Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Learn simple seed saving techniques + how to leave plenty for wildlife.
In South Central Pennsylvania, where we live and practice EarthCare, autumn has us thinking about seeds! Many of our native plants have bloomed during the summer, and now nearly two months have passed, their seeds are ready to disperse.
It’s around this time that you’ll notice flowering plants dying back. The gorgeous sepia-toned seed pods are emerging, and seeds will begin to fall.
Collecting and scattering seeds is a way to practice EarthCare, through observing + interacting with the landscape. There are just a few best practices to consider, being mindful of pollinators, wildlife, and what the land needs.
Scattering Seeds is Simple!
Before diving into the basics of seed collection, let’s talk about scattering seeds. Fall is also “clean up” season. There are many benefits of leaving seeds in the landscape, and scattering them as you work. If you’re doing some light pruning of wildflowers that are creeping over the edges, where you want more tidiness, try these simple techniques to support wildlife:
Ideally leave all standing stems and seed heads in place through winter. Wildlife and wind are both better at scattering seeds than we are, and this allows your landscape to evolve more naturally.
If you must clean up a little, we understand. When pruning pithy (hollow) stalks, leave 12 to 18 inches of standing stalk, so that nesting insects can still shelter there over winter.
If you have an empty patch of soil nearby, where you want to spread more native plants, simply take the deadhead (seed pods) and shake seeds onto the soil. Even if they don’t grow here, the seeds are still accessible for hungry critters.
Lay pruned stems on the soil behind plants, possibly along the wall or at the back edge of the garden, where they won’t be visible from the front (if you need a tidy look). Wildlife and insects can still use this trimmed organic matter for food and shelter.
Lay pruned stems and seed pods along the outer edge of the compost bin, or right on top, where hungry birds can still get to the seeds.
As you plan future gardens, group plants with strong standing stalks and exposed seed heads, with wispy, ethereal grasses. It’s a combination we love, with good structure and gorgeous colors through winter.
Guidelines for Native Seed Collection
Leave plenty for future generations, birds and wildlife. Only collect where the plant you’re harvesting from is growing in abundance. Take only a small amount of seeds from each patch, so plants can naturally reseed themselves where they are already thriving. Leave plenty behind for hungry birds and other wildlife. Avoid collecting seeds from rare or endangered species.
Avoid collecting from areas where non-native plants are growing aggressively. This will help you avoid accidentally spreading and planting invasive seeds. If you wanna go full activist visit here, you can collect and destroy the seeds of plants you really don’t want to spread.
Be mindful of private property. Native plants are often thriving on the edges and margins of human spaces, where development hasn’t reached. These can be great places to find and collect native seeds, as long as it’s safe, and you’re sure you have permission.
How To Start Collecting Native Seeds
If you’re just learning about seed collecting, we recommend starting with some of our most common wildflowers. Their seeds are visible, accessible and relatively easy to collect.
Try your hand at collecting seeds from these native flowers first:
Coneflowers: Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Milkweeds: Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Spiderworts: Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Common spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)
Asters: White wood aster (Aster divaricatus), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)
Goldenrods: (Solidago spp.)
Practice Plant ID Skills!
It’s important to record as much specific information as possible while collecting seeds. Identifying the flowers you want to collect from is not only part of the fun, but it’s also another observation + interaction opportunity that will grow your knowledge as a land steward.
Here are some resources for identifying native wildflowers:
PlantNet: search by common name or scientific name + see hundreds of observation photos, including photos of flowers, leaves, fruits (seeds) and stems.
The Biota of North America Program (this one’s highly technical and very nerdy, so if you’re into that, you will love it)
Note: Most plant ID resources are heavily focused on the flowering stage of plants. Ideally, you’ve been observing + interacting with your landscape long enough to have seen wildflowers through their growth cycle. It may be tricky identifying plants after they’re done blooming, but don’t get discouraged! If you’re unsure, it’s okay to wait until next year to start collecting and saving seeds, after you’ve had more time to observe.
Seed Collection Techniques
For our purposes within an EarthCare practice, we use conservative seed collection techniques that will make it easy to harvest just what we need, leaving plenty for wildlife.
Native wildflower seeds can be harvested by hand, with very little equipment. Tools might include:
Clean drop cloth
Paper and/or canvas bags
Markers/labels + notebook to keep accurate notes
For most native wildflowers, seeds will pull easily from seedheads, and can be collected by hand, or shaken onto a dropcloth, into a paper bag, etc. Mature seeds should come off easily, as they should be just about ready to naturally fall. Collect seeds into paper or canvas bags, keep good notes, and clearly label your collections.
As a general rule, don’t pick up seeds that have already fallen.
Seeds that are in contact with the ground have likely started collecting moisture, and will begin to mold and decay. It’s best to keep seeds dry, which is also why we use paper bags, rather than plastic or airtight containers that will harbor moisture and increase the likelihood of mold growth.
Some people recommend tying a paper bag over a seed head to catch seeds as they mature and fall on their own. This technique will work, but keep in mind that the bag will prevent hungry birds from being able to snack on the seeds. We always want to be mindful of who else needs to share the seeds.
If you do decide to use paper bag covers, or cut deadheads to collect seeds, be sure to leave plenty in place for wildlife.
Enjoy Observing + Interacting As You Save, Scatter + Share Seeds This Season!
If you want more tips, gentle guidance and inspiration for how to spend time with your landscape this fall, join our Mindful Fall CleanUp Challenge!
Through a short weekly email, you’ll learn simple EarthCare tasks like this, which you can easily practice, even if you’re strapped for time. The challenge is paced out with seasonally relevant tasks from the Autumnal Equinox until Thanksgiving - and it’s absolutely not too late to join!
You’ll also be invited to join our private EarthCare Community Facebook Group, where you can talk with other people at various stages of their land stewardship journey. EarthCare is better together =)
Click here to learn more about the Mindful Fall CleanUp Challenge, join now to get access to previous challenge emails (choose your own adventure!) and get the next email on Thursday this week.
Get 1:1 Support This Fall
For a limited time, Kendra is also offering Land Walk Consults.
If you have been:
• overwhelmed with your landscape and need lower maintenance ideas
• worried about winter blues and wishing for more wildlife interest
• wanting to support pollinators, build habitat and do your best for our planet
• longing to create a deeper connection with Nature for your wellness
• wondering what you can do now to plan for the spring
… then the LadyBug EarthCare Land Walk Consultation is definitely for you.
Clients tell us this visit transforms their perspective in a few hours.
You will go from overwhelmed and unsure what to do with your landscape this season, to feeling lighter, less anxious, more supported, and really empowered to steward your land, in ways that benefit our planet, and your own mental health and physical wellness.
The deadline for booking your Fall EarthCare Land Walk Consultation is October 14, 2022.