Introduction: How to Gather Wildflower Seeds
My partner and I have been in our first house a few years now. We have 11 acres of land that hasn't been farmed or grazed for a pretty long time, so I've been working on fixing it up!
I bought a push lawn mower a few years ago and have been slowly mowing more and more of the yard to encourage new plant growth, gain extra water retention from the mulching, and reduce erosion. This year I went all out and mowed down 10 of 11 acres BUT left native flowers intact so I could gather their seeds in late summer and early fall.
The aim of this project is all about biodiversity! I want to increase the number of wildflowers in our yard and keep the awful fescue grass & rabbitbrush from growing all over and crowding everything else out. I've paid lots of attention to which plants are popular with the bees, butterflies, elk and pronghorn that show up in our yard, so that I could focus on those for seed harvesting.
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This is what I bring with me when searching for seeds! You don't need everything, but I've found it all comes in handy.
Supplies for gathering seeds:
- A backpack or large tote bag
- A variety of plastic or glass containers to transport seeds (I use quart ziploc bags, some reuseable zip bags, old plastic food containers.)
- Garden shears (or any scissors really, as long as they're sharp)
- Permanent marker for writing down names/descriptions on the plastic containers
Optional but good to have:
- A large plastic bag for gathering trash (I always find some and pack it out)
- Gloves (you might find plants that are sappy and/or thorny that you want to harvest seeds from.)
- iNaturalist app (this is great for identifying plants)
Step 1: Why I Gather Seeds Locally
You might be wondering why I don't just buy seeds. There are two major reasons:
- I live in a fairly extreme climate - 8500 feet in altitude, very long winters with lots of snow and dry summers. The plants that grow natively here do well in the soil we have and can handle the sun, high winds, and random freezes.
- Regional wildflower mixes often contain plants that are invasive or those that aren't native to your "region" - check out this Weed Science Society of America article to learn more. In my yard I see a ton of yellow toadflax and scentless mayweed. I don't gather seeds from either of those plants. I pull up the scentless mayweed after it blooms and put it on the compost pile, and the yellow toadflax gets run over with the lawnmower before the flowers go to seed.
When I first started trying to grow more wildflowers in our yard, I bought a few mixes. Not a single one of them grew. 😅
But maybe I should be thankful for that since I'm already fighting a war every summer to stop the scentless mayweed from crowding out everything else!
Step 2: Rules for Gathering Wild Seeds / Conservation
Okay, these really aren't "official" rules, but here are two things to keep in mind:
- NEVER harvest all seeds in an area. At most, take 20% of them. Seed pods are a food source for animals. You also don't want to prevent that plant from continuing to grow there if it's an annual grower.
- NEVER forage for seeds on private land unless you get permission. In this instructable, all seeds have been gathered from my yard.
Step 3: When to Gather Seeds
This is very important: if you gather too early, the seeds will not be mature. If you try to gather too late, the seeds might have already been carried off by the wind or eaten by animals.
So how do you know when they're ready? One word: BROWN.
The flower petals need to have fallen off or shriveled and closed. The plant material around the blooms should be brown. Seeds should come off fairly easily - if you're tugging hard to remove them from the plant, wait and come back later.
Watch plants through the year to see their natural cycle - that way you'll know what dried/dead flowers look like on each plant.
Some plants take a VERY long time to produce seeds. I've been gathering seeds July - September this year. The latest flowers to go to seed are the gorgeous purple beardtongues in our yard. I had been been checking them for about six weeks before their seed pods dried! (And there are still fleshy seed pods on some of the stalks as of October 2nd.)
One more important bit: always gather seeds in DRY conditions. So never early in the morning or after a rain. You want your plant and seed material to be nice and dry. It makes it easier to gather and lessens the risk of the seeds sprouting or spoiling.
Step 4: How to Gather Seeds
Now we're going to get down to business!
I prefer to use my gardening shears to trim off wherever the seeds are. This typically entails snipping off the entire seed head or seed pods into one of the plastic bags. Taking the whole seed head/pod will ensure you don't lose a lot of seeds while trying to remove them.
This is especially important if you live somewhere like me with high winds all the dang time.
If you're gathering large amounts of one type of seed or harvesting and immediately spreading, a big deep bowl will be your best friend. In the first, second and fourth photos you can see a wildflower mixes (or just red clover) where I've left the plant material on the seeds and spread it as-is.
Step 5: What to Do After Gathering Seeds
Now I want you to bring all your seeds inside, and close or cover all containers they're in. You want to leave them overnight like that to make sure any bugs come out of the plant matter and can be let go in the morning.
It is super common to find spiders, beetles, and bees in seeds I gather. They'll typically hang out on the walls and lids. In the morning, I bring any container outside that has bugs and let the bugs go.
Once the bugs are gone, I recommend leaving any containers slightly open until you remove the extra plant material from the seeds. You don't want condensation forming in the containers. :)
Step 6: How to Process Seeds
Supplies for processing seeds:
- A metal sieve
- A bowl the sieve fits into
- A wooden spoon
You'll want to remove the majority of the excess plant matter from the seeds for storage.
Some seeds can be easily sorted out with your hands, but some can be a little tougher! For these, I like to pour the seed pods/heads into a metal sieve over a large bowl and use a wooden spoon to press the pods/heads into the sieve. The friction from this will remove the plant matter from the seeds, leaving the seeds at the very bottom of the sieve.
I pull the seedless plant matter out and put it in the large bowl at the bottom and keep processing!
(There are also seed sorting screens you can use for this - but they're mad expensive so I'm not doing that yet haha)
Step 7: How to Store Your Seeds
There are three major things to pay attention to when storing seeds:
- Temperature: Put the seeds somewhere cool - 60-70°F (16-21°C)
- Moisture: You don't want ANY condensation forming inside the container. If it does, open the container and continue letting the seeds dry out until they're ready to store.
- Light: Darkness preferred!
The amount of time you can store seeds varies from plant to plant. I would recommend using your seeds within 1-2 years for best results. I didn't store any this time because I ended up putting six liters of harvested seeds back into my yard. 😁
You can also look into cold storage if you would like to store your seeds for longer!