Posted on 11 Comments

Tis the Season


Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

Um…no, not that season, though you’d be justified in guessing that if you too have noticed the sudden onslaught of holiday carols on the radio. I’m thinking about seed seasons. You see, a year in the life of a seed geek includes four seasons, but they’re a little different than the usual calendar or meteorological ones: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to share, and a time to acquire.

These seasons don’t work like normal ones, because there’s a lot of overlap. Here at Hayefield, sowing happens pretty much continuously from January into September, for instance, and seed collecting can run from June well into winter. The sharing season – in other words, the time for cleaning, packaging, filling out donation forms, and sending everything off to the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s Seed Exchange – is intense but short, and it always has a definite yearly deadline: October 31.

To be totally accurate, October 31 is the deadline for the donation forms; the seeds themselves don’t have to arrive until early January. But I’ve been taking part in the Exchange so long that the October 31 date is set in my mind, and I always use that as my goal date for getting it all done. This year, I collected seed from the gardens at Linden Hill as well as from home, and the dry weather was so ideal for seed-collecting that it was hard to make myself stop. My car became a mobile seed-collecting and -drying station for the Linden Hill seeds.


At home, I ended up with pots, bags, boxes, and envelopes of seedheads scattered all over: on the porch, in the shed, in the basement, in the cold frame, and throughout the house. I started cleaning them in early October, which would have allowed plenty of time if I hadn’t kept collecting right into last week. Last Tuesday and Wednesday saw the final frenzy of cleaning and packing. Usually, I like to do the cleaning outside, because it can get really messy, but the weather wasn’t cooperating, so I ended up spreading out on the kitchen floor.


I like to start with the easy seeds first, such as these of Job’s tears (Coix lachryma-jobi). They’re so easy to handle and hardly need any cleaning at all.


Smaller seeds that don’t have tiny or sticky chaff, such as love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), are pretty easy too. These, I just pour into a shallow tray, blow off the chaff with a few puffs, and pick out the rest with a fine paintbrush.

After these, things get a bit more complicated. One of my most precious tools is a set of sieves I’ve had since college. Back then, I used them for soil samples, but they work beautifully for many seeds too. There’s nothing like dumping in a few handfuls of chaffy stuff, giving the stack a few shakes, and lifting off the top sieve to find a layer of perfectly clean seed than can go right into an envelope. If only they all worked that way.

When the deadline looms, it’s tempting to send in just the easy-to-clean stuff. But I figure that if everyone did that, the Seed Exchange list would be pretty slim, so I try to do my part by contributing the harder-to-clean seeds too. With its large seeds and seedheads, you’d think cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) would be a snap.


It’s rather time-consuming to pick apart the tufted centers and separate the fluffy parts from the seeds, though. And nearly a week later, I’m still finding the tufty bits throughout the house.


Extracting the dust-like seeds of ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera), which I collected from my meadow, was simply a matter of tapping the seedhead onto a piece of wax paper, then picking out a few bits of chaff. The hard part was folding the paper while trying to keep my hands steady and not breathe.


Amaranths and celosias can be tough to clean thoroughly, because they have so much chaff. It takes a lot of sieving, winnowing, and hand-picking to do a very thorough cleaning job. It’s worth it, though. After all that cleaning, I ended up with 40 donations total, and that’s a great feeling!


Mind you, these are just the seeds for the HPS/MAG Exchange. Those I plan to keep for myself seldom get much cleaning; they’re still in their original bags, boxes, and envelopes. Come sowing time, I’ll mostly use whatever has fallen to the bottom of each container, chaff and all, and it generally grows just fine. It’s important to me to have it well cleaned for the Seed Exchange, however. A dedicated group of volunteers gather in January to clean, sort, and catalog the donated seeds, and with many hundreds of donations to deal with, they have more than enough to do. I figure that anything we donors can do to make their jobs easier is worth every minute.

Once those seeds are packed up and mailed off, it’s already time to think about acquiring new ones. Seed catalogs seem to arrive earlier every year! Thompson & Morgan came in early October, and I spotted a few cool things when I flipped through before hiding it to remove the temptation of ordering right away. Unfortunately, I hid it so well that I can’t find it now. But clicking around the T&M web site reminds me of a few things I plan to order, such as the red-stemmed Malabar spinach (Basella rubra), ‘Black Beauty’ dahlia, and ‘Cherry Brandy’ rudbeckia. I see that they’re again offering Eryngium leavenworthii, and I think I’ll re-order this year, because I’m not sure my plants are going to produce viable seeds.

plant-world-catalogAnd then there’s the yearly thrill of the Plant World catalog, arriving from the U.K. in its traditonal plain brown envelope. This year, they’ve jumped into offering a range of heirloom veggies, along with their usual exciting selection of unusual annuals, perennials, woodies, and climbers. If you crave columbines (Aquilegia), they have 17 different listings this year, from ‘Alchemist’s Gold’ to A. yabeana. Seventeen kind of angel’s fishing rods (Dierama), too, which makes me wish they were hardy here. Echiums, euphorbias, hardy geraniums, meconopsis (for you folks in Nova Scotia), primulas, and many other goodies appear in their catalog, and even more on their web site. Time to start planning that order, too. I’m thinking that the “Yugoslavian Finger Fruit” is a must try, for one.

tropicalismoNo new seed catalogs arrived today, but something else exciting came in the mail: a copy of ¡Tropicalismo!: Spice Up Your Garden with Cannas, Bananas, and 93 Other Eye-Catching Tropical Plants, the new book by Pam Baggett. Those of you who remember Pam’s fantastic and much-missed nursery, Singing Springs Nursery, will be as happy as I am to relive the fun of reading her personality-packed plant descriptions. You can pick it up through Amazon, and at a smidge over $10, it’s a steal! Now, if we could just get Pam to start a garden blog….

And finally, a special welcome to readers from the Greater Philadelphia Gardens news article Believe-It-or-Not Tales from the Garden. If you’ve arrived looking for more information about gardening with alpaca manure, check out my post Non-Natives in the Garden over at the group blog I participate in, Gardening Gone Wild.

Posted on 11 Comments

11 thoughts on “Tis the Season

  1. Very interesting, I do wonder how do you fold your seed envelopes? Please make a post with it! LOL Tyra

    You’re in luck: I already did a post with step-by-step instructions! You can find it at Origami for Seed Savers.

  2. Nan: You are amazing! All those seeds and many I have never heard of before. Your posts always humble me! I have written down those names though and will check them out.

    I think you need to join HPS/MAG, Layanee. Access to the Seed Exchange program alone is worth the membership price. Imagine 800 to 1000 more really cool seeds all described (often with great germination info too) in the list that gets produced, and all available for ordering by members.

  3. Great post Nan…you are incredibly organized. Please package that up for me!

    Sometimes it’s hard to tear apart the beautiful seedheads…I know…they will be blown apart or mushed by rain; but aren’t they gorgeous!


    You did, I hope, catch my confession that I’m not nearly so organized with the seeds I keep for myself! I do know what you mean about spoiling the seedhead show, and I try to keep that in mind when gathering seed so I don’t ravage my best winter-interest areas.

  4. Hi Nan, humbled is apt here. Your generous spirit in gathering seeds for the exchange is heart warming. Your little seed packets have been a boon here too. I have made lots and given quick lessons on how to make them out of any scrap of paper available, including the inserts in magazines! I do hope you will share with us as you decide on what new seeds to try this year so we can join you in trying them too. ;->

    How cool that the little seed envelope trick has been so popular. You bet I’ll be writing about the new seeds I plan to try this coming year; I hope you will too!

  5. Whew Nan, that about wore me out just reading about all your seeds. What a generous amount of seeds you have. Such a diverse selection too. They are beautiful too.

    Thanks, Lisa. It’s a labor of love, as the saying goes. There’s also a practical advantage in participating in the HPS/MAG Seed Exchange: If you lose a particular seed strain (as I did with my “Ondra’s Green Mix” nicotianas when I moved), there’s a good chance that you can get it back from another donor. Kind of like sharing divisions of your favorite plants with friends so you can hopefully get a piece back if yours dies.

  6. Those seed catalogs just get us excited about spring when we still have to get through a winter. That’s great of you to donate so much to the seed exchange. I’m still gathering seeds from the yard. Cleaned up some coleus seeds yesterday and marigolds. I like those seed packets but I’ve found that baby food jars work very well too! We do have a ton of them!

  7. This is something I’ve not done much of at all. However, I did run around the yard a week or so ago with a packet of envelopes and a pen! I hope to go again tomorrow (if the weather cooperates) to get a few more. :-) I have a lot to learn.

    Ah, that’s how it begins, Shady: just a few envelopes. But that puts you on the path to becoming a seed geek!

  8. Love the photos, Nan, especially of your car and kitchen floor! Just priceless. And thanks for alerting us to Pam’s new book; I’ll be heading to Amazon right after this!

    It was fun having all those seeds everywhere. I won’t say I’m glad that I don’t have a dog running around any more, but Gwennie’s plumy tail and fondness for spinning would have been disastrous during the drying and cleaning process. I still do have seeds in my car, which I really should remove before I get pulled over for having suspicious substances in my vehicle. “Honestly, Officer – they’re goldenrod seeds. You know, like the weeds. No, no, not WEED – weeds!” Oh yeah, I can just imagine *that* phone call to Mom.

  9. Wow, I didn’t know about this. I’ll have to try and remember for next year. Thank you.

    I think you’d enjoy joining the Hardy Plant Society-Mid-Atlantic Group, HG. It’s a great support group for obsessed gardeners like you and me!

  10. Hello there Nan !
    I love this shot of contrasts .. that vivid black against the sandy colour .. very striking indeed !
    I wish I was more of a seed saver .. I think because I lack space .. I lack initiative to be thrifty and accomplish the seed saving mission ? LOL
    But I totally appreciate those who do !

    Thanks for stopping by, Joy. I think you’d have fun with seed-saving if you tried it. Like Bloom Day, it’s another way to share the beauty and bounty of your garden!

  11. Nan, I thought I was bad about using my kitchen for seeds here (well, my husband thinks I am), but you’re way beyond me! You’re really a dedicated seed saver to do all that work, and I totally understand how much work that really involves. It’s kind of fun, though. Each seed is so unique.

    Well, I don’t use the kitchen for cooking, so having the seeds spread out isn’t all that inconvenient. It’s rather fun, actually!

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