seed collecting techniques

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When I was new to ­gardening, I depended upon the kindness of friends and strangers to help fill my beds. Unfortunately, I was too green to realize what treasures I had in hand until I’d wasted them.

When an elderly friend gave me her heirloom, ruffled, pink, annual poppies (Papaver somniferum), I sowed them freely in a new bed of perennials. The first year they did fine, no doubt because I’d planted hundreds of seeds. By the ­sec­ond year, though, the perennials had filled in, leaving no bare space for poppies to sprout. I scavenged a few plants when I saw they were struggling and transplanted them to open areas of my garden, but in vain. Poppies need to be moved with their roots undisturbed, intact in a shovelful of soil. The bare-rooted seedlings I’d pulled up hung on for a few weeks, then declined and died. By that time, my friend had passed on to the great garden in the sky, and the new owner had turned her glorious gardens back to grass.

No problem, I thought—I’d just purchase seeds. Turns out that those pretty, frilly flowers were the result of decades of natural selection in her garden. After years of self-sowing and my friend pulling out the plants with single-petaled flowers or off colors, they’d settled into a variety that reliably reproduced itself year after year. I spent more money than I want to admit buying seeds from every available supplier before I realized the sad truth. Her variety of poppies wasn’t offered commercially. So I started from scratch, saving seed from the pret­tiest poppies until I had something close to my friend’s ruffled beauties. Now, I can smugly say I have my own strain of annual pink poppies from which I religiously gather seed year after year to perpetuate what I call the ‘Sally’ strain.

Collecting seeds is one of those activities that makes me feel like a wealthy woman. As the seed supply spills out of the first, small envelopes into manila 8210s and Mason jars, I take as much pleasure as Midas in counting my riches of coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata and other spp.), calliopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), and moonflowers (Ipomoea alba), among others. By the time I’m finished in fall, I will have shelves stuffed with the makings of next year’s garden.

Start simply, with flowers

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.

If you want to start plants from seed…

Check out All About Starting Seeds for links to what you need to know about equipment and techniques.

Packet prices can add up in a hurry. A few minutes of shaking seed into an envelope in the early fall can produce a summer garden next year.


After selecting and marking good mother trees, several seed collection methods can be used.

4.1 Collecting from natural seed fall

This is the simplest way to collect seed. It does not require skilled labour. Collection from natural seed fall is suitable for trees with large fruits, pods, and seeds e.g. Tectona, Gmelina and some Dipterocarps.

The following tools will be helpful:

Seed container
Large canvas, cloth or plastic sheet

Follow these steps:

Clear the ground beneath the tree of leaves, branches, and weeds before seeds begin to fall. This will make seed collection easier.

spread plastic sheets, cloth or canvas under the mother trees so that the seeds will fall onto them.

Use a rake to gather the seeds and collect them daily.

fold sheets to collect seeds daily. Chances of insect attack and fungal infection which could occur if seeds are left on the ground too long will be minimized.

Extract seeds from the litter by sieving (Figures 4, 5, 6 and 7).

Collecting seeds from the ground has some disadvantages:

  • Some seeds may have fallen from the tree immaturely.
  • There is greater potential for insect attack and fungal infection.
  • Seeds left on the ground for a long time often lose viability or start germinating.

Figure 4 Seed collection from natural seed fall.

Figure 5 Gathering seeds with a rake.

Figure 6 Spreading a canvas sheet under the tree.

Figure 7 Fold the sheet of canvas to gather the seeds.

4.2 Shaking the tree

If natural seed fall is spread over a long period of time, manual shaking of the tree is a useful method to get seeds to fall to the ground at the same time. This makes their collection easier. In some cases, however, fruits or pods are strongly attached to the branches and will not drop off easily, even when the tree is shaken. If this is the case, other methods will need to be used, and these will be discussed next.

  1. Clean the ground, or lay down a plastic or canvas sheet.
  2. Shake the trunks of trees or low branches by hand. (Higher branches may be shaken using a stick, long pole, hook on rope) (Figure 8).
  3. Separate seed from the dry pods (see page 11)..

Sometimes, seed bearing branches will be low enough to allow the collector to bend branches over collection sheets and release the seeds onto the sheet (Figure 9). (Use thick leather gloves when branches are thorny).

4.3 Pruning off seed bearing branches

When the seed is out of reach for hand picking various pole implements may be used for pruning branches.

  1. Select branches with a heavy load of good looking pods.
  2. Carefully locate the ground sheets so that pods and seeds will fall onto them from pruned branches.
  3. If necessary, prune out “windows” so that seed bearing branches are able to fall to the ground and not get entangled in the tree as they fall.
  4. Cut the branches.
  5. Collect the pods.
  6. Remove the seeds.

To use this method you will need:

  1. A special pole pruner with shears attached, or,
  2. A long pole with a saw or hooked knife attached.

Light, rigid bamboo, aluminium or plastic poles 4–6 metres in length can also be used. A hooked branch can substitute if the other tools are unavailable (Figures 10 and 11).

Figure 10 Use of a hooked branch to collect seed.Figure 11 Use of a pole with saw.

For fruit trees:

Tie a basket near the pruning shears to catch the fruit as it drops. Seeds can then be collected without shattering and ruining the fruit.

4.4 Throwing a rope with weighted end to break off a seed bearing branch

As the last possibility this destructive method may be used to reach high seed bearing branches from the ground, without having to climb the tree. Branches up to 12 metres from the ground can be reached. Skill is required to throw the rope over the selected branch and in the correct position for ease of breakage.

A strong 5 millimetre diameter rope about 25 metres in length;
A 400 gram stone, or small bag of sand or soil.

  1. Attach the weight at one end of the rope.
  2. Throw the weight over the seed bearing branch.
  3. Break off the branch by holding the two ends of the rope, and pulling (Figures 12 and 13).

Figure 12 Seed harvest by using a weighted rope.Figure 13 Pull ends of weighted rope to break branches.

4.5 Climbing trees to collect seed

To use this method, you must have skill in climbing trees and using some specialized equipment. This is the method normally used to collect from standing dry zone trees as they are of open form and relatively small. Several methods can be used when collecting seed from standing trees. The roof of a car may serve as a platform.

Or, climb into the crown of the tree and use a saw, large knife or similar implement to cut down seed bearing branches (Figures 14 and 15).

Figure 15 Climbing into the crown of the tree.

Well-designed portable ladders provide a quick and safe means of reaching the live crowns of trees. Ladders may be made of light wood, metal or bamboo 6–15 metres in length. For small trees a light wooden or aluminium ladder 6–8 metres long is appropriate (Figure 16).

Figure 16 Using a ladder for climbing up the tree.

4.6 Collecting seed from felled trees

If a tree is to be felled, try to wait until its seed is ripe. Never fell trees just for seed collection (Figure 17).

4. HOW TO COLLECT SEEDS After selecting and marking good mother trees, several seed collection methods can be used. 4.1 Collecting from natural seed fall This is the simplest way to collect