Winnowing baskets and screens have been used for centuries to clean seed. These baskets are woven with varying sized holes to sift out debris. Baskets with holes large enough for seed to pass through will separate out any larger chaff, while baskets with holes smaller than the seed will separate out the finer chaff. Starting with larger holes, place your basket or screen over a bowl and pour in your seed. Gently shake the basket back and forth, encouraging the seed to fall through the holes. When all the seed has passed through into the bowl beneath, larger chaff remaining in the basket can be discarded. Using a basket with smaller holes, repeat this process, allowing small chaff to fall through into the bowl (leaving the seed behind in the basket). From here, any remaining chaff can be separated out via one of the methods below.
This method takes advantage of the fact that dry chaff is usually lighter than seed.
Place your seed in a bowl with tall sides. Shaking the bowl back and forth, gently blow air over the seeds. In this way, dry chaff can be blown out of the bowl, leaving the seeds behind.
Alternative: lay a large sheet out on a deck or patio (do not use flannel sheets! Seeds will stick to them like crazy). Place a fan at one edge of the sheet, and turn it on the lowest setting (you may have to move it farther away to adjust the air flow). Pour the seeds onto the sheet in front of the fan. As they fall, the air should blow the chaff farther than the seed, leaving the seeds concentrated on one end of the sheet, the chaff on the other.
The Board Method
For small round seeds (such as Weld), this is perhaps the easiest method for cleaning. Hold a board or stiff piece of paper over a large bowl at a slight angle, and pour some of your seed/chaff mixture along the top edge of the board. Gently tap or jiggle the board, adjusting the angle so that the round seeds roll down into the bowl, leaving most of the chaff behind on the board. Discard remaining chaff, and repeat until seeds in the bowl are clean.
Step 3: Label & Store
It is best to store seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. This could be anywhere from a root cellar, to under the bed, to the refrigerator. Before storing, place clean, dry seeds in paper envelopes or glass jars, and label with the plant name, date, and location of harvest. This will help you keep track of seeds from year to year, and will also be useful in the future if you decide to delve deeper into breeding for different plant characteristics.
It can also be helpful to store all of your seeds in a moth-proof tupperware, as grain moths on occasion may make their way into seed storage and wreak havoc.
Finally, a thank you to my favorite little ladies for making seed saving possible.