Now that it's so easy to exchange seeds with people anywhere in the world via the internet, collecting and swapping seed has become almost a full-time job for me - certainly an obsession. Here's how I harvest, save and exchange seeds. There are some FAQs and Links to other seedsaving websites here too.

Harvesting

To keep up a supply of seeds (which doesn't necessarily correspond with the demand, an unfortunate fact I prefer to ignore), there are several bits of equipment I've found essential. For a start, you need some small scissors to nip off the seed heads. I find an old pair of embroidery scissors perfect. Of course, you can use your fingers, but some seedpods are sticky and you end up with bits sticking to you (geraniums can be very messy), or your finger nails start to shred.

You need a supply of paper bags or envelopes to put the seed heads in as soon as they're cut. I find 9" x 6" best. They give you room to give the seeds a good shaking to release stay-at-homes. You need to label the envelopes immediately. It's amazing how quickly you forget if that envelope contains ordinary blue Geranium pratense or the pale blue one. Any old pen, pencil or felt tip will do. Writing on a flat surface helps. So long as you know what's inside the envelope when you get back indoors, it'll be OK. For carrying these envelopes from plant to plant, a small box is useful. There was an ancient woven wood basket with a metal handle that strawberries or mushrooms came in already here when we moved, so I use that. A trug would work, too.

Naturally, in your enthusiasm (well, certainly in mine), some of the seeds you're so anxious to collect won't be ripe. Sometimes, they won't even be mature enough to ripen and you'll have to add them to the compost heap. But the majority will ripen properly if you put them somewhere dry. At this stage, they really need to have enough room for the air to circulate, so ideally they should be put in rather bigger paper containers than the original collection envelopes. There is a difficulty here, in that the paper bags such as my grandmother always had in her kitchen drawer are becoming harder to find. Everything these days comes in plastic bags, and plastic bags won't do for drying seeds. I've solved the problem by making my own bags - killing two birds with one stone, if you like. Old telephone directories are difficult to get rid of, if you don't have paper recycling facilities nearby. I stick two pages of the Yellow Pages together on three sides, label them in big black felt tip and hang them in lines down the length of the garage. I got a packet of 100 pegs for 1.50 which was a very useful buy here. I already had string.

Always harvest your seeds when it's dry. Around mid-day or early afternoon on a sunny day is ideal, but try not to collect them when they're damp. If you can't avoid it, lay them out separately on newspaper to dry out before putting them together in paper bags.

Saving

Once your seeds are dry you need to encourage the laggards to come out of their shells, so to speak. Perhaps it's memories of helping my grandfather get winkles out of their shells on a Saturday afternoon, but I like to poke around the seed pods to make sure none are wasted. Here, a cocktail stick comes in handy. It's particularly useful for the last few seeds in an Aquilegia pod, or (another sticky one) Polemoniums. The embroidery scissors come in useful again here, as I find some seedpods don't like to burst without encouragement, so I cut the pods of Sisyrinchiums and Penstemons in half before giving their bag a good shaking. Sometimes, it's helpful to crush hard seedpods to break them open. A rolling pin comes in handy here - or I have heard of someone who drives a tractor over heaps of cones to open them to get to the seeds.

To collect the seeds themselves, you need several sheets of paper. The back of junk mail comes in handy. With most seeds, you collect a lot of rubbish in the way of bits of seed pod, mud,small spiders, tiny orange grubs (what are these?) which you don't really want to keep. Professionals use things called aspirators and other such gadgets to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I use a couple of tea strainers. One's stainless steel with quite big holes, which is useful for removing the unwanted small bits from fairly large seed. The other has a smaller, nylon mesh which lets the dust through, or lets the small seeds through and keeps the bigger bits of rubbish out. If the seeds are largish, a pair of tweezers is useful for picking them up. If the seeds are small, you can separate them from some of their chaff by holding the paper at an angle and letting the seed roll down - the other stuff generally stays put. A combination of these methods usually results in more or less 100% seed only.

After separating the seed, you need to make absolutely sure it's dry before you store it. Damp seed will only rot, and after all this trouble, you really want to have seed to swap. That is what it's all for - unless the actual seed-collection process is your hobby. Leave the seed for a couple of days in a dry environment, then pack it in paper envelopes. Do remember to label the envelopes clearly. You'll need to keep all the seeds somewhere until you swap them. I find an old ice-cream container handy, or, if you're addicted to collecting and have more seeds than that, one of those plastic biscuit 'tins' you get an Christmas. Keep the seeds cool, dark and dry - in the fridge, except at Christmas, when you need the space for food.

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I'd like to digress here, and ponder on some of the methods I've read about on the web for drying and storing seeds. It seems it's very popular in the USA to dry seeds with a dessicant. I don't think this is a good idea. Some seeds - like seeds of bulbs, for instance - need to have a large store of food ready for the embryo when it emerges, and I think totally drying the seed would damage this. Think of dried, shrivelled daffodil bulbs - they don't always rehydrate properly. And very tiny seeds would be dried to death. Another idea is to store seeds in a freezer. For much the same reason, I don't go for this, either. Defrosted ice-cream won't refreeze successfully, and things get freezer burn. My son (who knows about these things) tells me it's to do with the speed with which things are frozen, and it's a well-known problem (the speed of freezing and defrosting and consequent change in whatever-it-is - probably 'molecular structure') in 'materials' science. So I opt for letting my seeds dry naturally, somewhere dry, and then storing them in a plastic container (more or less airtight, but probably not completely so). There is also a theory that seed should be stored moist, rather than dry. I take this to be moist as opposed to wet, i.e. not completely dry, and I think this is what storing in paper bags in a not-quite-airtight container amounts to. There's more information on this here.

Trading

Once you have your collection of seed, you need to list it - preferably in alphabetical order of Latin name, if you intend to trade for anything other than common seed. It's amazing what you can 'buy' with it on the internet. Even seed of common Aquilegias, Lupins and Poppies can be exchanged - your weed is someone else's prized exotic, and vice versa.

There are a few points to consider when making your 'trade' - the number of seeds to a 'trade' for one. It depends on what sort of seeds you're exchanging - if they're rare, only a few is reasonable - I have received only one of a type on more than one occasion. Some people have very definite rules about the number of seeds per packet, and insist that you swap packet for packet. I suppose it depends why you swap in the first place. If you want to fill a large area with common plants and don't want to buy the seeds, you might look on it differently from someone who just wants the opportunity to try and establish something new in their garden. I don't expect 'extras' in my trades - if I choose from a list, I've chosen what I want, and any 'extras' will probably go on my list of swaps anyway.

You'll need some fairly small envelopes for sending seed out. If you want to make them yourself, there are loads of templates all over the place on the web, or there are some Seed Site templates here. If you're sending them overseas, you may want to use small plastic recloseable bags, perhaps because some overseas Customs' Authorities prefer it, or perhaps because they weigh less than paper so will cost less to send. Again, if you're sending them overseas, the names should be in Latin, so they're identifiable all over the world.

I nearly always send my seeds in a padded envelope or even a small box. I've only ever bought one, and that was to send a book to Australia. I cut the envelope to size, and made two more small ones from the leftovers. I often receive envelopes that have gone across the Atlantic more than once! Self-adhesive labels and stamps can easily be removed with a hot iron. It helps to keep a supply of sticky labels, stamps and airmail stickers handy. If you're sending seeds overseas, you may need to fill in a Custom's Declaration (though often just writing 'Seeds - No Commercial Value' on the back of the envelope is enough). You should write your name and address somewhere on the envelope, and also enclose a note with your name and e-mail address, as sometimes people don't keep records as accurately as they might like!

If you're really organised, you might like to get a set of scales and a leaflet of current postal charges.

So, go off and raid the sewing basket and the kitchen cupboard, and go out into the garden!

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Some Frequently Asked Questions about Seed Saving

Where are the seeds? ~ The seeds are always where the flowers were, because the seeds grow at the bottom of the style (the bit that sticks up in the middle of the flower). Sometimes, the seed pod forms behind the flower (as in daffodil), but most of the time, the seed pod grows inside the flower at the bottom of the style.

When do I collect the seeds? ~ You cannot collect seeds from dead flowers. The seeds need to mature and then they need to ripen. Think of an apple - you know you can't eat the little green apples that you see when the flowers have died. It's the same with other seed containers - they need to grow bigger and mature before they are any good. Seed production is a three-stage process: first, the seeds have to be fertilised, then they have to mature, then they have to ripen. If they haven't been fertilised, they won't mature. If they haven't been fertilised and grown to maturity, they won't ripen. If they haven't been fertilised, matured, and ripened, they won't be viable. Sometimes, it takes weeks or even months from the time the flower dies to when the seeds are ready.

How do I tell if they're ripe? ~ When the seeds are ripe, nature will disperse them. If you want to collect them yourself, you need to wait until just before they would be dispersed naturally, because you know that they will be ripe then. The seed pod will become dry and will usually change colour, probably from green to brown or white, and the seeds inside will change from green or white to brown or black. Think of the apple again - the seeds inside an unripe apple are white. When the apple is ripe, it changes colour and the seeds inside become brown.

How do I know if seeds are viable? ~ Viable seeds are healthy seeds. Often, they look healthy - they're shiny, fat, heavy and tough (all relative to the weight and size of a seed). Sometimes, they aren't all those things, but a good seed - even a flat one like a lily - will still have a bit of 'body' where the embryo is, or be too strong to squash or cut with a finger nail.

What's a Float Test? ~ There's a theory that seeds float if they're no good, and good seeds sink. That might apply to the seeds of a particular type, but it isn't a good rule to follow. Seeds will float if they're lighter than water and sink if they're heavier than water. Some seeds will germinate while floating (apparently, you can germinate some lily seeds this way), and some seeds will float until you make a hole in their seed coat, and then they'll sink.

What are Open-Pollinated Seeds? ~ Left to the bees and other natural pollinators, plants produce seeds that are the result of pollination with any other compatible plants in the area. Open-pollinated seeds are what you get naturally. Seeds saved from open-pollinated plants will give you more or less the same mixture of colours, sizes or heights as the original plants.

What are Hybrids? ~ Hybrids are plants with mixed parentage. They're plants with a large number of genes for different things (colour, height, size of flowers) in them, so you get a mixture of colours, heights and flower size from their seeds. If seed growers have selected one thing, such as colour, and grown only the plants that have flowers with that colour, and collected seeds from only that colour, and done that for several generations of plants, you'll end up with plants that have mostly that colour flowers. But they will still have a few genes for other colours, and if they are grown near other plants of the same type with other colour flowers, they will cross-fertilise and the seeds will have genes for all the colours, and will produce plants with different colours.

What are F1 Hybrids? ~ F1 Hybrids are seeds of two particular plants that growers have cross-pollinated. They are the first generation of plants produced from the cross, and can only be produced by crossing the two particular parent plants again. Seed saved from F1 plants will not produce the F1 hybrid. They are then open-pollinated.

Can I grow Heirloom plants? ~ Heirloom varieties are usually vegetables that have been grown in isolation in a particular area, and have been selected over generations (of people and plants) to produce the best crop in that area, because they have been shown to grow best in whatever the local conditions are. If you grow heirloom varieties somewhere else, they may not do as well as in their original location. You will also need to prevent them cross-pollinating with other compatible varieties, or they will not remain true to type.

If my Cucumbers and Melons cross, will I get bitter fruit? ~ While it's possible that some varieties of melons and cucumbers might cross, the difference would only be apparent in the next generation. The fruit of the melon will still be a melon, and the fruit of the cucumber will still be a cucumber. One reason you might get bitter-tasting cucumbers is if the flowers have been pollinated. That's why you should remove the male flowers from your cucumber plants.

Why has the seed from my white flowers produced blue flowers? ~ White flowers are often only a deformed type of a flower that is normally blue. The plant therefore carries the blue genes (blue 'runs in the family'), so the offspring will often go back to being blue.

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Links to Other Useful Websites

The Development of Seeds in the Botany Section
Seed Envelope templates you can just print off and make up.
Seedsaving & Seedsavers' Resources - Links to all sorts of seed collecting information.
Chiltern Seeds - the best commercial source of unusual seeds - and the most informative catalogue.
Plant World - a botanic garden and source of unusual seeds.
Secret Seeds - a small but growing range of home-grown unusual flower seeds.
The Real Seed Collection - a selection of non-hybrid home-grown vegetable seeds, with a guarantee of great taste!
J. L. Hudson - America's most exciting and knowledgeable seed supplier.
International Seed Exchange Board - swap more unusual seeds worldwide.
Details of the new scheme for importing Small Lots of Seed to the US.