By Peggy Riccio, author of pegplant.com
As your herbs flower and set seed think of what you would like to save for next year. Saving seed can be easy and cost effective. In addition to saving seed to plant in your garden next year, you can give away seed packets as gifts or participate in seed swaps.
To save seeds, you have to separate the seeds from the fruit and dry them completely. If you strike a seed with a hammer and it shatters or if it snaps cleanly when bent, the seed is dry enough. When they are this dry, store in a cool, dark place in jars or put in envelopes. Always label with a plant name and date.
While two methods exist for separating and cleaning the seed, I use the dry method for seeds that are in dried flowers, dried husks, or dried pods like marigolds, cone flowers, calendula, dianthus, basil, mustards, fennel.
Dry Method of Saving Seeds
Usually the plant has more than one flower head, each with their own timeline of flowering and setting seeds. During the summer, when the individual flower head has dried or when most of the seeds appear to be dried, cut the seed head and put in a paper bag. Cut when the stalks are brown at least an inch down from the seed head. Label the bag with the plant name and date. Continue to cut and save this way until you are ready to separate seed.
Some flowers, such as nasturtiums, have a single flower that blooms and drops revealing a seemingly empty calyx. Soon though a seed will grow and become prominent, making it easy to separate and save.
In the winter, when I can’t go outside and garden, I gather all my bags and sit down at the dining room table. I put the seed heads on a white dinner plate or a cookie sheet to make it easier to see the seeds and prevent them from rolling off the table. By this time, the seeds and husks are completely dry and I simply pull apart the seed from the husk on the plate. If it is easy to remove, like marigolds, I put the seeds in a glass jar. If it is a fine seed with a lot of husks, I thrash it around in a large paper bag so that the seed falls to the bottom. I pull out and throw away the stems and pods and dump out the seeds on a cookie sheet. I separate further on the plate or I use a sieve. If the seed has a lot of chaff, I continue to separate seed by screening with a sieve. Eventually I work my way down from large grocery bags to small jars.
Open Pollinated versus Heirloom Plants
When saving seeds, it is important to know if your plant is open-pollinated or a hybrid. If they are open pollinated, then the next generation will be the same. You will get the same plant with the same characteristics such as flower color or flavor. Heirlooms are open pollinated so you can save seeds of heirlooms and grow the same plant each year.
If the plant is a hybrid, it was produced by crossing two genetically distinct parents. The hybrid was bred to have desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or better flavor. In seed catalogs, hybrids are often referred to as “F1”s – filial 1 hybrid. If you save the seed of this plant, the next generation may not retain the same desirable characteristics. You will get the same type of plant, but the plant may not be the same color or not be resistant to a disease.
Try these simple methods to save seed for your own home garden or to give as gifts. Consider saving seeds for seed swaps with friends or local seed swap events.
Author Peggy Riccio gardens in a typical suburban Northern Virginia home. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a horticulture degree and has been involved in horticultural communications for more than 20 years. Currently, she is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. Riccio produces pegplant.com, a local gardening website for the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC metro area. Pegplant offers local gardening news, resources, and information about gardening, gardens, and plants.